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Make your own Religion

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Elements forming a good religious meme

Religions have often been referred to as "memes". A meme is a self-reproducing idea, that spreads from one mind to another. A mind-virus is a common description, although a meme is an abstract concept rather than a physical, tangible entity like a biological virus. Playground crazes are memes, such as the current craze in the UK for Yo-yos. Someone sees somebody else using a Yo-yo, thinks it looks like fun, and get a Yo-yo themself, only to be seen by yet another person who has a similar reaction. The meme "Yo-yos are fun, go and buy one" spreads rapidly through the population of schoolkids. Memes like this, however, tend to die out fairly rapidly (and reappear sporadically years or decades later). They just don't have the staying-power of religions.

Many religions propagate themselves very efficiently through a population, and can last for many centuries before evolving into something else or being replaced by a stronger, more effective religion. This does not mean that a particular religion has any more truth than the one it supercedes, just that it is better at "infecting" a mind and spreading itself to other minds.

There seem to be some elements that most religion-memes have in common that enable them to survive and reproduce. So, here is a Create Your Own Religion Manual. Most of the worlds major religions include some or all of these attributes. (If the worlds Yo-yo manufacturers want to get really rich, they should either try to have Yo-yos adopted by a strong religion, or create a religion based around Yo-yos using the following guidelines.)

Self reproduction

Obviously, this is the most important part of the meme. If your beliefs do not spread, they will die pretty quickly. Getting others to believe is vitally important, and many of the other elements are used to help this one.

It is good to tell others about this belief. Not only will it make them better people, but converting others helps justify the belief. If you have children, it is good to make them also follow this belief. Children are a blessing from God, and will also believe absolutely anything you tell them.

It can take a lot of work to convert some people, but it is always worth the effort as you are doing them good. Failing to spread the good news is a sin.

Example : the Roman Catholic church uses this to great effect, intentionally or not. The doctrinal bans on contraception and abortion ensure that as many babies as possible are born into religious families, and those babies will be brought up to share the same beliefs as their parents.


Believing is good. It will make you a better person, and you will be rewarded in this life and the next. Good things that happen to you are blessings from God, and you should be grateful for them. Other good things should be seen as justification of the truth of the belief system and of God's approval of your actions. Anything positive that happens that does not have much to do with the belief can be claimed as a Miracle. Good harvests, childbirth, battles won, money donated etc. may all be seen as miracles, showing that God approves of you. Sayings such as "God helps those who help themselves" help reinforce this.

Faith as a virtue

Belief without evidence is good. It is a sign of virtue, purity, trust and piety. In fact, if something is particularly hard to believe in, you require much stronger faith to accept it and are therefore a more virtuous person as a result. Belief despite contradictory objective evidence is especially good. Those who have trouble accepting seemingly arbitrary and implausible things are doubters, skeptics and unenlightened. They should take lessons from those of stronger faith who have no trouble believing.


"And the Son of God died, which is immediately credible because it is absurd. And buried he rose again, which is certain because it is impossible." - Tertullian, 2nd century christian

I've also heard (but not confirmed) that the Jewish Kosher rules work in a similar way - they are (seemingly) arbitrary, complicated, difficult to implement and hard to follow, so it requires considerable strength of faith to keep to a completely kosher diet.


Include many rituals and ceremonies that happen at regular intervals throughout the year. Eventually, these may be incorporated into the local traditions. They also provide a focal point for believers to concentrate on one particular aspect of the belief. Also, it can be good to include rituals which are expected to be performed at key stages of follower's lives. Birth/naming rituals, coming of age, weddings and funerals can all be given a religious aspect (and many will also become local traditions).

Almost anything positive can be attributed to God, and anything bad can be explained as being "mysterious", thus helping people understand that God is behind everything and even things which look bad might actually be good, if only we could understand it from God's point of view. Which, of course, we never can so we'll just have to trust God, won't we?


Failure to believe is bad. It makes you a bad person, and you will be punished in this life and the next. Note: helping non-believers to start believing is good, as it obviously means they will no longer deserve to be punished. Informing non-believers of the available punishments can help to convince them to believe (if you assume that threats of eternal torment are going to be plausible to someone who doesn't actually believe in an afterlife, and you deflect those awkward questions about why a loving god would want to see someone tortured forever).

Bad things that happen to you may be either

A blessing from God, in order to strengthen your faith. You just have to understand the message.

Punishment from God, for your sin.

Attacks from the Devil, to attempt to turn you from God. You must strengthen your faith.

Remember - nothing, absolutely nothing, happens for no reason.

