Writing Exercise – The Opiate of the Masses

Today I want you to invent a religion and describe it in at least five pages.  In fact, I suggest that you write it as a brochure, introducing people to your religion (obviously trying to get them to join), although you can go with a manifesto theme.  Hey, if L. Ron Hubbard can invent a religion, so can you.  Oh, did I say that in my out loud voice?

You are allowed to invent new branches of existing religions, but you need to make it obviously different.  Do you know the difference between New Hope Baptists, Free Will Baptists and Southern Baptists?  Neither do I, and I grew up Baptist.  Don’t invent another type of Baptist whose only difference from the other Baptists is this:

“Why are there two Baptist churches in such a small town?”

“Because this church says there ain’t no hell, and that church says the hell there ain’t.”

If you’re going to make up a new Protestant denomination, let’s see some creativity!

Some questions you should probably consider when it comes to describing your religion:

  • What will we be worshipping?  Or you can take a more Buddhist track and list what we will not be worshipping.  You can also be sneaky and make it sound like we’re worshipping one thing, but when you read between the lines, it’s obvious we’re worshipping something else entirely—a la Jim Jones.  (I suggest you watch the documentary Jonestown; pretty scary stuff.  And if you’re astute, you’ll notice that old Jimmy is using bait-and-switch; he makes you think you’re worshipping God and Jesus, but then the man almost never mentions either.  It becomes pretty clear, to people who aren’t brainwashed, that you’re supposed to worship Jim Jones.)
  • What rituals will we perform to worship our deity (or deity facsimile)?  In the case of non-worshipping religions, what will we do to not worship?  Even Taoists, who don’t technically have a deity, spend time meditating. 
  • What symbols separate the members from the non-members?  A secret handshake?  An icon?  Proscribed dress?  Physical mutilation?
  • How are we supposed to view people who are not members of our religion?  Are they potential new members, left to their own devices, condemned, or exterminated?
  • Do we have a hierarchy among our members?  Are elders better than young people?  Men better than women?  Or is everyone considered equal?
  • What are some of the rules/commandments/articles of our faith?  What do you have to believe in order to be considered one of us?
  • What happens if you break any of the rules of the faith?  You may consider rule-breaking (also known as “sin” in some religions) in terms of severity; what is considered a minor infraction and what gets you banished (if banishment is even done by your religion)? 

What’s the point of inventing a religion, you might ask?  Well, for starters, it’s actually a very helpful exercise for people who are going to write any kind of fantasy, because you have to make up stuff which sounds believable all the time.  Even for people who don’t write fantasy, it’s a chance to look at religion objectively, which can make you (or your characters) better prepared to discuss it and/or have an opinion on it.  I happen to be an Episcopalian, but I have characters in my book who are Jewish, so I have to step outside my own religion and study theirs so that they are believable Jews.

Just please do not go out and invent the Church of Fantasiology and get people to join and give you a lot of money.  This is a writing exercise, not an endorsement to scam or create a cult.

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