There is some question as to whether Discordianism should be regarded merely as a parody of religion. According to Robert Anton Wilson: “Much of the Pagan movement started out as jokes, and gradually, as people found out they were getting something out of it, they became serious. Discordianism has a built-in check against getting too serious.” Wilson explained, “Many people consider Discordianism a complicated joke disguised as a new religion. I prefer to consider it a new religion disguised as a complicated joke.” As Wilson clarifies, however, “It will be understood by the Cabalistic reader that Discordianism is a system of transcendental Atheism, agnostic Gnosticism, skeptical Monotheism, and unified Dualism. In short, the Erisian revelation is not a complicated put-on disguised as a new religion, but a new religion disguised as a complicated put-on.”
Discodianism is linked with Satanism in its rejection of the existence of a higher God, and a kind of Nietzschean “positive nihilism.” But instead of becoming intoxicated with the “Triumph of the Will,” Discordians look at the absence of meaning in the world and instead laugh, and mock anyone who takes any of it seriously. They follow the foolish chastised in the Bible for saying, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Through their pranksterism they become missionaries to their nihilism, poking fun at everything and everyone in an attempt to jostle them out of their supposed stodginess and unwillingness to accept the frightening truth that there is no truth, and that all is permitted. As such, the model of the Discordians is the Wise Fool, possessed with Divine Madness, who, like Nietzsche, peered into the abyss and cracked.
Discordians believe everybody should live like a Jewish eccentric named Joshua Abraham Norton (1818 – 1880), known as Emperor Norton, a citizen of San Francisco, who proclaimed himself “Norton I, Emperor of the United States” in 1859. He later assumed the secondary title of “Protector of Mexico.” Though Norton had no formal political power, he was treated deferentially in San Francisco, and currency issued in his name was honored in the establishments that he frequented. Norton roamed the city in a European-style military uniform with a plumed top hat and a sword at his side. Norton was recognized as an Illuminated Being by the Freemasons, who granted him a 33º. When Norton died, ten thousand San Franciscans attended his funeral, and he was buried in the Masonic cemetery, courtesy of the Freemasons. Mark Twain resided in San Francisco during part of Emperor Norton’s public life, and he modeled the character of the King in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on him.
Discordians use irreverent humor to promote their philosophy and to prevent their beliefs from becoming “dogmatic.” Their favored prank has been spreading false legends about the Illuminati, who are mentioned as the inheritors of the Assassins in the Principia Discordia. Discordianism represented a confluence of all the prankster traditions of occult secret societies, dating back to the Sons of Malta, the Shriners, through to the avant-garde and Situationism, adapted to the psychedelic counterculture. As described to Scott Oliver, in “Inside the Resurgence of Discordianism–the Chaotic, LSD-Fuelled Anti-Religion” for Vice magazine:
It’s perhaps hardly surprising that there’s cross-pollination between Discordianism and Situationism, the French artist-philosophers of the happening, while other influences and precursors include: the Dada movement; Beat novelist William S Burroughs, who first mooted “the 23 Enigma” after which F23 is named; psychologist and LSD guru Timothy Leary, dubbed “the most dangerous man in America” by Richard Nixon; and Zen Buddhist thinker Alan Watts…
The modern popularization of the terms “pagan” and “neopagan,” as they are currently understood, is largely traced to Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, co-founder of the Church of All Worlds (CAW), who was inspired to use the term from Thornley. As Adler indicates, some, like Robert Anton Wilson, have alleged that the entire pagan movement is a plot centered around Thornley’s worship of Discordia. In California in 1966, Thornley, who was interested in “sex, drugs and treason,” joined Kerista, an early free love cult founded in Haight-Ashbury, which Thornley described as being “more akin to the religions of the East and, also, the so-called pagan religions of the pre-Christian West.” Margo Adler credits Kerista as “the true beginnings of the neopagan movement in contemporary culture.” Kerista was centered on the ideals of polyfidelity and the creation of intentional communities (communes). According to Carole Cusak, Kerista’s sexual practices were influenced, as was that of the Church of All Worlds, by OTO member Robert Heinlein’s science-fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land. In the science-fiction novel, a Martian-raised human named Michael Valentine Smith founded The Church of All Worlds, preached sexual freedom and the truth of all religions, and is martyred by narrow-minded people who are not ready for his teachings. Cusack speculates that the person who invited Heinlein to speak at Kerista’s Los Angeles chapter may have been Thornley. Thornley was known to be a lifelong science-fiction fan. But, Heinlein turned down the invitation.