Let’s make a cult.
A cult, as defined here, is a religion that is known to its founders are completely untrue; just a confidence trick (also known as a “con job”). We’re not going to make a real cult, and I want that to be obvious from the beginning – besides the title of this blog, I’m also going to entitle the parts of my cult with silly names. My objective is to demonstrate how a religion could be invented, and compare the end-product with modern religions.
While this project will be a theoretical religion, keep in mind that this actually happens – religions are invented. Even if you’ve never seen a cult in action, you know that they exist. If you have a religious belief, then you also believe that every other religion is simply man-made*. It may strike atheists as astounding that religious believers can’t turn this same critical eye on their own religions and consider that they might also be purely invented, but a well-constructed religion has safeguards to prevent that, as we’ll see below.
The first step of creating a cult is to get followers. We simply can’t have a cult without followers, and we can’t have followers unless we have something to offer them. Bands have cult followings because they offer music that the masses enjoy. Some movies are infinitely re-watchable and fun to experience, and they also have cult followers. I’m going to assume, though, that you’re some random schmuck like myself without such talent. So how do people like us getting a following?
If we can’t offer people something tangible, then we’ll offer something intangible. I’ve noticed that people have an innate fear of death. Let’s exploit that. We’ll tell them about Happy Place, a paradise that they’ll enjoy for eternity after death if they choose to join our cult. While this in itself may serve to get followers, we’ll also need to reinforce this theme so that our followers won’t leave. So let’s tell people that the only alternative to Happy Place is Unhappy Place, an eternity of torture and agony. This scare tactic would be an extremely cruel thing to use on people if we cared about them. I guess it’s lucky for us that we don’t.
We have another intangible trick up our sleeve. We’ll offer our followers a sense of community. We want the cult to feel like a family, so that leaving will feel like a break-up – and we all know that breaking up is hard to do. We’ll tell our followers that we love them, and we’ll get together for regular meetings like friends would.
Once we’ve got a follower on the hook, they should be ours for life. By reminding them of the pain and torture of Unhappy Place (and of how apparently easy this is to avoid), they’ll see everyone outside of the cult as idiots and themselves as superior. This is a strong incentive, as no sane person would want to leave the sense of comfort, community, and superiority we’ve offered them for the only alternative we’ve offered – rejection, humility, and Unhappy Place.
*Please excuse my sexism when I call religion man-made, but I haven’t come across a single religion founded by a woman. This is a credit to your sex, ladies, and I’m mentally high-fiving all of you.