There’s a new flying spaghetti monster in the spiritual marketplace: the Church of Kopimism. The newly “established” religion has become the talk of the internet, in part because of its transparently “unreligious” outlook and in part because of the group’s social perspective. The Church of Kopimism, which received official recognition as a religious denomination in Sweden, objects to what it calls the Copyright Religion and advocates free sharing of information by and for all. Though it lacks any particular resemblance to established religions, Kopimism has “beliefs and rituals,” which are held sufficient to establish it as a legal religious organization.
In the study of religion, we long ago gave up on creating a taxonomy that would — once and for all — allow us to demarcate the sacred from the profane and religious groups from secular. Nevertheless, there is something profoundly unreligious about Kopimism, and it is hard to overlook this glaring reality. Whether it is because the group lacks even the slightest reference to the supernatural or whether its patently political aims overdetermine it, few commentators seem willing to accept Kopimism as a legitimate religion. Indeed, it took several efforts before the Swedish government accepted the group, apparently out of concern that Kopimist practices lack a real form of “worship.”
In today’s world, there are lots of ways in which secular groups and practices have co-opted the religious. Calling them “authentic fakes,” David Chidester claims that these do authentically religious work despite the fact that they emerge from non-religious sources. But Chidester’s authentic fakes seem ever oriented toward a search for human meaning, especially through a connection with transcendent ideals. The Church of Kopimism shows no particular effort to create a meaningful life experience. Instead, just as Pastafarians struggled against the teaching of Intelligent Design in U.S. public schools, the Kopimists are enmeshed in the politics of file sharing.
At least since Stewart Brand’s declaration that “information wants to be free,” there have been techno-enthusiasts who have resisted the control of copyright holders and digital rights management. They believe that information ought to be widely distributed, and apply this principle to information that they can possess and disseminate via the internet. As such, a battle has been waged for more than a decade over the illegal distribution of music, videos, and even good old-fashioned e-books. The Kopimists declare that the search for knowledge is sacred and that copying is sacred because it increases the value of information; in their view, the copyrightists are sinners and the file sharers are saints.
The legitimation of Kopimism spread rapidly across the internet, thanks largely to mainstream coverage by the BBC and other news sources, and yet few know what to think of the group. Is it a joke, a political statement, or a legitimate religion? The brief notoriety of Flying Spaghetti Monsterism certainly provides a precedent for humorous, politically-minded new religious movements, but Kopimism is not like FSM. After all, the latter purports faith in a supernatural entity (“your Noodley Master”) and claims to compete with other religious beliefs, whereas Kopimism has nothing to say about traditional religions: the antithesis of Kopimism, Copyright Religion, is a faith whose adherents join, at best, unknowingly.
While the precise status of Kopimism is open to question, the movement does engage in one of the principle discursive efforts of religious life: social organization. Kopimism is a reflection of social distortion caused by media technologies, and an attempt to build a worldview that accommodates it. That information can be (very nearly) free indicates to some people that it “wants” to be. Among those who feel that the mere presence of online communication indicates that data must be shared, the present social reality must be undone and a new order established.
Like other religions, Kopimism takes part in the re-ordering of society. Religious discourses both legitimate and de-legitimate social orders, as Bruce Lincoln has argued; as such, faith in technology can be the impetus for new kinds of social structure. Brand and his followers in the Whole Earth Network and subsequent groups are a perfect example of how faith in the technology can be the lynchpin for a utopian social discourse. The Church of Kopimists is, unquestionably, a part of this effort. While Kopimists may pay only lip service to their status as a religion, they carry on the work of dismantling old social structures and building up new ones in the hope of an information-rich paradise.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.