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Sometimes the Hot Tubbists rented big warehouses for the events; other times, they met in an apartment in Euless, Texas. Eventually, Aydt recalls, "It got to the point where our mutual goal was to provide a spontaneously occurring initiatory experience. It went from being an accidental, 'Hey, we all got together and something very strange happened' situation to a more planned, 'Well, if we play our cards right and do certain things, we can induce this same kind of group experience.'" And so a new religion, devoted to "monotheist pagan mysterianism," was born.
Such playfulness marks the so-called Free Religions. Under this header one finds Discordianism, the "Non-Prophet Irreligious Disorganization" devoted to the Greco-Roman goddess of disorder; the Church of the SubGenius, inspired not by classical mythology but by conspiracy theories, UFO cults, and sales manuals; and the Moorish Orthodox Church, which might best be described as Discordianism crossed with Afro-American Islam. Other Free Religions are one-off efforts, sometimes launched by followers of other free faiths. The Discordian filmmaker Antero Alli, for example, has invented a spiritual practice centered around Fred Mertz, Ethel's husband on I Love Lucy. Mertz, he argues, was a Bodhisattva, master of "such sophisticated techniques as Senseless Bickering, Scathing Indifference, Bad Timing, Advanced Balding and the Five Secrets of Stinginess." There is, or was, a First Arachnid Church whose deadpan tracts honor "the Great Spider and the True Web," and there's probably a similar church out there devoted to the Great Pumpkin, though I haven't been able to locate it yet.
On one level, of course, these are parodies, and some of them don't aspire to be more than that. But there's more to the Free Religions than satire. The Hot Tub group, which drew heavily on both Discordianism and Moorish Science, was in no sense unserious in its efforts to reach a transcendental state. For the Discordians, the wisecracks are there, in part, as a defense against fundamentalism. The theory is that religious texts are metaphors at best, that some of the world's most hazardous social conflicts began because people took those metaphors literally, and that one way to overcome this is to develop a doctrine so absurd that no one could possibly take it at face value. If religion is art, then this is spiritual dada.
In a way, none of this is unusual. There have always been people who discard the elements of their faith that they dislike, and there have always been syncretic religions that fuse one spiritual system with another. What is new is the ease of the former, the speed of the latter, and the extent to which the two have combined.
There is a wide gulf, of course, between someone who merely fine-tunes her Catholicism and someone who replaces the Virgin Mary with the goddess of chaos; between a Jew who mixes milk with meat and a Jew who practices witchcraft. If I am describing a trend, it is one that covers a wide spectrum of behavior, from the ordinary to the outré. As a journalist, I have naturally focused on the latter -- but it's the former, obviously, that is reshaping society.
The question then becomes how adaptable these revised and reinvented faiths will be in the long haul. Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi notes that one function of religious ritual is to bind the generations, and that it's not clear how useful the new combinations are in that regard. "Most of the people who are inventing these things de novo will not have a second generation," he warns. "They wanted to get the highs out of the individual practice, but they don't do things in the household and families."
That doesn't mean that the spiritual cafeteria itself will inevitably collapse. More likely, the next generation will invent, reinvent, and rediscover its own religious practices, just as its parents are doing now.