How Religions Are Born

On Tuesday night, after watching the lottery drawing (I didn’t win, alas – and I wished really hard for it, too!), I saw an ABC special about one José Luis de Jesus Miranda, a Puerto Rican man who has announced to the world that he is the second coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Ordinarily, such a claim would firmly relegate one to the ranks of street-corner crackpots, but Miranda differs from garden-variety kooks in one fairly important way: he has somehow attracted an actual following. Miranda is the head of Growing in Grace Ministries, a church he founded which claims to have over 100,000 followers and 300 congregations in two dozen countries, mostly in Latin and South America.

His believers, by all accounts, display rapturous devotion to him and seem to sincerely believe his claim to be Christ in the flesh. Even as his doctrines grow stranger – he has recently begun claiming that in addition to Christ, he is also the Antichrist, and has accordingly had a “666″ tattooed on his forearm – the flock follows along enthusiastically, and the ABC program showed several of his devotees proudly obtaining their own 666 tattoos.

This bizarreness aside, most of Miranda’s teachings seem to be a fairly unoriginal blend of warmed-over Christian theology, save for one other notable exception: like the universalist sects, he teaches that there is no sin, no Satan and no Hell. Admission to Heaven is, apparently, free and open to all, and the only punishment for evil acts like murder or theft is whatever sentence earthly justice may impose.

As with many churches and cults, Miranda’s devotees donate generously to his cause. Most of that money goes to maintaining Miranda’s own lavish lifestyle, which he flaunts with far less apology than most wealthy preachers. He owns luxury cars, wears gold jewelry and expensive Rolexes, smokes cigars and drinks fine scotch – though he insists he never gets drunk, a claim belied by ABC’s on-air presentation of his mug shot for a DUI arrest several years before his epiphany. (And anyway, if there’s no sin, what’s wrong with getting drunk?)

Miranda has no formal education in religion. He has claimed in the past to have a Ph.D. in theology, but when the ABC crew confronted him with the revelation that his degree was a worthless paper from a diploma mill, he cheerfully admitted the fraud. His theology has grown steadily more extravagant over the years: when he founded Growing in Grace in 1986, he originally only put forth his universalism, making no claims to divinity. In 1998, he claimed to be the reincarnation of the Apostle Paul; a year later, he decided he was the “Other” who would pave the way for Christ’s coming. It was only two years ago that he began claiming to be Christ, following an allegedly prophetic dream, and his claim to also be the Antichrist is more recent still (source). Interestingly, he does not claim to have performed any miracles (though I’m sure that, if his religion persists, miracle stories will soon spring up around him with the predictability of weeds after rain). In fact, he offers his failure to perform miracles as proof that he actually is Jesus Christ! (source) This is a novel approach to say the least.

All told, Miranda’s religion is a fairly standard cult, albeit one that seems less malicious than some others. Bizarre though his beliefs are, they apparently do not contain any injunctions toward violence, nor was there any evidence presented that he is using brainwashing tactics. Nevertheless, it’s notable how aggressively the ABC reporter confronted Miranda – strongly challenging his claim to be Christ, pointing out Bible passages that contradict his teachings, producing evidence of his past arrests and his false diploma, and even asking him outright if he plans to lead his followers to commit mass suicide à la Jim Jones.

This aggressively skeptical treatment is a sharp contrast with the groveling respect and deference that major media organizations routinely offer mainstream religious leaders, even when their beliefs are every bit as ludicrous and unsupported as Miranda’s. I wish I could hope that their confrontational attitude toward Miranda is a sign that they will treat other religious claims with similar skepticism in the future, but I know better. The media narrative always works the same way: Miranda’s religion is new and small, and is therefore a “cult” which deserves to be mercilessly grilled and questioned. Established religions, on the other hand, are large and old, and therefore are societal institutions which deserve to be treated with deference and respect. The media treatment a religion receives is, of course, wholly a function of how greatly the corporation fears an advertiser boycott by its followers.

The ABC special acted as though Miranda’s claim to be Jesus was the core absurdity at the heart of his theology, when in fact the truly unbelievable claim is that there actually was such a being as Jesus! It makes no sense whatsoever that an infinite, omnipotent god would need to incarnate himself as a human and then subject himself to an agonizing and bloody death just so he could persuade himself to forgive us and save us from the cruel fate he created for us. It makes even less sense that the all-wise creator of the universe would manifest himself in an isolated corner of the world during a primitive age of its history, teach proverbs identical to those of the other belief systems of the day, promise to return quickly to destroy the world, and then vanish utterly for a span of time now going on two thousand years, leaving behind no trace except for a few hazy memories and anonymous writings that he had ever been here at all. These are the irrational and nonsensical claims that truly deserve to be investigated and subjected to critical inquiry. If one goes so far as to accept these claims, it is only a small additional step to add that a 60-year-old Puerto Rican minister is this being reincarnated, yet ABC acted as if that comparatively tiny add-on was the most absurd claim in all of this.

Watching Miranda in action, however, left me with the strong impression that I was watching a new religion in its formative stage. Every new belief system must begin like this: a tiny outcast sect, mocked or ridiculed by society, whose members are nevertheless united in a joyful sense that they have found the truth and a strong sense of identity that is only hardened by persecution. In the beginning, beliefs evolve rapidly, only later stabilizing into a formal creed, and unverifiable miracle claims soon begin to pour in and become exaggerated. Miranda’s ministry now probably looks very much like how Mormonism looked a hundred and seventy years ago, or how Christianity looked about two thousand years ago. Of course, only time will tell if this new memeplex grows and thrives like its forebears, eventually becoming an established church, or if it dwindles and fades away like so many other failed sects. (Miranda’s inevitable natural death and subsequent failure to resurrect will probably be the true testing point.)

I wonder about Miranda’s own mental state. Though the material rewards he stands to gain by lying are apparent, the steadily increasing bizarreness of his theology suggests that mental illness is the true cause of his epiphany. A con man probably wouldn’t have thrown in the bit about being the Antichrist, a risky move at best; if you’re already getting rich, why mess with what works? And yet, his apparent sincerity and lack of obvious mental impairment – and the charisma he obviously projects, to gain as many followers as he has – should lay to rest the simplistic “lord/liar/lunatic” arguments so beloved by certain brands of Christian apologists.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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