Self defence

Many non-believers will laugh at your beliefs or persecute you because of them. This is a sign that your beliefs are in fact True. The non-believers are trying to destroy your faith because they know that this is so. Only those who share your beliefs are good people. Converting others to your beliefs increases the number of good people and reduces the number of bad people. People who leave the group are bad and should be avoided if they refuse to come back. For some people, the name "religion" is not satisfactory as it lumps your true beliefs with the false beliefs of other religions. Try using "relationship" or "reality" instead (e.g. "Don't make the mistake of calling Christianity a religion - it's reality").

You must also defend against attack from within. Encouraging belief in Mysterious Divine Purpose is useful for this, as are the following:

Expelling doubters from the group. If they are no longer around, no-one will hear their arguments. Killing them is often not actually necessary, and even if the voices in your head tell you it's okay, remember that the godless government will likely frown on such activity.

Claim that doubts are sent by the Devil (or as a test by God), and must be overcome. See Faith, above.

Encourage people to accept the teachings of those who are qualified to interpret the message. (See Scriptural Interpretation below).

Replies such as "It's a mystery", "We are not meant to know these things", "God works in mysterious ways", "Do not question these teachings", and "Oh, so you think you know better than God, do you?" are all good for deflecting tricky questions.

Revelations from Above allow you to adapt the beliefs to changing circumstances. For instance, maybe you're bigotted and don't like people from a certain minority group, but eventually your congregration expands so much that many of those people wish to join, and outsiders are making irrational claims about "racism" and "discrimination". What to do? Simple, have a Revelation that allows people from the minority to join (possibly with some small restrictions). This makes your movement appear to be more friendly, open-minded, and will keep the police out of your hair for a while longer.

Example : A Jehovah's Witness I once knew, when discussing evolution and creationism, told me that she had been warned to watch out for the particular bemused, incredulous smile that I was unable to keep off my face. The fact that I was amused by her beliefs reinforced her view that they were correct, as she had been told this would happen when discussing them.

Self righteousness

God is your side. Believers are God's chosen people, and only those who believe will go into paradise. Things done in the name of God are, by definition, virtuous and just. God shares your feelings and what others call prejudices - this is how you know that you are right.

(This can lead to some of the most extreme problems with religious belief. A tiny minority of people who sincerely believe they are doing God's work see no problem in breaking "worldly" laws, as they answer only to a higher power - God himself. If you perceive governments and law enforcement agencies as tools of the devil, it makes it much easier to justify acts of violence against your "enemies")

Scriptural interpretation

The holy words are mysterious, and cannot be correctly read by just anyone. They must be interpreted by a person who is trained, enlightened or gifted in these matters. A passage that appears to mean one thing, may actually mean something quite different, and only the interpreters can glean the correct meaning. These people can also determine which passages are literal truth, metaphorical, no longer relevant and which one of several contradictory passages is the true one. They must be listened to. Questioning official interpretation is the work of a heretic.


If the believers are encouraged to donate generously to the cause, this will help to spread it further. It will help pay for missionaries to travel to far-off lands, and local concerns such as soup-kitchens and other charities. If your temples are dripping with gold and silver, they are far more impressive to the poverty stricken locals who are lucky to have a handful of buttons to eat. Some religious leaders make the mistake of blowing their loot on fleets of Rolls-Royces - sometimes you can get away with this, but more often than not it can spell the end for your meme as people become disillusioned. Far better to spend the money on enormous Holy buildings throughout the land if you want the meme to continue for centuries.

People who have invested heavily in their religion are more likely to want to think of it as The One True Religion, so associating donations with piety, virtue and morality can only help the meme to survive. Giving to the poor is also good, as it improves your standing in the local community, and makes the poor people perceive the believers as good, kind people, and might encourage them to join up.

If the meme deals with revenue generation well enough, most followers will donate purely altruistically, and anyone who questions their motives will be rightly singled out as a cynic. Of course, the cash will still come flooding in.

Wide coverage

The beliefs should be reasonably vague and ambiguous, to allow as many people as possible to find something in them that is acceptable. If you restrict the meme to a strict, clear definition it will never get very widespread. It needs to include elements which range from very touchy-feely, liberal to extremely hard-line, no compromise positions. This allows some people to perceive the belief as nice, gentle and uplifting but also allows room for those with extremist outlooks. You want to get everyone from tree-hugging hippies to crazed paranoid gunmen.

Preferably, as many possible points of view should be catered for, even those that appear to contradict one another. People can then refer to other members of the belief as "not real believers, not like us". It should be as inclusive as possible, while allowing all included groups to feel that it excludes all the other ones.

Now, all we need to do is work out how to include all the above into Atheism and Humanism. =)

© Adrian Barnett 1999

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