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When comparing religions across Earth, especially if you consider all the religions which existed in the past, I can't help but think there are core elements that make a religion more likely to be "successful".

Successful, in this case, is defined as:

  • Having real-world power(influence) through its many followers

The question is: What are the core elements required for creating a successful religion?


* The best answer should be judged as one which would have the most "success" (by the above definition), while being applicable to the widest range of possible religions.

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closed as too broad by Aify, apaul, bowlturner, Jim2B, James Jul 8 '15 at 13:40

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ Possible dupe of worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/824/… $\endgroup$ – Aify Jul 7 '15 at 23:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Aify I considered that - it is certainly related; In my opinion that question is asking about the entire religion-creation process and everything to be considered when creating a religion - which is clearly too broad for one question. Since I was uncomfortable editing that question to one of the many questions it asks, I figured I'd create a new one. $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Jul 7 '15 at 23:08
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    $\begingroup$ Ah, but that question answers your question. $\endgroup$ – Aify Jul 7 '15 at 23:10
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    $\begingroup$ Each of the 4 first bolded points in the top answer could be considered a core element. $\endgroup$ – Aify Jul 7 '15 at 23:12
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    $\begingroup$ This question is too broad, and the way a "successful religion" is defined, means that the answer would encompass politics, military strategy, economic, demographic and technological development to almost the same extant as religion. $\endgroup$ – fantasia Jul 8 '15 at 0:06
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A religion is a social organism, so a successful religion will have to balance its own needs with the needs of its followers. From my own experiences with and observation of religion, I think these are the core elements:

Contradiction/Ambiguity
Times change! If your religion is too concrete and too obvious about what it means, it runs the risk of falling by the wayside. Christianity has survived as long as it has because of the ambiguity and contradictions it contains. This allows people to build whichever version of your religion best suits the time and place they find themselves in, which increases the odds that one such version will end up surviving for centuries. The only "timeless truth" is that which does in fact stand the test of time. There's no way to tell for sure what that will be, so don't try to pin it down. Just make sure your religion can be interpreted in such a way that it encompasses whatever it may need to encompass.

Growth & Maintenance
Make sure your religion has elements that encourage its numeric growth, as well as elements designed to maintain current members. The Christian Bible has The Great Commission as well as verses like Hebrews 10:25. Scientologists are given the edict to "clear the planet" and famously persecute ex-members. Having regular meetings and events will help build strong social ties between members and make it harder for them to leave.

Good Advice
Most successful religions actually impart good advice to their members that ensure they'll experience greater success than a regular schmuck would. Christianity has stuff like "whatever you do, work at it with all your heart" and "do everything without grumbling or arguing." Some of Scientology's material reads like lifehack articles with batshit crazy stuff mixed in. If your members are not successful in life, your religion won't be either. Note that this doesn't necessarily have to be monetary success: Christianity gained a lot of followers in its early days due to the crazy quantities of courage it imparted to Christians as they were being thrown to the lions. In Rome's socially stratified society, lower-class people demonstrating impressive degrees of internal strength was very notable and persuasive.

Powerful Members
Related to the above point, but it deserves its own bullet because getting a high-profile member will raise your religion's profile. Christianity had Constantine, and Scientology has Tom Cruise. And early on, having members who are an asset to your fledgling religion rather than a drain can be very useful. You can either make your members powerful via good advice and social support, or you can obtain members who are already powerful. A mix of both is best.

Meaning
Your religion has to scratch an itch other things don't scratch. It has to offer catharsis and meaning. The primary value proposition of religion for a lot of people is that it frees them from the work of having to generate their own sense of meaning. Give them rituals, symbols, holidays, practices, or whatever else they like. Give them an outlet for things they can't necessarily let out in other spheres, and give them good rationalizations that let them feel they're simply misunderstood by a misguided world rather than the other way around. They're going to need some pleasure to balance the whip of your religion's good advice. Whatever you do, though, keep it simple. Otherwise your religion will be unlikely to achieve mass popularity.

