When Pope Gregory XII abdicated some 600 years ago, it was in the service of ending a period of deep turmoil. By contrast, the current pope's decision to turn in his satin slippers has stunned many parishioners. If ever there was a window to start your own religion, this may be it. In the spirit of George Bernard Shaw, who once remarked, "There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it," I'd like to help in the process by advancing a number of core principles that characterize most successful religions. Here are my Ten Commandments for designing a top-tier religion.
1. It's all about sex
Keep your followers obsessed with sex. First, make sex taboo. Then focus on it relentlessly and discourage birth control. Why? In order to crack the top tier, you are going to need adherents. A lot of them. Sure, you can vie with the Krishnas for a few "undecideds," but those are slim pickins. The fact is, you are going to need to grow your own. Take heed of others who have ignored this principle. Great furniture for sure, but there is nary a Shaker to be found. Of course, there is another obvious advantage to this commandment.
2. Go old school
For whatever reason, people have an awful lot of respect for generations of yore. Back in the day, God seemed to keep regular office hours. Starting a religion based on a more recent time period is tacky (yeah, I'm looking at you L. Ron). You also run the risk of being labeled a cult.
Unfortunately, all of the ancient texts are basically spoken for at this point. So, what to do? Pick a lesser-known character from the Bible, and weave a new story around him (sorry, ladies, this is religion, so we need to be misogynists). Take Arodi for example. Never heard of him? According to the Bible, he went down with Joseph to Egypt. Want to learn more about him? Well, conveniently "find" the Book of Arodi, an ancient text describing how Arodi was actually the central protagonist of the biblical era.
3. Reinterpret natural events as ethereal
One of the backbones of a good faith is to take ordinary natural phenomena and bestow upon them great significance. For example, you want to know why leaves fall off trees in autumn? It is because we are a bunch of fornicators. Or maybe we aren't fornicating enough. Whichever.
An important corollary of this Commandment is to describe a glorious future time in which the world is a much better place than it is now. It is imperative that you impose lofty and arbitrary criteria for reaching this goal. For example, if only everyone on the planet refrained from using pronouns for one week, then the leaves would never fall.
4. Pick a piece of very contentious land to call your own
Commandment No. 4 is indispensable. There is really nothing exciting about locating your holy sites in Toledo, Ohio. If you want your followers invested, pick a powder keg. For example, after Arodi left Joseph in Egypt, it is believed he travelled to the 38th parallel of the Korean Peninsula where he found his first wife. They were forced to move their household to Kashmir, where they raised a family, until Arodi died in Tibet. His followers carried his body to Jerusalem, where his ashes were spread liberally on sites holy to Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Did I mention his wife was actually born in Northern Ireland?
5. Cheat death
Let's face it, no one is thrilled about the prospect of dying, particularly if it is going to be a permanent condition. Given how hard it is to make death appealing, your followers must be told that there is no end in sight (despite physical evidence to the contrary). Given the popularity of Star Wars films, you may want to just roll with that. After death, we become translucent and appear to the living with sagely advice at our own convenience. Also, we are reunited with our deceased pets, provided their vaccinations were kept up to date.
6. Make up a lot of rules and start a liturgy
A religion without rules may seem seductive, but over time it will fail to encourage enough strife and stratification among adherents. Therefore, endorse a blend of commonsense morals (e.g., don't kill) combined with numerous capricious rules (e.g., never eat shellfish while wearing pants). Of central importance is to leave the rulebook vague enough to allow for multiple interpretations. This will encourage followers to form a religious hierarchy (always good for business) and write copious amounts of text trying to figure out what the heck Arodi really meant when he said "Always carry a heifer in thy pocket and a squeegee in thy loins."
7. Make up a little history
Unfortunately, new religions, by their very nature, do not possess a long legacy. It's going to take some creativity on your part to invent one. Take lessons from Fox News by constructing a recognizable but nevertheless parallel universe that your believers can relate to. When in doubt, invoke the NCAA clause and adjust history so that it conforms to how you'd like things to have happened.
8. Forgive but don't let them forget
With enough rules in place, we are all bound to sin. It is important to walk a fine line between having your adherents simultaneously feeling guilty for their misdeeds and feeling gratitude for absolution. If your followers are feeling down, pick them up. If they are feeling up, bring them down. Perpetual motion is your friend.
9. Find some enemies
The Dallas Cowboys are the most loved and also the most hated team in football. That's why they are worth more than $2 billion. Their empire rests on a single foundation: competition. Take away their football schedule and you are left with a bunch of guys wearing unusually tight pants. The take home message is that having adversaries is essential for good business, as long as you compete well and win frequently enough. Therefore, when defining heathens, select communities that traditionally do not have much of a voice, like Independent voters or people who don't like ketchup.
In Western Cultures, God is often cast like a parent; cantankerous at times but always loving. You can't really top that -- unless God is also a blue-collar guy who sacrificed His personal and professional life so that you could go to college. Cast your God as a taller version of Marty Crane.