My interest was piqued a few years ago when Phillip of Amos, a biker, introduced me to ‘Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs‘.
In the year of its publication a reviewer from ‘The New Yorker‘ wrote of its author: ‘Hunter S. Thompson is a freelance writer from San Francisco, Aspen, and points east. His research on the Hell’s Angels involved more than a year of close association with the outlaws – riding, loafing, plotting, and eventually being stomped. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, he began writing as a sports columnist in Florida. He started his first novel while studying at Columbia University in New York City. Since then he has worked on newspapers and magazines in New York, San Juan, and Rio de Janeiro. His articles have appeared in The Reporter, The Nation, Esquire, and Rolling Stone.’
You may be excused from assuming that any writer as precise as Thompson must have completed a college education but, like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, Thompson left college in his own time, and in his own way, after extracting all that he felt academia could offer him.
Before writing hum off as a lazy grifter, at least in comparison businessmen like Jobs and Gates, it’s worth noting that in order to hone his writing skill he used a typewriter to copy F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway‘s A Farewell to Arms in order to learn about the writing styles of the authors.
It wasn’t that Thompson failed to graduate, or finish a degree. He was at Columbia University auditing a number of courses. A student who audits a course does so for the purposes of self-enrichment and academic exploration with no hope of being graded, or obtaining any type of credit. It’s one of the best ways to learn.
The Universal Church Modesto
Thompson’s ‘alter-ego’ Raul Duke describes himself as a “doctor of journalism”, and his Samoan attorney, loosely based upon his friend Oscar Zeta Acosta, who was not Samoan but considered himself a Chicano, he refers to as a Dr. of Law in the groundbreaking novel ‘Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas‘. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the two friends both ran for office as sheriffs, enjoyed taking drugs, and got themselves into trouble with the law on a number of occasions. It may be completely serendipitous that Acosta, who Thompson described as “a powerful attorney and preacher” attended Modesto Junior College, which even today is just six minutes drive from the Headquarters of The Universal Life Church.
It was from The Universal Life Church that Thompson would obtain his ‘famous’ doctorate. Today you may be ordained by them free of charge simply by completing a form on the Internet. For a doctorate a ‘donation’ of up to 100 bucks is required, and you may even have to complete an examination consisting of multiple choice questions.
In the 1960s and 70s many became ordained, via mail order, because they thought being a minister might keep them from being drafted into the U.S. forces and sent to war overseas. It didn’t, nor were there any tax advantages to being a ULC minister except for the Church itself whose tax status varied from year to year sometimes preceded by court litigation with the authorities.
Other Universal Life Churches
Today various branches of the ‘church’ claim to be its headquarters, and whilst none explicitly deny the legality of ordinations by the others the Universal Life Church based in Boca Raton, Florida is explicitly Christian in its doctrine.
This was clearly not within the spirit of the original Life Church, (which was later incorporated as The Universal Life Church), founded by the Reverend Kirby Hensley. He was raised in North Carolina as a Baptist. He was illiterate, but very intelligent. He created his church in 1959 and taught that everyone’s beliefs should be respected and welcomed. The congregation met in his garage.
The Boca Raton church, today, claims to be the original Universal Life Church because the term is a rough translation from fourth century church literature. Usually this is translated as Catholic Church.
Universal Life Church Doctrine
The doctrine of acceptance by the Universal Life Church is, to my mind, a simple, beautiful and revolutionary idea. Others must think so too because, in addition to Hunter S. Thompson, the number of ULC ministers is thought to number more than 20 million since it was formed, with as many as five thousand applying for ordination every month.
The Church will ordain anyone, irrespective of their ethnicity, religion of birth, or current beliefs. Even Atheists believe in something they claim. Naturally Pagans, Wiccans and members all major and minority religions are welcome to apply for, and will be granted, ordination because the Universal Life Church maintains that each of us is ordained by God, and it simply recognizes that fact. I’m unsure Atheist ministers reconcile this, but so what?
Hensley maintained somewhat tautologically: “Every living person is part of Universal Life,”
In case you’re wondering who are the kinds of people to make up his 20 million strong clergy the following notable members are listed by sources. Some names may surprise you:
Sir Richard Branson, Conan O’Brian, Ian McKellan, Lady Gaga, Sharon Stone, Glenn Beck, Sammy Davis Jnr., Billy Gibbons, Hugh Heffner, Goldie Hawn, Sir Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Barbara Streisand, Jonny Carson, Vikki Carr, Cyd Charisse, Abbe Hoffman, Nicole Riche, Courtney Love, Paul Newman, James Stewart, Debbie Reynolds, Jeff Probhurst, Tori Spelling, Mae West, Doris Day, Joan Rivers, and more recently Robbie Williams and Russell Brand.
