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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • http://quintessentialrambling.blogspot.com/ kilgore trout

    awesome post, I particularly liked the little rant in the middle about “normal” christian beliefs which is actually how I got to this article. Way of the Mind reposted that section (gave you credit) and I saw it on planet atheism and I reposted it too, also giving you both credit.

    Now I’m glad that I was able to read the whole article, kinda makes me want to start a religion. So thanks for the great read!

  • jim coufal

    Unless there are two of us in this world, and being omniscient I know that there are’nt, Jose is a fraud. Please send money.

    Jim

  • http://rightside.fissure.org Shishberg

    Unless there are two of us in this world, and being omniscient I know that there are’nt, Jose is a fraud. Please send money.

    Does omniscience not cover apostrophe placement these days?

    Yes, I’m a pedant.

  • Tony C

    this one was a nice read…so he’s saying his inability to turn water into wine and whatnot makes him the second coming, eh? heh, dude must be VERY charismatic, cus on those grounds most of the world’s population qualifies to be Jesus reincarnated.

  • Josh

    I love your blog! I posted a link to this on my Facebook profile (as I have for a few other posts of yours too). Keep it up!

    One thing about this guy that strikes me odd is as you put it–his lavish lifestyle. To me, Jesus was always a symbol of charity and selflessness. I just couldn’t see Jesus rolling up in a BMW.

  • John P

    One thing about this guy that strikes me odd is as you put it–his lavish lifestyle. To me, Jesus was always a symbol of charity and selflessness. I just couldn’t see Jesus rolling up in a BMW.

    Yes, but I’ll bet he had the finest ass to ride upon.

  • Andreas

    Great story!

  • Whatever

    Well, i found out about this stupid guy saying all this things a couple of days ago when i was studyin with my college mates. Let me tell you something, im latinamerica and i dont know ANYONE who follows that dude. I live in argentina and people speaks of him like hes crazy.
    The only religion that has prevaled during the years is christianism, why? because is the real deal. Theres only ONE God and he is so amazing that he decided to leave us a manual (the bible) to know how we can have happy and fullfilled lifes.
    Everything else is not real man, Jesus is not dead and encarnating in some crazy puertoriquean guy or in anyone else, he is ALIVE and offers us everyday to have a personal lifechanging expierience with him.

  • Alex Weaver

    “Whatever”:

    And your evidence for this would be….?

  • http://alethiographer.blogspot.com/ Tam

    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.

    This is a brilliant way of stating the basics of Christian theology in the most ridiculous possible way. Bravo!

  • jenn

    I heard about this guy on CNN and thought his claims also to be very well… false. I know many who read this article are in fact agreeing that this guy is false just like christianity is itself is false and I understand why one might say this. I was just wondering though, have we ever stopped to consider, “Could an all-good, all powerful, all- knowing God exist?” in general. Well one might say of course not! but why not? THere is great scientific evidence that points out a great design in nature. But what about morality in general? Wouldnt we all agree that murder is wrong? and rape? and well genocides? Even people in other cultures would agree to this. I think that shows that we as humans have a common morality not based on the culture to which we live but on something that was instilled in us before we were born- almost as a preprogrammed code. At this point I know that you might already be thinking of many reponses that one could say to refute this but I ask for your attention and intellectual integrity for a few more sentences. We can see that this world is messed up- fathers killing their kids, children being murdered, random tornados destroying towns. In all of this though there is still something that cries out why? or who? An we ask If there was a GOd where is he now in all of this? Well this would take too long to explain, but simply this… I encourage you (if you consider yourself intellectually honest) to think about these things and to consider the “ancient anonymous writings” (bible) before you utterly dimiss its claims. Before one can truelly deny something as false doesnt one have to fully research it? and consider the validity of its argument? THis is just a thought, but if you consider the claims of christianity, it has no contradictions and does not offer something non-logical. In fact the God of the bible follows every rule of logic put forth by Aristotle and Aquainus. Even Aristotle understood that there was something greater than him that existed (Aristotle’s metaphysics). I agree with Aristotle that there is a “being” that is greater than we that has created this world. i believe that this “being” is the GOd of the bible.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    jenn,

    Thanks for your comments.

    I encourage you (if you consider yourself intellectually honest) to think about these things and to consider the “ancient anonymous writings” (bible) before you utterly dimiss its claims.

    Most of us have thought about these things, of course. Thinking for yourself and examining the evidence is a central element of humanism, and this is very much a humanist blog. Our host here, Ebonmuse, has a lot of essays up at this blog’s parent site http://www.ebonmusings.org which more than cover the questions you raise.

