New religion?
July 10, 2006 10:00 PM   Subscribe

How would an emerging idea be recognized as a religion?

I'm just wondering how religions come to be, if it just takes a lot of people for it to be classified as one. I've tried to use the "It's against my religion to answer this question" excuse when I was in middle school, jokingly of course (but still wanting it to work), but what would it take for a new religion to develope into something that WOULD affect schools. (Not in the get-out-of-doing-homework way, but more in this new Intelligent Design-taught-in-schools-along-with-Evolution-because-its-a-theory-too way.)
posted by lain to Religion & Philosophy (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Well Scientologists were picketing schools in Florida over psychiatric medications last winter and I think that "religion" was invented in the 60s. So, 30 years?
posted by fshgrl at 10:29 PM on July 10, 2006

Response by poster: "Invented"? So if one proclaims an idea to be a religion, it is?
posted by lain at 11:12 PM on July 10, 2006

I would say it takes having a lot of followers/believers.
posted by Orb at 12:07 AM on July 11, 2006

"A lot" generally being the distinguishing factor between "religion" and "cult". Also, the more "spiritual" you are helps your case for the former; the more "militant" you are hurts it and might get you a visit from the FBI. If you can schism a decent segment off another church, you get bonus credibility, but it depends on why you schismed. Also, I think the closer your beliefs are to "real" churches helps, because it seems less ridiculous to people. (Cf. flying spaghetti monsterism.) While that was, of course, meant as parody, I think anthropomorphic deities get the most respect, with anything that sounds like "little green men" at the other end.

But the bottom line: Sell enough (well-known) people on it and it's hard for people not to at least recognize your existence. Scientology is the case study.
posted by SuperNova at 12:14 AM on July 11, 2006

How would an emerging idea be recognized as a religion? I'm just wondering how religions come to be, if it just takes a lot of people for it to be classified as one.

Miracles. You have to convince people through direct demonstration or word of mouth that your religion works outside the laws of nature, supernaturally, and that these miracles work for the benefit of believers, not for just anybody. That's the hook that makes a religion. If your system is just rational ideas, it is not a religion, it is at most a philosophy, and philosophies don't rescue people from death and oblivion.
posted by pracowity at 12:45 AM on July 11, 2006

Getting shills to be "healed" seems to convince a certain level of believers.
I think Scientology openly declared itself a religion in order to evade taxes; any body have any data on this?
posted by Cranberry at 12:56 AM on July 11, 2006

Cluts are religions. (they are a subset of religions). As far as affecting schools? Well, if you have enough people and enough of a concentration of people that you can control the school boards, then there you go.
posted by delmoi at 1:17 AM on July 11, 2006

I am not a scholar (or even half-way informed), but...

Religion seems to be something that develops out of a striking philosophical idea, that would usually stem from a particular individual with a novel spiritual, psychological and/or social critique and methodology who inspires a devoted following during his lifetime and (quite importantly), is developed as a substitute for the influence of that individual.

While the Buddha was alive, there was no Buddhism - after he died there was a movement among his followers to codify and systematize his teachings, to preserve them and also to create a structure within which any "Buddhist" statement could be verified.

Similarly, the end of the Bible is about the initial organisation of the Christians after the death of Jesus.

Again, one might see the same thing in the Old Testament with Moses. It might be possible for a braver and more informed person than I to suggest that it also applies to Osiris and Zeus. Or Marx and Freud.

Another thing to be noticed is the way that the edifice of the religion exists in a way that often contradicts the original teachings (I'm fairly sure that Jesus never said anything about going round setting fire to people who disagree with you, and indeed he's not reported to have an opinion one way or the other on homosexuality; on the other hand he's explicitly against banking, judgementalism and the public expression of piety) or without reference to them (for example a religious structure that demands repeated chanting of texts without any need to understand them, like some of the schools of Buddhism).

I'd quite like to join a clut, though.
posted by Grangousier at 2:03 AM on July 11, 2006

Actually the very end of the Bible is a bunch of bonkers 'shroom-inspired hallucinations. I was talking about the Acts, the Epistles and so forth.
posted by Grangousier at 2:04 AM on July 11, 2006

I think a more interesting case than the Scientologists would be the recent campaign in the UK to get people to write "Jedi" as their religion on the census form.

There was a mistaken belief that if enough people did this, it would become an "official" religion.