Many join simply to be able to officiate at weddings. If more people were to take on the Reverend Hensley ability, to revere life rather than to argue dogma, to accept others as they are and attempt to ‘save them’ either for Jesus or from Allah, and make an honest buck whilst doing so, wouldn’t the world be a more cooperative, constructive, peaceful place?
And why shouldn’t ordinary people start a church that bears witness to people’s ordination? The Reverend Hensley was illiterate and did so, but then The Prophet Mohammed was also unable to read or write yet is the example to follow according to one of the world’s most popular Holy books.
You could argue that no-one should be qualified to perform marriages, other ceremonies, or administer spiritual comfort, without rigorous training.
Local government officials performing marriage ceremonies have no such training, publicly funded funerals may, or may not have priests officiating, and as for spiritual comfort is not all comfort in the final analysis spiritual in essence?
When was the last time you told a guilty secret to a sympathetic listener? Did doing so not bring as much psychological comfort as had you confessed your sins to a priest? The Church of Medieval times certainly believed that sins could not be forgiven without confession to your parish priest, but then the same church licensed pardoners who were charged with selling spiritual remedies in order to finance Church projects, such as hospitals and the building of the Vatican.
The Ordination of Ministers
The ordination of Church of England ministers, until relatively recently, required a university degree, but most ministers read classics and did not study divinity at all until the begriming of the twentieth century. Today the Church doesn’t require such an education but instead a panel of advisers to a Bishop must be satisfied that candidates have provided evidence and can fulfill various qualities of faith, vocation, and mind. These are set out in ‘Criteria for Selection for the Ordained Ministry in the Church of England‘.
The processes for becoming ordained within Episcopal Churches in the U.S.A. are no more rigorous, and, although exceptions may apply, are likely to be similar to that for The Episcopal Diocese of New York.
A key difference between ordination by the Universal Life Church and that of a mainstream church ministry are that whilst both The Universal Life Church and Episcopal Churches require applicants to have a vocation, the former sees this as a vocation for Life and the latter for Christianity. This important distinction gives rise to a requirement that priests of the Episcopal Churches not only be Christians, and therefore suitable for office within an Episcopal ministry. The process, as we all know, isn’t infallible. It’s difficult to obtain statistics on the numbers of priests arraigned in the U.S. or Britain, and numbers are inflated by those ministers arrested at protest demonstrations where their actions may be illegal, but morally sound.
The Universal Life Church, in most of its various factions, also differs from most other Churches providing ordination via the Internet. There are others, and it has its imitators, but the Life Church founded by Kirby Hensley is undoubtedly the original. It sees all religions as equal and ministers may celebrate whatever calls them. Buddhists, Moslems, and Zoroastrians are welcome as ministers within the Universal Life Church, except that other Universal Life Church based in Florida which requires ministers to be of the Christian faith.
Pastafarianism and The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster
The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, to which many atheist devotees of Professor Richard Dawkins are members, claims: ‘Satire is an honest, legitimate basis for religion. Satire relies on truth to be effective. If it’s a joke, it’s a joke where to understand the punch line you must be conscious of underlying truth.’
Part of that truth looks suspiciously like Avaidaism, or Monistic Idealism if you like? This proposes that consciousness, rather than matter, is the ground of all being and therefore events precipitate into consciousness giving rise to form with a background history, and potential future. It follows from this that ultimately nothing is provable, although there is an Institute of Noetic Science that attempts to conduct, and correlate, research within such a philosophy.
The Flying Spaghetti Monster’s Creed of Creationism, states:
“We believe the Flying Spaghetti Monster created the world much as it exists today, but for reasons unknown made it appear that the universe is billions of years old (instead of thousands) and that life evolved into its current state (rather than created in its current form). Every time a researcher carries out an experiment that appears to confirm one of these “scientific theories” supporting an old earth and evolution we can be sure that the FSM is there, modifying the data with his Noodly Appendage. We don’t know why He does this but we believe He does, that is our Faith.”
This and other illustrative metaphors are published in The Church of the Spaghetti Monster’s holy book: ‘The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster‘, collated by the church’s founder Bobby Henderson. A number of academics write in praise of the work:
“If Intelligent Design is taught in schools, equal time should be given to the FSM theory and the non-FSM theory.” –Professor Douglas Shaw, Ph.D.
“Do not be hypocritical. Allow equal time for other alternative ‘theories’ like FSMism, which is by far the tastier choice.” –J. Simon, Ph.D.
“In my scientific opinion, when comparing the two theories, FSM theory seems to be more valid than classic ID theory.” –Afshin Beheshti, Ph.D.