    But what about morality in general? Wouldnt we all agree that murder is wrong? and rape? and well genocides?

    Why should evidence for morality be evidence for God? My own view of morality is centred around the idea that there are certain things that are inherently good from a human point of view — happiness being the most obvious example. I don’t need God to support that belief system; it makes sense on its own. Ebonmuse’s somewhat similar viewpoint on morality is here.

    Additionally, while I would most certainly agree that murder and rape and genocide are wrong, the God of the Bible seems less sure, since He seems to order genocide on a regular basis in the OT. The combination of 2 Peter 2:7-8 and Genesis 19:8 raises similar questions about whether the Bible considers rape to be a serious crime.

    THis is just a thought, but if you consider the claims of christianity, it has no contradictions and does not offer something non-logical.

    I will not be the only one to choke at this. Are you claiming Biblical infallibility? If so, the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible has an exhaustive list of contradictions here. It’s a very long list; feel free to scan through and find the claims that are least peripheral.

    Even considering more central Christian claims, I have to say I find the idea of a benevolent God torturing people for eternity to be very contradictory. Seriously, I wouldn’t give a mass murderer more than thirty years in Hell. Even if you think we’re really, really bad — you know, maybe we all deserve about ten thousand years? — even then, we’re not infinitely evil. Come off it. No-one deserves eternal punishment.

    If that’s not central enough for you, Ebonmuse critiques the Trinity here. Or just look around this blog or Ebon Musings until you find the piece of writing that deals with the specific claim you want answered.

    I hope you find material here which helps you to understand our viewpoint.

  • Camile

    I really liked your article. You were saying how it wouldn’t make sense for God to incarnate on earth, etc.. I agree with you, but I think you are missing the point of God. If we understood why God did things then he wouldn’t be God. Does an ant understand what a human does?

  • OMGF

    If we understood why God did things then he wouldn’t be God.

    This is simply an apologists “rationalization” of why god can be mean, vindictive, and cruel while simultaneously thinking god is good, just, etc. If god explained herself to us, this would not negate the power of god, the formation of the universe, etc. It would actually be more godlike, because it would be more just. It would actually give us the ability to make an informed decision about our future afterlife.

  • Camile

    How can you say what is godlike and what isn’t without being God? We are bound by the way we see the universe. If we were made then we can only see the universe in the way were made to see it.

  • OMGF

    Camile,
    The problem with that is that you are doing just what you criticize me for. Your argument hinges on you being able to tell us what is godlike and what isn’t, without giving any supporting reason for your assertion. I have a supporting reason, which I will go into in more detail. It is unjust for god to send people to hell. One of the counters to this claim by Xians is that god is just because he gives us a choice in the matter. This is not a good counter, however, because we aren’t given the information necessary to make an informed choice. IOW, we are choosing where to go in our lives in the complete darkness. Then, we are punished for going the wrong direction. It would be more just (and therefore more god-like if god-like equals justice) for god to give us the information we need to make an informed choice.

  • Camile

    OMGF,
    Sorry, I didn’t mean to come across as critizing you, I just thought you would be a cool person to get into a discussion with. What I was trying to say was that I don’t know what is god-like and what isn’t. I don’t understand how any human would be able to make assertions about what God is/does. This is of course if we are going by the definition of the word ‘God’ as a supreme being who created us(if not then my whole argument won’t work). Your arguement seems to be based on your assumptions of what good is and God doesn’t fit into your view of what is good. Maybe to a supreme being who can see everything “good” looks a lot different. “One is most dishonet towards one’s God: he is not permitted to sin,” Nietzsche.

  • Nate

    I saw this special last night on a THS special 2hr show on cults. Being a Christian myself, I was flippin blow away. I enjoyed reading this post, thanks for it. I don’t agree, of course, with your rant on how unbelievable Christianity is because it makes perfect sense to me, but yeah. The Bible clearly states that the second coming of Christ is not going to be some long extended visit in which He starts a church and gets fine cars and lots of money. Jesus Christ constantly taught that the riches of this world were nothing and we can’t take em when we die so who cares. I feel sorry for this guy, because I know that he will be punished greatly for misleading soooo many. But, as Kevin Spacey said in The Usual Suspects, “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist”.

  • mikespeir

    Nate:

    “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist”

    The coincidence has been pointed out time and time again: that convincing the world he doesn’t exist is also the Invisible Pink Unicorn’s greatest trick.


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