Volume 28, Number 1

How to Build a Successful Religion:
A Fable for the Fallible


Richard Harkness

(Picture a group of backroom power-brokers wheeling and dealing.)

It's a way to throw a bone to the restive masses. The best method yet devised to keep them content and controlled.

We'll need a God, of course.

An infallible God.

Yes, that's been the tradition.

And a Holy Book.

Why not just a tract? It's shorter and easier to produce.

We can't scrimp here. We need something weighty with import.

But a book could take forever to write.

Not if we put lots of writers to work—each one writing a section or so.

The key will be getting people to accept what they write as fact.

We could say that God Himself dictated it to the writers.

You mean that God stood over their shoulders and spoke it word-for-word while they transcribed it?

Why not? God is omnipotent. He wouldn't have to be standing over them. He could just speak to them internally.

They would hear His words in their hearts, you mean?

It could be interpreted that way.

That's pretty vague.

That, my friend, is exactly the idea. It leaves plenty of wiggle room.

Hold on—there might be a problem with the God-dictated-it idea.

How's that?

Humans are fallible—they make mistakes.


What if our writers make mistakes, write something that is patently not true? If readers start pointing out errors in the text …

Oh, I see what you mean. Errors found in a Holy Book claimed to be the infallible, inerrant Word of God. How to reconcile that?

That's why vagueness is our ally.

Instead of dictated, why not say the words were inspired by God?

Yes. Inspired works much better. Hard to pin down. Neither here nor there.

Vagueness is good. It lets people imagine whatever they wish. Different people will imagine different things. Everyone gets to have their own personal truth. Apart from actual reality. They'll love that.

We also need to focus on divorcing followers from the real world. Keep them enmeshed in the dogma of doctrine.

Suppress knowledge-seeking outside of God's Word. Frame it as taboo. Convince them that all they really need to know is in the Book.

Keep them generally incurious. And foment distrust of scientific findings, some of which are sure to clash with doctrine.

Make sure they understand that disobeying doctrine is a sin.

Let's get back to God. We would say that He created the Heavens and the Earth.

In keeping with our vagueness theme, should we omit how He did it?

No. People would expect to be told that. But let's be very vague about it.

How about simply saying that He spoke everything into existence?

God spoke and stuff just popped into existence? It's certainly vague enough, but could we really sell that?

Well, like all major Gods, He's a supernatural being with unlimited powers. We'd say He works in mysterious ways. Beyond all human understanding. People are inclined to believe in the magical, so it shouldn't be a hard sell.

Besides, we can't recruit everyone. There will always be stragglers who resist abandoning human reason. It's harder to seduce those who keep their feet firmly planted on good ol' terra firma. We're going after the lowest-hanging fruit. Once we gain enough adherents, the doubters will be marginalized.

So how do we get people to join the flock?

Humans are easily herded—they follow the crowd. Open the spigot, start the flow, and they join in en masse. There's an innate desire to belong to a tribe—a group of like-thinkers with like goals. We're satisfying ancient, brain-based human needs. Get them invested in a belief system and we've got them for life.

We need specifics.

People love to be against something. We'll give them a common enemy. That will rile and rally them, strengthen the group bond.

An enemy of God, you mean?

Yes. Successful fables have both a hero and a villain. Our villain should be almost as powerful as God. To make the struggle appear cosmic.

What should we call this super-enemy?

How about the Devil?

Fiendishly diabolical! The word evil with a D in front of it.

Wait—the Devil idea could spring a leak. Think about it. God created everything that exists, including the Devil, right? And since God is omniscient—all-knowing—He knows beforehand how the Devil will turn out. So why does He choose to create an arch-enemy that would wreak havoc and misery over his creation?

That is a problem. Makes God look either vindictive or not very sharp. We'd better give up the Devil idea.

No, we need the Devil. It's essential that God have a powerful enemy. Good versus Evil is the classic theme of storytelling.

Agreed. The Devil could also serve as the fall guy for evil in the world. Give God an out whenever really bad things happen. That way, rather than question why God would allow this or that tragedy to happen, the faithful could blame the Devil or Devil-inspired sin.

Otherwise we'd be stuck with simplistic bromides like God works in mysterious ways or We cannot know God's plan, only He knows. People might get wise to that.

So we keep the Devil. And our fingers crossed that the contradiction is overlooked.

If we play it right, followers will either avoid thinking about it or rationalize it away. That's human nature.

