How New Religions Take Root

religions, graffiti
An Indian man walks past a wall covered in graffiti on various world religions in Mumbai. There are somewhere around 4,200 religions operating in the world today, with over 2,500 in the U.S. alone, although there is no exact count. INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images

If, as Karl Marx suggested, religion is the "opium of the people," we live on a planet where nobody needs to walk too far down the street to get drugs. Each year, hundreds of new religious movements are born; they're all over the place if you know where to look. Never mind that only a tiny fraction of them will survive — there's more where they came from.

So, who starts new religions and why?


Spiritual Startups

Starting a new religion is actually a lot like rolling out a new social media app: Hundreds of these things appear out of thin air every year, created by go-getters with some entrepreneurial spirit, egoism, creativity, ambition and flair for presenting an idea. But dumb luck and good timing play a part, too — sometimes an idea comes along that speaks to people's needs and concerns at a particular moment in history. When this happens, some buzz is generated, people get curious, and maybe (just maybe), the whole thing blows up. And we end up with Snapchat or Scientology.

Religious scholars avoid the word "cult" when describing new religious movements since the term is so laden with value judgments, but every new religious sect or spiritual movement essentially begins the same way: as a cult.


"The big joke in religion is that Cult + Time = Religion," says Reza Aslan, a religious scholar and author of bestselling books about the beginnings of both Islam and Christianity. "Christianity was a cult for hundreds of years before it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. To this day, there are Americans who call Mormonism a cult, in spite of the fact that it's one of the most thriving religions in the world."

Truth is, at some point most of the world's great religions were what most people would call "cults," started by upstarts like Jesus or Muhammad or Buddha. But according to Lorne Dawson, a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Waterloo and author of "Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements," while many of these motivational leaders have the drive to start a new spiritual group, precious few have the wherewithal to manage it through the awkward early stages without mismanaging finances, alienating their followers or otherwise letting their egos get the better of them.

"Cults have a bad reputation because corruption is pretty common within these groups," says Dawson. "But in many cases, these charismatic leaders are really trying to help people. Research shows, in many of these new religious movements, people [adherents] are successfully overcoming drug or alcohol addiction, family problems, etc., because the religions really do provide new stabilizing influences in their lives."


The World's Newest Religions

There are so, so many religions out there. There are hundreds of offshoots of Tibetan Buddhism, different forms of Mormonism, UFO religions and countless reconceived notions of every form of Christianity you can think of. One Christian sect might follow a preacher who believes in polygamous marriage while another might have very specific rules on how to baptize somebody. You name it, it's available.

According to Dawson, reliable estimates put the number of officially recognized religions currently operating in the United States at around 2,500. The U.S. is a very religious society, compared to Europe or Canada, which each currently has only a few dozen new religions. Africa also seems to be a hotbed of new religiosity:


"Africa was the last place to be penetrated by European religion — primarily by Islam and Christianity," says Dawson. "There have been loads of conversions away from native practice, just in the last 100 years. As so often happens, when people convert, they usually combine their animistic beliefs with some elements of Catholicism. In the case of Africa, this has been in the midst of economic upheaval, new diseases and a lot of disruption. It's ripe for new prophets to show up and say, 'I've got the new truth, we're all going to be OK.'"

This is not to say these new religions are OK with the establishment, though. One back-to-the-land spiritual movement on the island of Borneo called Milah Abraham was in the news in 2017 because its leader, Ahmad Mushaddeq, was jailed for blasphemy in Indonesia for claiming to be the actual son of God. Mushaddeq has over 50,000 followers, and the Indonesian government isn't happy about it — the country recognizes six different religions, but Milah Abraham isn't one of them.


Stricter New Religions Succeed ... Sort Of

If a new spiritual movement makes it out of the awkward beginning stages, if enough people are committed to giving their money and time to the cause, it needs to develop institutionalized control. A rigid hierarchy and clearcut guidelines about the difference between correct and incorrect belief tend to attract true believers and keep out the freeloaders — people who take advantage of the essential do-gooder-ish-ness of a religion without being invested in helping it succeed.

The Church of Scientology is a good example of a new, very successful religion that did a great job in its mid-century beginnings of laying down some clearcut guidelines for the levels of commitment expected of its believers. In return, Scientology promised a new, powerful identity, a better type of salvation than anyone else was offering, as well as prosperity and luck. But as the religion has grown, something new and 100 percent expected happened: the followers of Scientology have begun to want to define the religion for themselves.


"For the first time, Scientology is having to confront sects — Scientologists breaking off from the church but not the religion," Aslan says. "They're seizing for themselves the power to define Scientology for themselves. The church says they aren't allowed to do this, but that's the same argument every religious institution makes. That's what the Vatican said when Luther nailed his Theses to the church door: 'Only we can define what is and isn't Christian.'"

And we know who won that argument.

So, although stricter religions are generally more successful, the five great world religions — Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism — all have one thing in common: They have made themselves strong enough to survive continual dissension over orthodoxy and evolve with the changing needs of their communities.

"In the U.S., both slave owners and abolitionists used not only the same Bible to justify their argument, they used the exact same verses. When that's the kind of scripture that you have, you know it's going to last," Aslan says.