It didn't, of course, but I just bet there's some official Combined Religious Council Of Great Britain with priests and ministers and llamas and imams on it which actually does advise Parliament on what the "official" religions of the UK are.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:52 AM on July 11, 2006

No 'mistaken' about it dear chap ;) - "Official" - Guess it might be down to definitions;

" It's official: "Jedi Knight" is ON the list of religions for the 2001 UK census.

A campaign to get people to write the entry on their census forms has succeeded in the term being included on the list of religions, alongside Church of England, Roman Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu." : [BBC]
posted by DrtyBlvd at 3:06 AM on July 11, 2006

Ack - Half quoted did I:

" 'But officials from the Office of National Statistics are keen to point out that just because Jedi Knight has been given its own code, that does not confer on it the status of official recognition' - "We are not defining what a religion or a faith might be," a spokeswoman said. "We are recognising what some may have entered on their census form and ensuring that our coding framework will cater for it."has succeeded in the term being included on the list of religions, alongside Church of England, Roman Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu." : [BBC]
posted by DrtyBlvd at 3:18 AM on July 11, 2006

Religions differ from other belief systems in that they tend to be mystical, traditional and all-encompassing (they have an opinion about everything). However, the distinction between religions and philosophies is essentially a social construct of our times, established to afford special privileges to people who so vehemently demand them: the social acceptability of indoctrinating the young, the right to break the law in certain circumstances (think Native American peyote use). This is just one of those logical loopholes that keep our our legal and social systems ticking over.
No-one wants the loophole getting larger though, so new religions are treated with great suspicion and labelled cults. But a religion is a religion if it's called one, and it will be recognised as such if enough people do so.
Gather your followers and await immortality.
posted by greytape at 4:08 AM on July 11, 2006

I had a friend who was once in that rather infamous cult up in Oregon, whatever it was... can't think of it. We talked about it a couple of times. She said something that I continue to think is a very wise observation:

"A religion is a cult with political power."
posted by Malor at 4:32 AM on July 11, 2006

Best answer: In the US, because we have laws about religions and whether you get tax exempt status, there are some legal definitions of what it means to be a "real" religion. As with many semantic nuances, this may be different from whether your followers think your beliefs are a religion or whether, say, the prison industry does. Many of the specifics actually get worked out in courts of law when, for example, prisoners sue for their right to freely practice religion, or people sue public schools for their rights to be free from religions.

When I was doing research into the rights of prisoners (a while ago) for a paper on prison libraries, there was a pretty solid checklist of what your religion had to have to even be considered a religion for the purposes of being able to freely practice it in the prisons. Certain hurdles for this test included having a creation myth, some sort of codified set of religious texts and I'm not sure what else. At issue in the case I was reading was whether the MOVE folks in the Africa family in Pennsylvania were part of a bona fide religion or just some sort of cult.

If you go to this web site and scroll down to "what is a religion" you'll see a number of Supreme Court cases that have talked about this. I also feel that the Religious Tolerance website is a good even-handed resource for further exploration of some of these questions.
posted by jessamyn at 7:00 AM on July 11, 2006

Well, Scientology had a best-selling book. That's probably a good place to start, these days.
posted by dagnyscott at 7:39 AM on July 11, 2006

Before something is qualified as a religion, it's considered a "new religious movement" or NRM (list of NRMs). Esalen followers might fit this qualification today. Check out this book called New Religious Movements.
posted by mattbucher at 8:02 AM on July 11, 2006

New Religious Movements.
posted by mattbucher at 8:03 AM on July 11, 2006

> "A lot" generally being the distinguishing factor between "religion" and "cult".

My personal favorite definition, due I believe to Robert Heinlein, is that a religion is something you're born into, and a cult is something you join -- or, more properly, a religion is something *the majority* of adherents were born into, from the global view.
posted by baylink at 8:18 AM on July 11, 2006

Check out A Piece of Blue Sky. Scientology began as pop psychology mixed with a little bit of Oriental mysticism and Aleister Crowley magick. The religion was created to address two issues: one philosophical and one legal. Adherents to Hubbards technology believe that all your bad traits are from past traumas. To advance, one needs to clear the traumas. Problem #1: what happens when one runs out of traumas. Answer: Find more! The "religion" was born out of Hubbard's proclamation that once you cleared this life's past traumas, you had to clear out traumas from past lives. Problem #2: what happens when one starts making so much money that the IRS wants a cut? Answer: past lives = religion, which mean you get to keep your money.
posted by GarageWine at 11:14 AM on July 11, 2006

I think it was George Carlin who said "The difference between a cult and a religion is about 100 years."
posted by jeversol at 11:04 AM on July 12, 2006

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