The lifecycle of religions

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; … a time of war, and a time of peace.” Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Extensive study into various religions allows one to extrapolate a general timeline of the life-cycle of religions.

Like many things in history, religions follow a relatively lengthy life-cycle, and so studying them is analogous to extrapolating the life-cycle of humans, but only having, say, one year’s worth of study to do so. If you were required to understand the human life cycle in the limited time of one year, you’d not have the time to watch a child be born, grow into adulthood, grow old and die. Rather, you’d be able to observe many humans who are in the various phases of their life and extrapolate the movement between the phases, and see micro-changes in people during the period of the year.

Similarly, with religion, we don’t have enough sample time to watch a religion go through the entire life-cycle, as the phases of religion are way longer than the length of individual lives. But by looking at many of them, we can extrapolate the cycle. This article will attempt to do that.

Phase 0: Pre-birth Background Context

Most religions are born of other religions. Just like everything in the world is a remix of pre-existing elements, so are new religions.

Before analysing the beginning of a religion, we need to analyse the context. Most often, religions are started by one primary figure, and so we need to analyse the life of that figure; what religion were they brought up in? What was the prevailing religious sentiment at the time?

It’s little surprise for instance that Mormonism is a form of Christianity; as Joseph Smith was raised as a Christian. It’s little surprise that AJ Miller claims to be the reincarnated Jesus, as he was raised a Jehovah’s Witness. Jesus was a Jew, and thus was brought up to believe that a Messiah was coming. Most often, the ideas of a new religion can be found in the back yard of the founder, in the context of their life.

Now occasionally there are exceptions, sometimes entirely new religious memeplexes (coherent sets of religious ideas) are invented — like in Scientology. And when it happens, that religion is perceived to be “more strange” (like Scientology is) because the ideas of the new religion are simply more distant from the prevailing sentiments of the time. But in all cases, new religions entail new ideas, most often set with the backdrop of the old ideas.

Phase 1: The “Creative Genius” with a small, cult-like following

Most often new religions are founded by one particular individual, who then gains a following. This individual we will call the “Creative Genius”. A “Creative Genius” is to a religion as an entrepreneur is to a new business; they bring an entirely new set of revolutionary ideas to the table.

Creative Geniuses almost always claim to either be divinity themselves, or inspired of divinity. Frequently, they are “prophets” of some kind.

The Creative Geniuses of the three major world religions are: Moses (Judaism), Jesus (Christianity), and Mohammed (Islam). We could easily brand these three the most successful religious leaders of all time, based on the size and longevity of their followings. Some other Creative Geniuses include: Joseph Smith (Mormonism), Charles Taze Russell (Jehovah’s Witnesses),  L. Ron Hubbard (Scientology),  Sun Myung Moon (The Unification Church, or colloquially “Moonies”), Jim Jones (The People’s Temple), and Marshall Applewhite (Heaven’s Gate).

I want to draw special attention to a man by the name of AJ Miller. He is a modern, contemporary Creative Genius, with a YouTube channel 🙂 . AJ Miller claims to be Jesus, and he has started The Divine Truth — the name of his religion.

Watching AJ Miller speak is particularly interesting because you get a feel for the type of personality that a Creative Genius is. Here are some characteristics:

1. Complete confidence in the message

They always look into people’s eyes when talking with them. Look into their eyes and you can see the conviction of the Creative Genius. They make claims about reality with no evidence or justification; they simply “state” how it is. (The subsequent apologetics that almost every faith comes up in later phases with would seem ridiculous to the founding Creative Genius — they are completely unapologetic).

2. A well of new ideas, but still connected to the old ones

Jesus brought the new “Gospel”, it superseded the old one. But although it had new ideas, they were not completely incompatible with the old ideas — they sprouted out of them. For instance, the idea that Jesus was a Messiah figure was justifiable within Judaism, though not already a part of Judaism. The idea that God could call a prophet and translate the Book of Mormon is justifiable within the framework of Christianity, but was not already a part of it.

The ideas of the Creative Genius are what makes them stick out — they’re unorthodox, thinking big, claiming big, and they attract people to them through the combination of charisma and the ideas.

3. A small following of highly energised followers

The Creative Genius would merely be “just another madman” without their following. It’s the following that legitimises the leader. The initial following of the Creative Genius is highly energised, they are often willing to give up everything for the leader.

4. Little or no proper thought to succession

This is the funny part, often initial leaders put in little or not enough though to the problem of succession. It’s as if they run the place as though they are always going to be around. This frequently leads to a succession crisis upon their death. Creative Geniuses rarely retire; they die their way out.

Much else could be said about the Creative Genius, but at a high level the above will suffice.

Phase 2: The “Enforcer” — who makes the religion viable

Like entrepreneurs, Creative Geniuses are great to bring new ideas to the table, but often lack the pragmatic thinking to scale them. This is where the “Enforcer” comes in, like a new CEO in a business.

