Are Invented Religions Real?

The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources. — Albert Einstein

Make an effort to remember. Or failing that, invent. — Monique Wittig

Earthseed is an invented religion which was inspired by the science fiction novels of Octavia Butler.  An invented religion is not the same thing as “parody” religion, though.  Invented religions may be intended as parodies or the may be genuine religions.  It might seem odd to some people that invented religions can be genuine, but there are many invented religions — some of which, like Earthseed, were also inspired by science fiction.

Another example of an invented religion which was inspired by science fiction is the Neo-Pagan Church of All Worlds (CAW). In Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith (2013), Carole Cusack analyzes several invented religions, including the CAW. The CAW began in 1962 as a group of people who were inspired by a fictional religion of the same name in Robert Heinlein’s science fiction novel, Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), as well as Abraham Maslow’s psychological theories.

The Church of All Worlds incorporated several ideas from Stranger in a Strange Land, including polyamory, water-sharing rituals, and the use of several religious phrases including as “grok”, “Thou art God”, and “Never Thirst”. The CAW was incorporated in 1968 and received IRS tax-exempt status in 1970. Around the same time, the founder of CAW, Tim Zell, began using the word “Pagan” describe CAW and other related pantheistic and polytheistic religions emerging at the time. Zell and the CAW were instrumental in the formation of a contemporary identity around the word “Pagan”.

In 1872, William Ingham wrote, in his Lectures on the evidences of natural and revealed religion: “An invented religion may serve the purposes of a philosopher; but dying men and women call for a revelation and a ‘living God’”. Ingham was writing from the perspective of a believer in “revealed” religion.  However, for an increasing number of “spiritual but not religious” people, the “Nones”, it is the so-called “revealed religions” that fail to communicate the “living” or vital quality they desire.  For many, traditional, institutionalized religions have become ossified, and the living spirit of religion is better communicated through spiritual practices that are consciously constructed with the needs of contemporary people in mind.  This is true of Earthseed, as well.

On some level, all religions are “invented”.  They are the product of the particular place and time when their founders lived. And no religion has ever been delivered to humankind from on high as a complete package.  All religions have evolved into their current form.  This is not to say that the founders of religions were not inspired in some sense, only that they were human.  This fact is often lost to history, however.

Rather than dividing religions into “revealed” and “invented”, we would be better served by describing religious as more or less intentionally created.  Religious like Earthseed and the Church of All Worlds were created with a heightened awareness of their constructed nature.  Because these religions are not insulated from critique by the myth of divine origins, they are more adaptable to the needs of the people they serve.

In spite of his limited perspective, though, Ingham’s critique of invented religions is still important for those intentionally creating religious today, especially for religious naturalists like Earthseed.  Religions must speak to the heart and the body, as much as the mind.  Philosophical religion are only partial religions.  As Humanistic Pagan, B. T. Newberg, has argued, what’s missing from some humanistic, naturalistic, and atheistic religions is an appreciation the experience of transcendence. He writes,

“The imagination must be captivated and transformed by a vision, not of what one is not, but of what one is or could be.

“This missing element may be embodied in symbols that remind, invite, and inspire.  The individual must be able to interact imaginatively with the symbols in ritual or meditation, and fill them up as it were with experience and affect.  At that point, when they are charged with personal meaning and emotion, they may become powerful motivators of thought and behavior.

“They radiate the power to transform.”

∞ = Δ

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3 thoughts on “Are Invented Religions Real?

  1. As someone who was in the CAW community from the mid-80s, I think it’s hard to call it a distinct “religion”. It had only the loosest of shared cosmologies, no set of core values, and few consistent rituals. It was really just an example of eclectic Neopaganism of its period.

    1. Interesting. Obviously I wasn’t there, so I’m going to pick your brain. I know CAW was a non-dogmatic religion, but I thought that Zell’s Theagenenesis provided a coherent cosmology — maybe it wasn’t shared by others though? As far as shared values, CAW’s website lists “immanent divinity (expressed as “Thou art God/dess”), self-knowledge and personal responsibility, deep friendship and tribal intimacy, positive sexuality, living in harmony with the natural world, and appreciation of the diverse nature of human beings” — would you agree those were core values of CAW? As far as rituals, were the Water Sharing ritual and Wheel of the Year not consistent?

      1. I really wouldn’t. CAW’s published rhetoric was just Tim/Otter/Oberon typing. Few if any of the members of that community took his personal meanderings to heart, particularly as he is personally of rather low integrity and kept pissing people off. Water sharing happened sometimes, yes. Other times, not. The Wheel of the Year was straight-up cobbled from Wiccans.

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