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Science and faiths

How to build a religion

FANCY founding a religion? Keen to reform a flagging faith? Here a few tips on how to attract and retain followers, thus ensuring that your gospel spreads far and wide, affording spiritual solace to as many souls as possible. 

At the outset, you must realise that success is unlikely if you go wholly against the grain of human nature. Granted, religion is all about forging the perfect man, or at least ensuring that, as far as possible, he lives up to divine expectations. But preternatural power has forged man in such a way that he will swallow some of your ideas about how to achieve this more easily than others.

By stressing the right ones, then, you can do to give a fillip to the painstaking process of perfecting mankind. This is what some temporal powers have been doing of late, when trying to nudge their citizens towards individual choices which are more socially desirable, with notable success. You can do the same. This will, however, require that you rein in your dislike for a moment and listen to what those ungodly scientists have to say, despite their unremitting efforts to explain away the need for your enterprise. 

As in the case of states, your principal concern is to encourage co-operation among your flock. In the long run, groups that co-operate more have an advantage over those whose members are less willing to do so. This also means limiting the number of actual and potential shirkers. People, it seems, are naturally inclined to do this anyway, but you can egg them on with a few simple tricks.

First, you are better off plumping for a personal god, rather than some sort of indeterminate life force. Research shows that people who profess a belief in such a deity judge moral transgressions more harshly, which in turn tends to make them more willing to abide by the rules, and expend resources on enforcing them. This may be down to a conviction that they are being incessantly watched over by an attentive minder, who tallies their contributions (or lack thereof) and rewards (or punishments) in a cosmic ledger. Speaking of which, incorporating the idea of just deserts is a fine plan, too. Apparently, people are born with an intuition to that effect. Just remember to keep the misfortunes visited on wrongdoers commensurate with their misdeeds. Otherwise people will think it unfair and won't buy it. No fire and brimstone for littering, and suchlike.

A corollary of all this concerns symbolism. Here, you would be wise to ensure plenty of eyes. (Obviously not too many; you don’t want followers to grow too anxious and, heaven forbid, rebel.) Even subtle cues of that sort enhance co-operation. This could be because people subconsciously attribute the gaze to a supernatural sentinel, or to other people—human beings are loth to show an unwillingness to co-operate in the presence of others, too. Either way works for you. Incidentally, the secular state seems to have grasped this long ago, issuing banknotes whence historical figures (or, indeed, the all-seeing eye) incessantly stare at consumers and merchants. 

However, such gentle nudges will only go so far. Sometimes, you need to be a bit more hands on. This is especially poignant in your selection of rituals. Certain constraints on human thought processes mean that you are faced with a choice between reliance on rare but traumatic experiences, like some gruesome Aboriginal initiation rites, on the one hand, and frequent, repetitive teachings, on the other.

Each has merit. Traumatic experiences ensure vivid recollection of everything connected to them, including the identity of the participants. Clearly, they must be rare-cause people too much physical and psychological grief and they will demur. If you don’t overdo it, though, such events will create a strong bond within the group, whose members will, as a result, go so far as to lay down their lives for a fellow group member—collaboration doesn’t get any closer than that. (Little wonder that army special forces and rebel groups use similarly onerous rites of passage.) 

Alas, the obverse of this is an almost automatic animosity towards all outsiders. So, if growing in numbers is your thing, you should probably plump for doctrine rather than trauma. Abstract teachings are, however, less firmly etched into participants’ minds. As such, the rituals will need to be repeated more frequently, constantly reinforcing the memories. This has the added bonus of making explicit your official interpretation of the faith. In the case of traumatic rituals, each person has a rich interpretation of the seemingly pointless terror they had to endure. Their bond is further strengthened because of the belief, probably mistaken, that all the others construe it in precisely the same way. Taboos are put in place to ensure they don’t share their divergent thoughts out loud—that would, after all, bode ill for unity.

However, as the ranks of your congregation swell, such proscriptions become progressively harder to enforce. So, orthodoxy needs to be spelled out to limit the scope for doctrinal dissent. The rub is that followers may easily weary of repetition. You will need to strike a balance between being a dull doctrinaire and allowing too much interpretative freedom, with wayward schismatics stirring up trouble. 

One way to mitigate this threat is to introduce occasional rites which are exciting and memorable, but in a positive way. Since euphoric experiences are less readily recalled than traumatic ones, these will need to be repeated every now and again (though not too often, for the spectre of interpretative freedom looms). Those dreaded scientists claim that once a year is about right. Another option is to let small groups get on with their thing, as the Catholic church does with the grisly re-enactments of the passion of Christ in the Philippines, complete with nails and crosses. Such rites inject new vim into the congregation as a whole, and keep the possible splittists happy.

Mind you, all the aforementioned advice will work only if you are truly committed to spreading the word, and prepared to settle in it for the long haul. Those pseudo-religious cults preying on human gullibility by promising fast-track salvation may prosper in the short run—at least their founders might. But as with any Ponzi scheme, they will one day tumble; there are only so many naïfs around.

A religion like yours, on the other hand, harnessing mankind’s deep-seated proclivities, will continue to thrive indefinitely—or for until human nature undergoes considerable change, which is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. You, or strictly speaking your science-minded posterity, shall inherit the Earth.

                    , the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
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