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What would it take to create a religion from scratch?

January 20, 2013

High church ceremony

The other day, I found myself awake at around 3AM. Folks, I would not recommend being up at 3AM.

A friend had sent me a Facebook message earlier (around midnight) or so, saying the following:

If I start a new religion, it will be high humanism

(How cool is it that I have friends who have sentences that begin “If I start a new religion…” and who have the credentials that they probably could do it?)

Although I didn’t expect any responses, I replied anyway at 3AM.

I don’t know how you would accumulate so much pomp from scratch

Much to my surprise (although I really shouldn’t be surprised with this friend), the friend responded back. Without making this post simply be a transcript of a conversation (that in FB etiquette is designed to be private — a chat, not a timeline conversation [I wash my hands with the thought that if I don’t blog about this, then said friend probably never will…so it’s ok if I take the bushel off this light]), I’ll summarize some of the thoughts that the friend wrote, and some of my thoughts thinking about it all in the past few days.

See, the friend said that he didn’t think it would be tough to make pomp from scratch. Instead, he thought it would be tougher to build loyalty and a sense of continuity (which I still don’t know if that was 3AM speak for “community”).

These things seem like reasonable problems for secular and humanistic religions and quasi-religious organizations. Heck, even liberal religious denominations tend to have problems with loyalty.

…so, the question is: can one distill the binding qualities of religion without conservative, traditional, or transgressive theologies and politics? And if so, how?

I asked my friend what he thought the source of loyalty and continuity (?) were, to which he responded with tradition and group dynamics.

I responded that I wanted to change my first response. Perhaps he wouldn’t have so much problem accumulating pomp from scratch, but tradition. He noted that it would be impossible to create tradition from scratch, but that instead, one would have to “mythically, rhetorically, and artistically link it to earlier traditions and patterns.”

Welp. Since I don’t even understand what everyone’s big deal is with “mythology,” I guess this conversation is already outside my expertise.

But anyway, my friend continued…such links would need to be structured and compelling. He wondered if there were a way to create alternative systems to do religions’ job. He said it was like inventing a language, only harder.

I pointed out that the difficulty with inventing language is making it go “native” and “viral”. I mean, I am aware of people who speak constructed languages…and even people who are native speakers of constructed languages, but even though I am not a linguist (check out this guy for that, though), it seems to me that the process of consciously and systematically constructing a language hasn’t ever quite gotten things to a point where it fully captures the enticing imperfections and practicalities of natural languages.

He pointed out that it would be easier for insiders to foster better forms of their own traditions (and this makes sense — the mythology, rhetoric, and art is already there, just waiting to be re-appropriated)…and I guess this makes some sense of his choice to stay within the church, however “fringe” or “liberal” or “middle way” or “new order” (or whatever totally made up term that reifies the problematic conservative normativity of Mormonism) he is. Unlike those folks who leave religion and see no need to replace it with anything, he still sees functions that religion performs better than basically anyone else: belonging, structure, stability, reliability, and familiarity. The problem is…a new religion by definition can’t meet all of these things. But how does a new religion develop with enough of these that it lasts long enough to evolve the remaining ones?

The friend concluded the conversation thusly:

I am deeply interested in how religion interacts with human nature, including traits liberals consider less “noble” ways to use myth and structure and community and status etc. to work around those limitations.

And then, at 3:30 AM or so, he noted that he was now going to bed.

I don’t study religion formally. I don’t study mythology or psychology or sociology (although one of these days, I’ll quit my day job and become a social scientist of some sort.) So, I really am not qualified to say what it would take to create a religion from scratch.

I mean, I look at some religions’ early histories, and I think, “How did this ever get off the ground?” And yet, they do. Even if Mormonism probably doesn’t have all the members that the church leaders would like to say (and those members aren’t as active as people might think, and and and…), Mormonism is one of the religions that has “made it”. Even more recently, we have the Church of Scientology, an organization that completely scares the crap out of me, yet which seems to have “made it.”

I wonder if secular religions are doomed to failure because secular folks tend to be repulsed by (or otherwise not get) the things that make religions successful, and they tend to care about things that don’t really have much relevance to the success of religion?

