Build your own religion

It’s clearly possible to start your own religion by intention, rather than accident – L Ron Hubbard did it, and very likely Joseph Smith as well, although it’s conceivable that Smith got caught up in an unintended result of one of his scams. And as Hubbard said, that’s where the money is. So how do you make sure that your religion succeeds? I’ve been thinking about it and come up with a few ideas.

Evangelist1. Sense of urgency: The biggest danger facing a new religion is its small size. With relatively few followers, it wouldn’t take much to snuff it out before it even gets going, so rapid expansion is important early on. It also helps to create awareness, and will breed its own mythology as the dawning of a new age. Belief in imminent judgement is good, as is criticism from outsiders, which raises awareness and creates a sense of solidarity, but anything will do, even a pyramid scheme based on seniority for older members, or promotion for every convert you bring in.

2. Open doors: Related to this, if you’re going to get your religion to grow rapidly, you need to do everything you can to help people to join, which means porous boundaries. It may be that the urgency of any early adopters helps to bring in the converts, but it’s also handy to get families and friends along by association, and you might not even want to formally identify as a group for now. Besides survival, there are pressing needs to grow as much as possible in this period, because of:

3. Settle down: There are two reasons why a religion needs to change gear before too long. First, the death of the first wave of converts generally necessitates a change of tone, especially if they believed or implied that the end was nigh, which is the easiest way of generating the rapid growth you want. Second, after a certain time, a religion needs to become part of the furniture to be taken seriously. Religions that are still stuck in the urgent evangelism phase centuries later are generally treated like grown adults who still live with their parents, with the unspoken question “If this is true, how come so few people believe it?” Wild-eyed preachers don’t fit well with this role, so they need to be phased out in favour of sharp suits and sophisticated theology, possibly rewriting the religion’s early days as crude propaganda and hagiography.

Jain Temple4. Become part of the community: The bigger a religion becomes, the more opportunity it has to get its message out in different, more acceptable ways. You can run your own schools, participate in civic events, and raise your views in the political arena. You represent a substantial body of opinion, and you will make this clear at every turn. Your message will also get a credibility boost from your charitable efforts, even if they’re transparent attempts to push a message, rather than a neutral public service.

5. Hold on tight: Once you’ve got a big, mainstream religion with a healthy number of members, you generally just need to hold onto them, making evangelism a lower priority and allowing breeding (to be encouraged – parenthood is a sacred duty) to keep your numbers up. There are two ways of holding onto your followers: carrot and stick. The stick threatens dire punishment in the next world (or even this) for apostates, relying on fear. The carrot kills with love, by creating strong communities around your religion and making it hard to leave without also losing those contacts and friendships. A combination of carrot and stick is possible, but generally requires one element to be watered down to avoid the sort of mixed messages commonly associated with cults.

Follow these steps, and you’re pretty likely to end up with a fairly healthy religion at the end of it. You’ll have noticed, of course, that I’ve left out the most basic step of all, what might be called rule 0, because it simply isn’t necessary, as the proliferation of contradictory religions shows. You see, there’s no need for any of it to be true, just persuasive.

Images courtesy of clafouti and zatrokz, used with permission

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

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