How do Religions Develop?

John Dehlin Understanding Mormonism 5 Comments

Q: Dear John – How do religions develop?

A: In my opinion, many (most?) world religions seem to fit a similar formation pattern:

  • The human condition: As humans, we have brains capable of complex thoughts, emotions, relationships, etc.  The birthplace of religion (in my view) begins with our feeling lonely and afraid/vulnerable, worrying about our safety and the safety of family and friends, wondering about the meaning and purpose of life, seeking identity and a moral code to live by, wondering what happens when we and others we love die, etc.
  • Charismatic leader with teachings from “God”:  As we experience strong negative emotions regarding the uncertainties and difficulties of life (e.g., sadness, fear, uncertainty), we become ripe for a “prophet” to enter the picture, who is willing both to claim a divine connection, and to offer comforting answers to these vexing questions.  In an ironic reality, we create our prophets by expressing our primal needs.  Prophets simply tell us what we want to hear (e.g., “You will live forever!  When you die you will go to a wonderful place with all your loved ones!”) – and we are eager to believe what they tell us.  As we signal these needs outwardly, an observant, charismatic leader emerges (e.g., Moses, Mohammad, Joseph Smith) claiming to have direct, privileged access to God, and/or divine powers – with answers to all of these questions and core needs.  Since we are not able to speak directly with God, nor do we have divine powers, and since we are likely suffering in our lives and starving for answers to life’s most vexing questions – we become eager to believe what the “prophet” tells us.  An example of what these prophets teach us includes: how to avoid pain and suffering, how to find happiness and joy, how to raise a happy/healthy family, what the purpose of life is, what happens when you die, how to see your loved ones again after death, etc.  Because people are generally starving for these sorts of answers, and because they do not feel equipped to answer these questions themselves, they are eager to believe what they are told by the new prophet, and to follow him (and it’s almost always a “him”).  Over time, the prophet bec omes (in effect) more important and venerated than “God” in the day-to-day lives of the members.
  • Heavy reliance on powerful, positive emotional experiences: Another key ingredient in the development of religion is the heavy usage of powerful, positive emotional experiences to “convert” and maintain followers.  While the prophet’s teachings can often intrigue an “investigator” (as bait on a hook), the “hook” into deep religious devotion is powerful emotional experiences in association with the religion.  Examples can include: powerful, charismatic sermons by the prophet and/or his deputies, emotionally arousing music/choirs, heavy reliance on meditation (a proven source of positive emotion), a warm, welcoming community of members (i.e., feels like a commune of love), social activities that lead to close friendships and/or romantic relationships with other members, individual counseling that invokes strong emotion, the use of highly inspirational stories, claims of miracles, strict behavioral guidelines that lead to increased health and happiness (increasing positive emotions), etc.  As investigators and members experience positive emotion in association with the religion, they are taught that these emotions are a “sign from God” that the religion us true.  These emotions (and ultimately NOT the teachings or the leadership, per se) become the primary binding force between the religion and its members.
  • Rituals: Religious rituals are formed by the prophet (e.g., animal sacrifice, passover feast, baptism, confirmation, prayer, meditation, church and temple attendance, singing, sermons, sacrament/communion, blessings of healing) to initiate the members into the organization, and to provide them with regular religious activities they can perform, often in group settings, to affirm and reaffirm commitment to the religion, to generate positive emotions, and to build group cohesion.  It is important to note that many (most?) of these rituals are co-opted from extant religions and social structures (e.g., pagan holidays => Easter and Christmas, pagan animal sacrifices => teachings and rituals about atonement, Masonic lodge ceremony => Mormon temple ceremony).  Key life moments such as birth, puberty, marriage, and death are enshrined with religious significance, and become tightly controlled by the religious leaders as additional means to strengthen religious commitment.
  • Behavioral standards: As vulnerable people generally seek moral guidance and increased happiness, behavioral standards are “revealed” by the prophet.  These often include standards of dress (e.g. modesty, sacred clothing), sexual morality (e.g., no masturbation, no extra-marital sex), food (e.g., kosher, Word of Wisdom), financial support of the prophet/religion (e.g., tithing, law of consecration, communes), and religious observance (e.g., pray, read scriptures, attend weekly church or temple).  Although many of these behavioral standards represent either common sense, or basic requirements for an orderly society (e.g., be honest, don’t steal, don’t kill, be faithful to spouse and family so that children can develop in a healthy home, don’t eat pigs that could have diseases, don’t drink too much alcohol or become addicted to drugs because it could harm you or your loved ones, don’t be sexually reckless or you could have unwanted pregnancies and get STI’s, etc.) — for a person who is highly vulnerable or someone lost in life (see the life of Malcolm X), these behavioral guidelines can become a literal lifeline.  Occasionally these behavioral standards are excessive or unrealistic (e.g., do not masturbate, do not have pre-marital sex, do not eat meat, do not have impure thoughts, do not be gay) – and as guilt/shame begins to arise within those who cannot obey these rules, the religion presents itself as the “cure” (via confession, repentance, atonement, etc.).  Consequently, many members fall into a cycle of shame/guilt/unworthiness/repentance – which can serve to bind them more to the religion.  In short, religion (intentionally or unintentionally) creates the “illness,” then presents itself as the “cure.”
