Designer Religions Created to Accommodate Vice, Humor, and Crime
The Smokers Church is not a mere figment of the café owner’s imagination. It was founded in 2001 by Dutch television producer Michiel Eijsbouts. Eijsbouts refers to himself as ‘Pope’ or ‘Smokelighter’ (Rooksteker), and claims his movement has all the marks of a religion.
The church’s website clarifies how it all works. In order to become a member, people need to send a 5 euro note and a handwritten version of the ‘Smokers Oath’, to the church headquarters. That oath pledges allegiance ‘to the Church, its authority and its God, in the Holy Covenant of Smokers’. Subsequently one receives a membership card, that supposedly ‘grants the right to ‘smoke religiously’ anyplace and anytime’.
Although, as such, the ‘religious smokers’ claim a right to smoke anywhere, in practice they only tend to do so at home or in their ‘places of worship’. As you may have guessed, these places of worship are cafés that accede to the Smokers Church, whereupon (only) church members are allowed to smoke on the premises.
In the Netherlands, a few dozen cafés joined the initiative. At least one of those received a fine. However, after the Dutch smoking ban was relaxed in 2010, most of these establishments were no longer covered by the prohibition. At the time, the ban was abolished for small cafés (maximum 70 m2) without staff. In Flanders, aside from the café in Wachtebeke, pubs in Antwerp, Mechelen, and a number other places have also joined the Smokers Church.
Invisible Pink Unicorns
Although the founder of the ‘Church’ formally denies it, it would appear obvious that the Smoking Church is a hoax, like there are many others in the religious sphere. One could think for instance of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or ‘pastafarianism’ (a portmanteau of ‘pasta’ and ‘Rastafarianism’). Within this ‘religion’, the central belief is that an undetectable Flying Spaghetti Monster, or ‘noodly master’, created the universe. The deity is usually depicted as a tangled bunch of spaghetti with two meatballs, and eyes on stalks.
A variation of this is the belief in Invisible Pink Unicorns (IPU), whose unparalleled spiritual powers are sufficiently demonstrated by the fact that they are both invisible and pink. According to its founders, the religion is – ‘like all religions’ – based on a combination of faith and logic: that the unicorns are pink, requires a leap of faith, that they are invisible, is based on logic, since one is obviously unable to see them.
Both of the aforementioned parodies have been devised in order to counteract the influence of existing religions on politics and education. The Flying Spaghetti Monster, for instance, was invented in response to the decision of the Kansas State Board of Education to permit the teaching of Intelligent Design (ID) as an alternative to evolution in public school science classes. In a satirical open letter to the Board, one Bobby Henderson demanded that the belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster would be allotted equal time in the classrooms, alongside ID and evolution. Since that time, ‘pastafarianism’ has taken on a life of its own.
The Smokers Church seems to fit in a somewhat different category of hoax religions: one aimed at obtaining privileges and/or circumventing regulations. Another example of this is the Missionary Church of Kopimism (‘copy-me-ism’), that extolls file sharing as a religious experience, seeking to justify it under that pretext. It holds CTRL+C and CTRL+V to be its sacred symbols, and its followers dress up as pirates. The religion has been officially recognized in Sweden, although the country has not legalized its ‘rite’ for the time being. It is possible however for the religion’s ordained priests to solemnize marriages.