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.

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.

  • Polly

    Ironic isn’t it? Xianity is a result of and in the midst of its own process of evolution.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    Excellent post. Chilling thoughts of the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984 come to mind, the way that religions change their mind and then pretend there was never any problem.

    When religious followers are not assessing the initial claims without evidence, why should they have any problems accepting amendments without evidence?

  • Alex Weaver

    Fortunately, from the perspective of those outside their following, the religious’ imitation of the Ministry of Truth more often comes out as a Marx Brothers spoof than genuinely Orwellian. Classical Orwellian societies have a severe pragmatic impediment in that, as formulated, they depend on a level of efficiency that simply isn’t achievable by humans in the forseeable future. Fortunately. O.o

  • Pi Guy

    @tobe38:

    That was exactly what I was thinking: “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.

  • http://www.blakeclan.org/jon/greenoasis/ Jonathan Blake

    I can speak for the Mormon case. The church was able to make such sweeping changes to its doctrine while retaining loyalty through the combination of a belief in the infallibility of the church leadership, a belief in continuing revelation (i.e. follow the living prophet instead of those dead ones), a flawed epistemology which is impervious to contradicting evidence (e.g. God told me through feelings of peace that the Book of Mormon is his word, therefore any contradictory evidence must be wrong), and restricted access to the church’s history. Many Mormons aren’t even aware of many of the problematic doctrines which were taught early in the history of the church.

    The Mormon church is still in the process of quietly divesting itself of unpopular doctrines (e.g. the doctrine that God was once a man who progressed to become God).

  • http://dangerousintersection.org/ Erich Vieth

    Those rough-cut doctrines are smoothed down until (as in many liberal sects) it’s hard to determine if there is anything meaningful remaining. For a visual of the result, imagine Ted Haggard preaching to a congregation of Unitarians. Ouch! Watch them squirm! Smoothed down people get splinters when they mingle with rough hewn people.

    After generations of smoothing, what is left of literalist claims? They morph into strange vague poetry. Sometimes I ask, “Hey, but do you guys MEAN it when you say those things or not?” They can’t decide.

    Ask your liberal Catholic friends whether Mary was really a virgin and watch for those “You Dickens!” smirks to bloom across their faces. Safely inside of their churches, they’ll proudly chant that Mary was a virgin, but outside of church the claim of Mary’s virginity becomes just a story to many Catholics, not something they really need to believe.

    Virgin birth: one of the many doctrines that has been “smoothed down.” Good post!

  • lpetrich

    To expand on Erich Vieth’s point, I’ve come across some liberal Xians who’ve described their beliefs as a “language”, which seems like yet more creative obfuscation.

  • Amissio

    Regarding the Mormons, Jonathan seems to be pretty much on my line of thinking. But I do have to clear some things up.

    The post implies that polygamy was the basis of Mormonism, but it really wasn’t. It all goes back to the Book of Mormon – what amounts to Biblical fanfiction. Joseph Smith came up with this book that made already uber-religious Americans believe that North America had a place in the story of Christianity. Mormonism caught on because it made people feel like they were essential to Christianity.

    Polygamy came only after the church moved from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois. Joseph Smith was killed and Brigham Young took the Mormons out to Utah, where polygamy became very deep-seated in Mormon culture and theology. The US government cracked down on polygamy in the 1880s and 1890s and dissolved the church. The church was allowed to reincorporate only after it publicly disavowed polygamy.

    Nowadays the church does not support polygamy… but it doesn’t completely condemn it; there is the feeling that God might hand down revelation at any time that it is fitting to take up the practice of celestial marriage again. As for the other “changes” in Mormon theology, they structure of the Church requires that nothing can ever be rescinded. They can do what they want to emphasize different aspects, but the Mormon theology itself is unchanging.

    That’s what gets me – they hold the exact same core beliefs as they always have, but say that God works in mysterious ways and that they don’t have to act on their beliefs. It’s all pretty silly.

    Oh, and, just for laughs, the only western scripture that outright condemns polygamy is… the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith later received revelation saying that polygamy got the celestial green light. Smith wrote that “That which is wrong under one circumstance may be, and often is, right under another.” Oh silly!

  • Kennypo65

    So what they’re saying is “We need to make up new bullshit because our audience is too sophisticated to swallow the old bullshit.” Have I got it right?


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