What’s the difference between a religion and a cult? Not much. The study of cults is a modern phenomena – dating back to the 1930s. They have many of the same traits as mainstream religions, but with beliefs and practices that established society deems odd or eccentric. When you think about it though, there are a lot of things people do in the name of mainstream religion that look decidedly odd or eccentric…
One thing’s for certain. Cult formation is skyrocketing. As old time religion loses its lustre for many, New Religious Movements or NRMs are flooding in to fill the hole. Best of all? You could be the person at the top. Anyone can start their own cult. All it takes is a bit of charisma, a creation myth and some commandments to live by.
A charismatic figurehead
Getting people to follow you in the first place is a confidence trick. So, every cult needs a leader who inspires that confidence – a leader who will embody and represent your theosophy.
In 1968, The Beatles dropped their Rickenbackers halfway through “Magical Mystery Tour” and went off to India. The chap who turned their heads? The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, leader of the Transcendental Meditation movement. The Maharishi’s wise, beardy appearance and softly spoken manner convinced the fab four and many of their famous friends that he was the real deal. When the Maharishi passed away he left behind a $2 billion fortune that he’d amassed through the movement.
There’s a sociological term for people who inspire this kind of confidence; “charismatic authority”. Coined by Karl Marx’s chum Max Weber, it applies to individuals who give the appearance of “supernatural or exceptional power”. In other words, it’s time to put on a white sheet and start practising some card tricks.
Have your own manual
Why are we here? What are we supposed to be doing with our lives? What happens next?
The major religions answer life’s big questions by giving their faithful a book of instructions. In Christianity it’s called the Bible. Judaism has the Tanakh. People who drive a Golf GTI have the Haynes Performance Manual (though, the section on ascending to heaven is missing from our copy). If you want to start your own fringe religion, you’ll need one too.
The manual is usually a collection of writings that have been assembled over a long period of time. Even Scientology’s core texts weren’t quite written overnight. You can still take some inspiration from Scientology figurehead L. Ron Hubbard though. He wrote and published the movement’s dozen key texts between 1948 and 1954 – each one the length of a novel. That’s a lot of typing.
Create a mythology
People have been asking “why are we here?” since language began, and no one has a definitive answer.
Religion fills the void with creation myths. In Judeo-Christian cultures, Jehovah whipped up a new world in just seven days, plonked Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and let nature take its course. Indigenous North American tribe the Lenape believe that the Earth was grown on the back of a giant turtle.
Are we telling you to come up with a creation myth? Not exactly. Most fringe religions or cults don’t really bother with brand new mythology, they just rewrite existing religious or scientific dogma to fit. For example, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, known as the “Unification Church” or “the Moonies”, broadly follows Christian doctrine. Except, they believe they’ll all be physically resurrected on judgement day – like an army of smiley zombies.
If none of the creation myths from the pantheon of world religion grabs you, perhaps your cult could borrow from science fiction? The Aetherius Society, for example, wants to prevent world destruction by forming spiritual bonds with extra-terrestrial lifeforms. The society’s founder, George King, claims to have received instructions to form the group telepathically. From Venus.
Follow the commandments
The bit you should really concentrate on in your manifesto are the rules. That’s where you answer the question “what are you supposed to do with your life?” – and it’s where all the fun of starting your own mini-religion lies.
Here are some rules we’d like to suggest you include in your manifesto:
- Be excellent to one another
- Say yes as often as you can
- Thou shalt not wear double denim
- If in doubt, party
- Most things are better with ice cream
A common thread in all religious doctrine is “put up with life being a bit rubbish now and things will be alright later” – even fringe religions. This philosophy, which boffins call “jam tomorrow”, is also suitable for application at cult level.
In common with many religions, bog-standard C of E offers life everlasting in heaven in exchange for a life of pious devotion. Buddhists have the promise of blissful enlightenment after a life spent sitting quietly thinking about nothingness.
In other words, if you follow the rules, there’ll be a reward at the end. How you implement this in your cult manifesto will depend on whether you’re a benign leader or an evil despot drunk on power. We hope you’re the former because we’ve thought of a way you can guarantee salvation, every time.
Tell your cult members that living an interesting life is the reward. It’s a reward that has the virtue of being very easy to deliver too, unlike the promise of 72 virgin brides or reincarnation as a butterfly.
Every cult or whacky fringe movement has its own symbols and iconography – and so must yours. Think of it as branding. Hari Krishna has orange robes and chanting. Scientology, cheekily, has an eight pointed cross. In Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”, followers took off one of their shoes and held it high. But that was all a horrible mistake…
Your cult could adopt a dress code, make up its own rituals or have its own logo. It should probably have all three. Whatever you choose, it should help followers identify with the cause and with each other. A sense of belonging is a powerful thing.
Once your mythology, manifesto and iconography are in place, all you need are followers. New religious movements have to recruit a bit more aggressively than mainstream theologies though. Catholicism has had over had over 2000 years to spread virally, with 1.2 billion believers reported in 2012. That’s more than have seen “Charlie bit my finger” on YouTube.
You could take a leaf from the book of militant Christian offshoot The Jesus Army, famous in the 80s for riding into town wearing camouflage jackets on brightly painted double decker buses. They hit the streets, dancing and singing, to recruit people to the Jesus Fellowship Church, a commune-loving evangelical sect popular among youthful happy clappers.
Scientology takes to the streets too, offering potentials the chance to take a personality test in one of its many Life Improvement Centres. And when you’ve recruited to your cause, send your new recruits out to recruit more! It works for the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Monetise and repeat
Money makes the world go around and without it your new religious movement would have a very short life. The Church of England shows how longevity can work in your favour, currently sitting on £4.4 billion in investments and assets amassed over 1400 years. It spends £1000 million every year, three quarters of which is donated by “worshippers and parishioners”.
But even the most modest of fringe religions needs an injection of cash to keep ticking over. The Church of the Sub-Genius was established in the 1970s as a joke. Over the years, it has adopted the characteristics of a bona fide cult. You can become an ordained minister for the bargain price of $30 – and use your new title to ensure worshippers stick to the second commandment; “purchase products that are sold by the Church”.
Have you followed all our steps? Congratulations – you can now start your own cult. But before you go, we’d like to talk to you for a moment about our pamphlet…