An “Enforcer” is a high ranking person in the new religion who “takes over” once the Creative Genius dies. Often there is some kind of a succession crisis, but the Enforcer comes out on top and takes control of either the primary surviving branch or some branch of the religion.

Example of Enforcers are: Paul (Christianity, after Jesus), Brigham Young (Mormonism, after Joseph Smith), David Miscavige (Scientology, after L. Ron Hubbard), Joseph Franklin Rutherford (Jehovah’s Witnesses, after Charles Taze Russell).

Enforcers do not have the original ideas. They rely heavily on the foundation set by the Creative Genius for ideas. But they can scale them — they are pragmatic. Enforcers have quite different personalities to the Creative Genius. Here are some of the properties of Enforcers:

1. Limited new ideas after Creative Genius

Paul didn’t claim anything wildly different from Jesus, as compared to how different Jesus’ claims were from Judaism. Brigham Young didn’t translate any Egyptian papyri into new scripture like Joseph Smith did (the volume of new “canonised” scripture fell off quickly after Joseph Smith). David Miscavige didn’t write Dianetics 2.0. The Enforcer characters are not about original ideas, they’re about making them scale. The Enforcers are subordinate to the Creative Genius, rarely claiming anything beyond the original claims.

2. Much more structured than the Creative Genius

Enforcers bring a large deal of structure to the new religion that they Creative Genius lacked. The Creative Genius sort of “winged” it, made it up as they went along. But Enforcers planned ahead. For example, Paul preached the Gospel far and wide organising and systematising the new Christianity. David Miscavige launched the huge campaign to make Scientology tax exempt through effectively bullying the IRS. Brigham Young lead the early latter-day saints to the west where they could settle and grow huge cities.

The order that the Enforcer brings to the religion makes it viable. Without them the religion won’t scale properly.

Phase 3: Growth and Integration

“A cult is an unpopular religion, a religion is a popular cult.”

Phase 1 & 2 are single lifetime phases, they are two key individuals. But phase 3 is much larger. In phase 3 we see a religion growing much larger due to missionary work and multiplication — scaling effectively.

Eventually as a religion grows, it has to begin integrating with society in much more ways. Most especially, the ideas and behaviours of the religion have to be brought into conformity with the rest of society; more extreme ideas are watered down and eventually removed. The history of the religion is correlated and new ideas and behaviour are projected and retrofitted into the history.

Eventually, all religions grow up and “graduate” from their beginnings that were more cult-like. The treatment of apostates is made more gentle. They spread internationally. Ideas are further watered down and extreme doctrines are reigned in.

David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism is a good book to illustrate this process happening to Mormonism. As David O. McKay travelled internationally he became more empathetic and understanding of the challenges of a worldwide church. Mormonism is currently in this phase.

This phase can last hundreds of years, and most modern “mainstream” religions are in this phase. Some adherents within faiths in this phase will see the “watering down” as a betrayal of original doctrine and could schism — thus starting new “Phase 1” religions (Mormon example: Denver Snuffer) — in fact this is mainly where new religions are born from — mainstream religions as the “Phase 0, background / context”.

Phase 4: Watering down and becoming “culturally” religious; the endgame

As the effects from phase 3 continue, increasing pressure from outside society on religions results in further watering down of doctrine and more conformity in terms of behaviour. Eventually large segments of religious adherents become “culturally” religious, meaning they don’t subscribe to the fundamental truth claims any longer, but consider themselves members of the religious community.

The lines between phase 3 & 4 are blurry. One flows to the other, and even individuals and small groups / clusters within the religion could be in different phases.

Examples of this are the world’s older religions:

  • Modern Judaism, having orthodox and reformed, includes a bit of both. If someone says they’re Jewish, it doesn’t mean they’re religious, they might just like the food and festivals.
  • Modern Catholicism also leans more towards this direction, with the Pope being willing to admit evolution, and vast numbers of people being merely “born into it”.

Conclusion: Like stars

Just like stars have a life-cycle, in the beginning they burn really brightly, then they have a very long middle life of burning “normally”, and eventually get dim and die, so religions follow this cycle. Of course, many religions die along the way, or never really grow to a critical mass, or experience large numbers of schisms, but overall they follow the same general trend.

Based on the model above, here are my high-level estimates about where certain religions mentioned above are now in:

Phase 1: “early”

  • Divine Truth (AJ Miller) (this is why it’s so interesting at the moment)

Phase 2: “becoming viable” / “growth phase”

  • Scientology (David Miscavige)
  • The unification church (Hyung Jin Moon)

Phase 3: “mainstream” / “orthodox”

  • Mormonism
  • 7th day Adventists
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses
  • Christianity generally
  • Islam
  • Most religions are here

Phase 4: “watering down” / “burning out”

  • Judaism
  • Catholicism


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  2. Dhar

    Interesting proposition.


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