The Great God Hoax

“According to Gallup surveys, 82 percent believe God is revealed through the inspired words of the Bible and 84 percent believe that Jesus Christ is ‘God or the Son of God.’”

— from God through American eyes by Robert Wuthnow

Religion is a hoax with a history at once ornate, wacky, beautiful and terrible. So much has been built on a foundation of fantastic speculation, and so many people have been employed in doing the work of mysterious imaginary friends. Such an amazing con game — as one Zen master laughed on his death-bed: “All this time I’ve been selling water by the river!”

The P.T. Barnum of American Religion has got to be Joseph Smith, whose facially preposterous story of discovering the divinely inscribed Book of Mormon proved to be compelling and amazing, spawning its own counter-hoaxes (for instance, the Kinderhook Plates, etc.), and ongoing attempts by members of the religion he founded — still going strong over a century later — to shore it up with further pseudoarchæology.

Also worthy of mention is W.D. Fard’s Nation of Islam: Loopy as they come, this was the religion (and the downfall) of Malcolm X. But boy will I be sorry I laughed when The Mother Plane comes and proves me wrong.

A more recent pretender to the throne was memetic engineer L. Ron Hubbard, the creator of the baroque belief system and behemoth known as Scientology. It’s as if Star Trek and Erhard Seminar Training had an unwanted lovechild.

But these are just three especially colorful examples of what is really a highly successful pocket of human oddity. The vast majority of Americans, for instance, believe in (and occasionally talk to) a curiously anthropomorphic embodiment of good who is omniscient, omnipotent and responsible for every detail of reality. And then the ignorant bullies make fun of children for believing in Santa Claus.

The end-times have been prematurely announced by Christian cults ever since Paul was playing good shepherd to his scattered and easily-misled Mediterranean sheep. Every year now there’s new incontrovertable proof that the apocalypse is imminent. (Speaking of interesting reports: Pilate’s official report on the crucifixion of Jesus was published to rave reviews in 1879.)

Joanna Southcott, “the second Eve,” picked 1814 (actually “the fourth year after the first decade of the century” so her remaining followers are banking on 2014), which was okay for her, I guess, since that’s when she died. She claimed to be carrying a child of divine ancestry, but whatever it was wasn’t a child and ended up offing her. Not before 10,000 people purchased sealed certificates that represented their booking on Kingdom of God airlines.

Cyril Henry Hoskins wrote a dozen books under the name Lobsang Rampa in which he claimed to be a Tibetan Buddhist master with a surgically-opened “third eye.” Did very well for himself before his story fell apart.

Why not see just how far you can push the envelope: take a cue from the Discordians or the Church of the Subgenius and make a new religion even more preposterous, and even more True, than the last. Or just take a riff from an already-existing religion and run with it.

Here’s a good one: There’s a woman by the name of Vassula Ryden who claims to receive what she calls “original handwriting” messages channeled from Jesus, his mom and Dad, and an angel named Daniel. She started engaging in divinely-inspired automatic writing when filling out a shopping list in 1985, and has been on the lecture circuit as God’s personal dictation secretary ever since. The Pope considers her brand of nonsense a heretical distraction from his own, but she’s got true believers even among the Catholic clergy.

You think that’s weird? Check out The Urantia Book.

Buffo reports: “In 1983 students at a Danish High School in Arhus invented a new religion. The students, involved in a youth culture study project, called their new faith Apialketisme and invented slogans such as ‘Apialketisme against egotism’ and ‘Use your taupei [a fictitious part of the brain] and become happy.’ They invented a founder, a ceremony [like Transcendental Meditation] and a computer test [copied from Scientology] and handed out leaflets in the street, Moonie-style. To their surprise and shock people did not see the practical joke, instead took it seriously and felt misused and betrayed when they heard that Apialketisme was a farce.”

Aimee Semple McPherson (“Sister Aimee”) founded an evangelical empire in the U.S. in the 1920s, then faked her own drowning (and covered up for turning up alive by turning it into a faked kidnapping) in order to run off with her lover.

Lord knows that some of the creative religious hysteriæ have been painful in the extreme, both to participants and to innocent bystanders. After all, there’s no human torture that can compare with eternal hellfire, so the ends clearly justify the means. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Salem Witch Trials, or their more recent counterpart: the hunt for satanic ritual child abuse.

A source of inspiration to me has been the life and work of Brother Jed, a wandering campus preacher in the U.S. who has adopted the technique of donning the caricature of the ignorant and intolerant Bible Belt fire-and-brimstone preacher (“Slatterns! Trollops! Women should be obedient baby machines!”) in order to attract crowds of college students eager to be seen in public rebelling against such a father figure — making an appearance in the quad by Brother Jed one of the best-attended lectures at college.

That religious types often take their religion very seriously has been used by pranksters like the Christians for the Cloning of Jesus (using DNA found in blood on the Shroud of Turin), whose web site prompted more than a few enraged reactions from Christians who saw no need to hurry the Second Coming.

Put two and two together. If they’ll believe the Great God Hoax, they’ll believe anything.

More up-in-your-face was the bold stunt performed by Michel Mourre, an ex-catholic who, in 1950, with the coöperation of a band of Lettrists, caught, gagged, stripped and bound a priest before the Easter High Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral, put on his vestments, and stepped to the pulpit to declare to the congregation, “Brothers, God is dead” and to outline what this was going to mean for the poor, misguided souls. According to one account, “[s]everal minutes passed before the congregation actually registered what was happening. He managed to escape out of the back of the cathedral but the congregation caught up with him on the quai where they proceeded to try to lynch him. The Lettrist, alas, was forced to surrender to the police in order to save his neck.”

That’s setting the bar fairly high, but there are other fun things you can do in church.

If you’re interested in checking out the weird archæology used to prop up beloved primitive myths that have been taken too literally, don’t miss our Archæological Forgeries section, where you’ll learn the truth about fossils, all about the discovery of Noah’s Ark (as reported on CBS), and the science of creationism.

Credentials for your favorite religious title, from Minister or Imam all the way up to Pope, Saint, or Messiah are available from the Universal Life Church, which thinks the world would be a lot nicer if we all could become the Reverend So-and-so. I can’t help but agree — I became a minister back in 1994 and I’ve never felt better — look into it.

What do you make of Léo Taxil? Went from being a prominent free-thinker and anti-Papist in the 19th Century to being an equally prominent anti-masonic Catholic before announcing before a shocked crowd that he’d been taking the Church for a ride.

Which reminds me of the Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk — an exposé of what really happens in a Catholic convent, as told by an escaped nun. Scandalous and very, very dirty. And of course, the work of someone with a good imagination and an anti-Catholic axe to grind.

I’ll finish off with the legend of Prester John, whose mythical kingdom gave hope to Europe’s Catholics in the early centuries of the last millennium.

Many people believe in God
Many people believe in God

L. Ron Hubbard
L. Ron Hubbard

Apparition of Mary
Apparition of Mary

Shroud of Turin (detail)
Shroud of Turin (detail)

One of the Kinderhook Plates
One of the Kinderhook Plates

Sister Aimee
Sister Aimee

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On This Day in SniggleryJuly 20, 1969: Neil Armstrong walks on the moon. Sure he does. (See our Cryptozoölgy page for lunar speculations)