Anyway, as I was playing around with ideas either of “alternative” institutions or of things that might help a fledgling religion, I thought of a few things.

  1. Game-ification. This is the process of turning mundane stuff from ordinary life and infusing it with prizes, rewards, and other game aspects. All of a sudden, now that exercising nets you points, gets you achievement badges, and lets you compare your progress with randos on the internet, you have incentive to exercise not because of anything silly like intrinsic motivation…but because holy crap points.

    In a sense, religion was at the gameification game long before. I guess the difference between a literalist interpretation and a more metaphorical interpretation is whether one believes the game to be built into reality, or simply an overlay. While the data suggests that religions where people believe the game to be built into reality do better over time, in most gaming contexts, you don’t have to believe the game is real to have a hyper-addictive hit. So, I think that is something that could be in a constructed religion’s favor.

  2. Hijacking psychology. A lot of nonreligious folks suppose that pointing out neurological and psychological sources of various religious experiences disproves them. (“It’s all just your brain.”) Well, regardless of if this is the case, there’s no questioning that religion for many produces particular experiences…and people want to cultivate these experiences. I think that a constructed religion would need to find practices and ideas that hijack psychology in particular ways, and then wrap that hijacking in the terms of its narrative.

    I think about music and mythology for this. On the one hand, it seems like music is this amazing thing that — holy crap where did this come from? However, with music theory, we pretty much know what combinations will turn you on and in what ways. Why do all pop songs sound alike? Because that sound sounds good.

    Similarly, mythologists know the basics of an appealing story. They know the archetypes. They know the tropes.

    While I don’t think that most religions started out with their founders carefully or consciously exploiting human psychology, the fact that we modern folks can should give us an advantage in constructing a religion.

I want to build off the second point. Religion doesn’t really work for me because I haven’t had the sort of experiences that folks who are crazy about religions tend to have. But even though I haven’t had those experiences, I am not inclined to deny that others have experienced certain things (even if I doubt their explanations of what those experiences are.) I think someone who wanted to create a religion would have to tap into such an experience to wrap the mythology around it.

So, what such experience would a humanistic religion tap? And what story would it wrap around it that would keep people beholden to the religion?

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3 Comments
  1. You really understood where I am coming from. This is the question that haunts and captivates me–how do we co-opt and harness both the best and worst of human nature to create a sustainable system of maximal well-being? How do we get society to “work”?

    Community is easy. Twenty people talking about their favorite video game on the internet, or even high school cliques have community. Continuity is much harder because by definition it cannot be invented, only grown (though links between the old and new can be constructed. This happened in Christianity and Judaism with sobering consequences).

    And the question is even harder. Religions from scratch are doable. A new religion (or replacement/alternative to religion) that satisfies *conservative* impulses–that is the real puzzle.

  2. Jared,

    To avoid making this conversation exactly like the FB one, I’ll jump to the last message I wrote in the FB discussion (very very very loosely):

    It seems to me that you want too much. I don’t think that a new religion that satisfies conservative impulses is the real problem — because we know the things that conservatives value, so institutions with those values are going to appeal.

    The problem is that when you talk about a maximally beneficial religion, you want to implement certain things that are going to appeal to liberal or progressive folks, but will chafe against conservative values.

    Like, when you talk about creating a sustainable system of maximal well-being, the basic issue is that everyone doesn’t agree of what that would look like. There was a blog post I was commenting on about different atonement theories, because the author was talking about “incompletely theorized agreements” but he had some analogies that made the concept seem totally meaningless: e.g., everyone wants to decrease the number of abortions, but the different sides have very different ideas of how to accomplish that. My thought was: well, given the vast differences in how the groups want to implement this, their “agreement” is not that meaningful.

    • But I own these issues and problems. I realize that these thought exercises deal with issues that are contested and even at times mutually exclusive. But the whole point of wrestling with this “high humanism” issue is exploring the needs that religion meets *especially for conservatives*. I am striving to take into account needs and sensibilities that I don’t fully identify with, though thanks to a Mormon upbringing I can understand them. It won’t be perfect, but I think it strengthens my approach more than progressive quests to reform religion but result in a form of the faith that literal believers would no longer claim (which is the idea behind “common ground denominationalism”).

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