Smoothing Out the Rough Edges

Normal people don’t start new religions.

This seems like an obvious thing to say, but there’s an important point behind it. Most people, both in the present time and in past eras, are conformists who are far more likely to follow the trails paved by others than to blaze their own. Theists in general seem content to go to church each week, stand or sit or kneel when asked, leave a donation in the collection plate on occasion, confess their sins when necessary, and trust that everything will work out all right in the end.

This tendency is entirely understandable. Not to put too fine a point on it, most people are not so convinced of their own self-importance that they believe God is delivering new revelations specially and exclusively to them. It takes a special type of person to be susceptible to such a thought, which is why the people who do start religions tend to be – to put it politely – unstable, and often prone to revising their theology on a whim.

Consider the steadily increasing bizarreness of the new religion headed by José Luis de Jesus Miranda, whose claims have grown more and more extravagant over time (so far, it seems, with the enthusiastic assent of his followers). The theology invented by L. Ron Hubbard shows similar evolution: it began with the Dianetics self-help program, which claimed only to help its followers free their mind of harmful “engrams” (suppressed painful memories), but later progressed to the full-blown absurdist space opera of Scientology, complete with secret claims about the space alien overlord Xenu, the “body thetans” he caused to inhabit people’s bodies, the countless past lives each of us has led, and the ludicrously elaborate accounts of extraterrestrial civilizations that have fought over the Earth.

Religions of somewhat older vintage also bear testament to the erratic nature of their founders. The Mormon church, for example, started off with a claim of divine sanction for oppressive polygamous marriages, as well as a distinctly unorthodox view of the nature of God that was later revised to be more in line with standard Christian trinitarianism. The Bible itself also shows this trait, such as with the grotesque and hallucinatory imagery of Ezekiel or Revelation, or verses that strongly imply there is more than one god (Psalms 82:1, Psalms 86:8, Genesis 6:2), in contradiction to the later development of strict monotheism.

In all these cases and others, the bizarreness of the founding doctrine matters little at first. Few religions reach any substantial size during their initial generation, and those who do join early are usually happy to believe in whatever proclamations their divine leader hands down. But as time goes by, the new religion may reach a critical mass and begin to grow steadily. At this point, when the prospect of success and integration into the mainstream is in sight, there is a problem to confront: the weirder and more embarrassing aspects of its founding doctrine must be softened and smoothed out to make them more palatable to the masses.

This can be accomplished in a variety of ways. Sometimes, as with Scientology, the original teachings are preserved as secrets available only to the initiated. Rarely, as with Mormonism, these teachings are changed or rejected outright. (The Mormon church now disavows Joseph Smith’s original embrace of polygamy, for example.) However, the most common response is for later believers, less fanatical and more educated, to reinterpret the founder’s visions as allegory, metaphor, or divine mystery not meant for humans to understand. (The founder is usually deceased by this time and so is not around to object.)

Over time, the crude and violent fairy tales so common in ancient religions end up being treated as the height of subtle theological wisdom. Consider this defense of the story of Noah’s flood, where a savage tale about planetary genocide by mass drowning is reinterpreted as a simple moral lesson about not being selfish. Likewise the story of Abraham and Isaac, which teaches that willingness to murder in the name of God is a praiseworthy trait, has over time been reinterpreted into a parable about the importance of faith.

Among the religions in existence today, we can see all the different steps of this smoothing-out process, from religions that have been thoroughly polished and sanded down to those for which it has not yet begun. If Miranda’s new religion ends up thriving, in due time his claim to be the Antichrist will probably end up being treated as if it were a complex and brilliant thesis on the nature of God, when in reality it is almost certainly just a manifestation of mental illness.

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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.