  • Exceptionalism: Followers of the prophet are usually told that they are God’s “chosen” or “elect” people — which makes them feel superior to others who do not follow the same prophet.  Humans have a core need to feel “special,” so this is a crucial ingredient to group cohesion and devotion.
  • Scripture: Over time, the “prophet” (and/or his followers) begins to write down these teachings, rituals, behavioral standards, etc., and “scripture” develops (e.g., Old Testament, New Testament, Koran, Book of Mormon).  Members are encouraged to regularly study these scriptures.  Most successful scripture relies on inspirational stories and claims of miraculous acts.  Scriptures become the key source of instruction, indoctrination, inspiration,  ritual instruction, behavioral guidelines, and “myth” for the religion.
  • Indoctrination: Curriculum and regular instruction is developed for children, youth, and adults to indoctrinate family members, new adherents, etc. – encouraging veneration of the prophet, obedience to the commandments, participation in the rituals, exceptionalism, etc.
  • Community engagement and identity formation: The religious adherents are encouraged to associate with and support other group members, most often through regular group meetings and activities.  Members begin to feel a tribal sense of belonging to the group.  This culmination of shared beliefs, group participation in rituals, adherence to behavioral standards, community engagement, and exceptionalism leads to identity formation in the individuals (e.g.  “I am a Mormon.”  “I am Jewish.”  “I am a Catholic.” “I am a Muslim.”)  Identify formation becomes one of the most powerful binding forces to the religion, because it satisfies our core, evolutionarily-evolved need to belong to a tribe, and to feel special.  We feel happier when we are not alone.  We feel safety in numbers.  Psychological studies that attempt to analyze and understand the benefits of organized religion point to community as the key reason for increased individual health/well-being/happiness – and a sense of identity is often the binding force to our tribe/community.
  • Evangelism/Missionary Work: Devout members are designated as missionaries to spread the teachings of the prophet, and to recruit new members.  Missionary work is certainly intended to grow the group, but it is also an essential tool to bind religious participants to the organization.
  • A reliance on wealthy donors and prosperity: As the religion develops, it becomes increasingly reliant upon wealthy followers, and increases its emphasis on the accumulation of wealth.  Top leaders in the organization usually enjoy significant financial benefit from their leadership, though the full extent to their profiteering is often hidden from the general membership.  As L. Ron Hubbard is famous for saying, “If you want to get rich, start a religion.”
  • Boundary Maintenance: As all healthy communities require cohesion and boundaries, additional religious rules are developed to encourage the “correct” thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, discourage “incorrect” thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and to maintain order and health in the group. Members are discouraged from reading, watching, or listening to any information that could weaken faith/obedience in the organization, or to associate with anyone who might have the same effect on belief/devotion. Procedures like church discipline, censorship, disfellowshipment, and excommunication are established for disobedient members.  Apostates and heretics are pushed out of the group, and members are often discouraged or even forbidden from associating with apostates and heretics (even if family).
  • Advanced levels: Advanced levels of doctrine and ritual participation are developed that are not taught to initial converts, not included in the basic set of scriptures, but are saved for more “advanced” or committed followers.  People with higher levels of education, talents, gifts, money, and power are often selected for these advanced levels (e.g., LDS endowment ceremony, LDS second anointing, advanced levels in Scientology).
Cult Status: As the religion first forms, it belongs in the “cult” classification – not because it is necessarily evil, but because it is small and relies heavily on the charisma of its founder.  Over time, as the prophet inevitably becomes corrupted by power, and discovered to be a fraud by his own followers, he is usually prone to engage in unethical behavior such as financial/sexual impropriety and sometimes violence.  Internal (religious challengers) and external (law and surrounding society) challenges to the prophet’s authority emerge – and the prophet struggles to maintain power.  Most often the cult ends in some sort of scandal – be it sexual, financial, or violent – or a combination of all three.
Established Church: On very rare occasions, either the prophet is successful at organizing and maintaining control, or he is martyred in a way that inspires continued or increased devotion – and the cult outlives its charismatic leader and grows into a successful religion.
Cycle Repeats: Inevitably, most cults/churches/religions lose steam and die over time.  As they whither and die, adherents lose the sense of inspiration, meaning, community, identity, and fulfillment that the cult/church/religion provided.  In many instances, they fall into a state of sadness and vulnerability without a cult/church/religion.  This makes them vulnerable to new prophets, and new cults/churches – and the cycle repeats itself in the lives of individuals (e.g., Martin Harris with James Strang), and across generations.  Unless a viable replacement for churches/religions can be found.
This is my best, first attempt at describing how religions form.  What do you like?  What do you dislike?  Most importantly, what did I miss?
Please share in the comments below.  And thanks!