If only we could remove human reasoning from the equation.

No need to remove it. Just fake and do an end run around it. Emotion always beats reason out the gate, and folks rarely wait for reason to catch up.

Here's an idea. Let's decree the substitution of blind belief for reason. Say that thinking rationally about religion is a sign of too little faith.

But can we really expect people to accept the Word without evidence?

It's absolutely essential that they be convinced to do that. We can't have people insisting on evidence. Next they might demand proof. That could flick apart the whole house of cards.

If only we could make people forget about the importance of facts.

Yes. The trick might be figuring out how to elevate believing over knowing. Get people to think that believing is better than actually knowing.

That's a long shot. Who's that foolish?

Is there a better term than blind belief? Perhaps a gussied-up term that sounds better?

How about using faith in place of blind belief?

Yes, faith is much more palatable.

What's to be done about people who ask for evidence—rather than accepting the doctrine by faith alone?

We'd saddle them with guilt. And the faithful would help by bullying balkers to fall in line. We could also scare them with terms like blasphemy.

And apostasy … heresy … sacrilege.

Good, but we need to raise the scare-stakes higher than that.

What about having a prison where God sends non-believers and sinners for punishment?

Where would this place be located?

God only knows.

What would it be like?

How about filling it with fire and brimstone? Transgressors would be banished there till they repent.

The stakes need to be still higher. The banished should have to spend all eternity there.

Eternal damnation. Make it a hellish place deep within the earth. So let's call it Hell. It would be the Devil's domain.

All transgressors would go straight to Hell upon their deaths. Burn in fiery torment for eternity. Believers would relish knowing that sinners get their just deserts.

That could work. Especially if we sweeten the pot with the right kind of carrot. A special reward, maybe, for true believers.

Can anybody think of a really good final convincer?

Why not link faith to salvation? An afterlife. True believers get to live on after death. Have everlasting life in a blissful place we could call Heaven. It would be God's domain.

By anointing faith as the ticket to Heaven, we make it easy. No real work required. That would have mass appeal.

And promising an afterlife provides hope. We can stick it to them in this life and they will continue slogging onward to claim the grand reward—a Hereafter where all earthly wrongs will be set right.

A vague, ever-after paradise awaits the faithful. Reasonable doubters need not apply. Brilliant idea. How did you come up with it?

It struck me as an unbeatable business model: There would be no angry customers clamoring for their money back after the promised product was not delivered.

(Chuckles abound.)

This really tightens the screws. People must choose between everlasting life and eternal punishment decreed by a God who chooses to remain hidden. It seems foolproof.

Now all we do is downplay the value of earthly life. Frame it as merely a dress rehearsal for the afterlife to come.

Yes. Maybe tell them to be in the world, but not of the world.

That makes no sense.

Does sense really matter at this point?

Wow! The vagueness level is through the roof. Just what we wanted.

(Everyone agrees the plan is brilliant, with back-slapping all around.)

Not to rain on the party, but I'm a bit wary. Beliefs can be combustible, and we're essentially creating religious robots. Could putting the power of distorted belief in the hands of the masses—some of them unbalanced to begin with—come back to bite us?

Like Frankenstein's monster, you mean? We're sitting atop the pyramid. What could go wrong?

Just one more concern. Doesn't all this smack of man-made contrivance? Can we really pull it off?

(With a wink) Just have faith. And never underestimate human gullibility.


The plan is focus-grouped among the local populace prior to its rollout from sea to sea. To the amazement—and delight—of its promoters, people snap it up in droves—hook, line, and sinker. Over time, with clever marketing and trial-and-error tweaks, a cult bloats into a religion.

Similar plans jell around the world, each with a different God and Word that must not be questioned by the faithful. The particular plan one follows depends primarily on one's geographic birthplace. Houses of worship spring up on every corner. Hierarchies of powerful clerics declare that they speak for God. Different sects within each plan split off, each spit-shining its own version of the dogma to draw more followers.

It turns out that adherence to religious dogma makes it impossible for believers to be tolerant or non-judgmental. As a consequence, cultures with rival plans clash, each cocksure that theirs is the one true God. Holy wars ensue.

A logician might ask which of the following scenarios is most probable: That only one true God exists, that two or more true Gods exist, or that no true God exists at all?

A philosopher might say: Each human life exists but an eye-blink in cosmic time, its preciousness directly related to its brevity. Treat others as you would like to be treated during this life, the only one we know we have.