You may ask how can you be a member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster if you don’t literally believe in a Monster?
According to the web site you can. ‘For the same reason that many in other religions don’t literally believe their scripture, you can be a Pastafarian without being a True Believer of our scripture. In other words, do you know Christians who don’t take the Bible literally – but who consider themselves True Christians, nonetheless? So do I. In fact, True Belief is not often a requirement of religion. Most religions are comprised of a group of people with similar – but not exact – world views. Pastafarianism is no different in that regard.’ To be a member then is to be a seeker of truth, and to be ordained as a minister by the Church of The Flying Spaghetti Monster requires no more than $30.00 and a PayPal account.
Pastafarian ministers may be able to marry people in some U.S. states, although I could not find any reports of such weddings. It has been formally recognized as a true religion in Poland, albeit on a technicality in procedural law. When approached from a position of rational analysis it stands up against most religious dogma because, of course, this is what it was designed to do.
The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was launched in a groundbreaking open letter written in 2005 addressed to the Kansas School Board, who had decided youngsters would be educated in a solely Christian Theory of Intelligent Design, ( a.k.a. Creationism).
Since then individuals in several countries have adopted the ‘religion’ some going so far as insisting on wearing vegetable colanders on their heads when posing for official photographs to be used on passports and driving licences, claiming it to be religious headgear.
Hunter Thompson Satirizes Academic Elitism
In a sense, when Hunter Thompson styles himself ‘Doctor’, based upon a degree, let’s face it, purchased from The Universal Life Church he is satirizing academic titles. Thompson raises two figures at academic institutions that require students to take out crippling loans to fund degrees bought not simply with time and labour, but also thousands of dollars.
I suspect, however, that in the main he sought to annoy those tight lipped, self-important professors who not only seek to make a safe buck, but also put everyone else down as they do so. Where the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster lampoons conventional religions, by creating a labyrinth of philosophical/ethical problems through which to trap their adherents Thompson draws attention to the moral lassitude of institutions offering legitimate of academic credentials by parading a false doctorate on the covers of his works. It is brilliant stare, for those intelligent enough to look beyond Thompson’s self-interest.
Thompson’s action is so different from, for example, David Geffen the billionaire businessman and one of the founders of the animation company Dreamworks who lied and said he graduated from UCLA when he applied for a job. Geffen never needed fake, or any other, qualification to make his fortune. Recently he said in an interview for Fortune Magazine that “Look, I’m not setting an example – But it’s an idiotic thing that you have to be a college graduate to be an agent – Did I have a problem with lying to get the job? None whatsoever.”
Thompson’s lampooning is also different from the actions of author John Gray, who wrote ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus‘. His doctorates are from Columbia Pacific University which was an unaccredited non-traditional distance learning school in California, and Governors State University in Illinois, who awarded him an honorary doctorate, after he delivered their commencement address in 2002. Another ‘doctor’ of limited credentials is Joe Vitale, who features prominently in ‘The Secret‘ and obtained a doctor of metaphysics from The University Of Metaphysics a distance learning, unaccredited theological school operated by the International Metaphysical Ministry. You can read Dr. Vitale’s dissertation here. All are undoubtedly talented writers – although arguably less so than Thompson, but display their ‘doctorate’ status for reasons other than to satirise academic qualifications.
Dangers of Using Degrees Obtained from Diploma Mills
John Bear the world’s ‘leading authority on Diploma Mills‘ writes: “It is like putting a time bomb in your résumé. It could go off at any time, with dire consequences. The people who sell fake degrees will probably never suffer at all, but the people who buy them often suffer mightily. And – particularly if their “degree” is health-related – their clients may be seriously harmed.”
In the brilliantly crafted work ‘The Curse of Lono‘, Thompson hints that his use of the suffix ‘doctor’ is placed before his name to indicate his penchant for dispensing mood altering drugs. David Geffen, John Gray, or even Dr. Joe could never be so accused.
I’m sure that Thompson would have loved Amy Long, the founder of The Universal Life Church Seminary. She aims to provide some ‘deeper’ training for ministers. Back in 2005 she wrote: “I’m trying to improve the image of ULC”, and set out to create courses, some lasting several months for those interested.
Thompson would no doubt think that attempting to “improve the image” of the ULC totally misses the point. Their image is just fine. They sell joke degrees. They are good at selling joke degrees and their joke degrees have a great reputation. They don’t take themselves seriously and don’t wish others to do so, except perhaps those who are getting married.
In case you are wondering I am not ordained by any organization, mail order, Internet, or otherwise. Once you go down that route life is justified in placing a crown of thorns upon your head.Stephen Bray writes in a stream of consciousness, but sometimes is a good read . . .