Comments 5

  1. There is a glaring omission here: “an observant, charismatic leader emerges (e.g., Moses, Mohammad, Joseph Smith)”
    Why have you not included Jesus Christ?

  2. Good work, John! I found this very helpful as an explanation.
    I think fear is a huge component– which you touched on in the uncertainty and vulnerability in the human condition you mentioned above.
    I also think that trying to make sense of God’s place/efficacy in the injustice and pain we experience daily or see in others’ experiences pushes one to find answers through a religious belief. And if a person believes in God, then they look for answers to who/what/how that God operates and why he doesn’t come through in dire circumstances. Religion steps into that gap and provides myths, stories, answers for those willing to believe.
    I think this outline is great because it shows so many aspects of religion. Identifying why religions come about beyond the the age-old lie of the truth, or the need for religion so life can be better, or people will have values in their lives.
    Going it alone, without religion to lean upon, or reconcile life’s problems, or provide easy answers is a lot harder than it may seem. But, I find i t ultimately more rewarding personally
    Thanks for laying out your thoughts. I am tempted to post it on my personal facebook page as an answer to why I have chosen to remove religion and religious practices from my life. As per usual, you have created an article without rancor or assault to those who may be firmly entrenched in their choice to participate in and support religion in their lives, many of whom are friends, relatives, or even my own children.

  3. Excellent work on these essays, John.

    With regard to rituals — the idea has occurred to me that rituals (religious and otherwise) at their best are living works of art that communities create together. For example, I have experienced both the Mormon temple ceremony and a Catholic Mass as a sacred thing of beauty, although I am also aware that rituals can become a very unhealthy source of oppression, disturbing symbols, and cognitive dissonance — for example, the sense of urgency that drives my beloved Mormon husband to spend huge amounts of time and energy on genealogical research because he believes that a very specific ritual is necessary to get his ancestors out of the “spirit prison.” But on the other hand, he enjoys it immensely and has learned some fascinating things about both his side of the family and mine, going all the way back to the middle ages and beyond.

    I have told “non believers” who have issues with Mormon temple work that if the Mormons are right, then it will make people better off in the eternities, and if they’re wrong, and it doesn’t really make any difference, then they enjoyed their lives and felt closer to their ancestors, had a beautiful experience doing it, and 1000 years from now, it won’t make any difference.

    So what do you think of my take on rituals? Perhaps another example of how religion can do great good while also doing great harm, all at the same time…

  4. Very good summation of how religion encourages people into its ranks. I have come to believe that we humans come from tribal beginnings. Have you watched documentaries about the primates? They always move in groups small and large much the way humans must have historically. Our human tribes have largely become extinct in our modern world and religious organizations have emerged as the next best thing to fill the need. Religious participation allows one to connect and find community and purpose with other humans and Mormonism seems to do it better than most.

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