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A compelling and deep mythology Every major religion has a compelling mythology to tell. Christians have the story of "the perfect man, Christ" and the apostles after Christ's departure. Just having a set of rules to follow is like a poorly written self-help book, annoying at best. Humans crave narrative. Any system of religion lacking a narrative won't go far.

Some degree of difficulty in maintaining the tenants of the religion If your religion is easy to follow then there's no challenge and you can't engender Stockholm Syndrome in your adherents.

Some defining characteristic of your religion that sets you apart Mormons have "latter-day prophets" and the Book of Mormon. Muslims have Muhammad and the Quran. This sets your adherents up nicely for an "us vs them" mentality. This can become a powerful rallying cry when you have difficulty within your group and wish to focus attention elsewhere.

Charismatic Leader Notice that religions with the Charismatic founding leader (Buddha, Christ, Abraham, Muhammad, Joseph Smith, Charles Manson). Adoration for a founding leader is a powerful antidote for feelings of inadequacy or pain derived from the religious rules you've picked. The beating that North Koreans take is acceptable because of the cult of personality built around Kim Il Sung.

Chosen status conferred by faithful membership This is very similar to the need in video games to "level up". People will work damn hard to achieve the next level of progression in your religion, no matter how hard the grind may be. This will also increase their adherence to the faith because their level of investment is higher.

Compelling story about how the world should be Having a vision of how the world could be, just as long as it's detailed and plausible within the framework of your mythology gives your acolytes something to look forward to. It gives them hope as they slog through the ridiculous rules you've given them to live.

Social inclusion once a member Your religion must have strong "in or out" determinancy. Getting in should be easy. Getting out should be hard. Build in lots of social norms about how leaving the religion is somehow evil or that those leaving the group are somehow degenerate. Disowning or harassing those who leave is a nice bonus.

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  • $\begingroup$ I feel this is a good answer that answers the question well - hence the +1. However, I feel it would be more likely to find use if it were not so... antagonizing towards religions in general. I would appreciate it if the answer were adapted slightly to adopt a more neutral perspective towards religion. I realize being polite is not a requirement of answers, but people are more likely to listen if you are polite, don't you agree? $\endgroup$ – Jerenda Jul 27 '15 at 22:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Jerenda was it the unqualified reference to Stockholm Syndrome? While the reference can certainly be seen in a derogatory light, it was intended in a clean clinical sense. I'm not sure how else to succinctly describe the pattern of a devotee beating themselves about a totally human trait and shown that the only way to feel better is greater devotion to the religion. $\endgroup$ – Green Jul 27 '15 at 22:58
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I think that the success of a religion is at least partly reliant on violence, though it is not a universal thing as I will explain.

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all have a long and violent history. All of them have waged some sort of "sacred" war, whether it was offense/defense against external enemies or internal "cleansing".

This "justified" violence creates fear in the hearts of believers and non-believers alike. Believers, as well as nominal believers, act out the ceremonies of their religion and learn the code and creed to a greater depth -- if only to avoid internal persecution.

Another factor is the promise of reward, in whatever form it may be. Whether hedonistic or transcendental, the potential massive payback in the afterlife is what religious spokespersons use to persuade and/or cajole people into serving their political purposes.

Conversely, the threat of eternal pain in the afterlife is also a significant factor.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'd write more, but I have work to get back to. :D $\endgroup$ – LiveMynd Jul 7 '15 at 23:24
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    $\begingroup$ Even saying true things which paint certain religions in a negative light will earn you anonymous downvotes on this site, FYI. Weird that people would be so sensitive about something they believe is undeniably true, isn't it? I agree with what you've got here, +1. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Jul 7 '15 at 23:48
  • $\begingroup$ I'll second @Samuel. I think you have the two most important elements here. +1 from me as well. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Jul 7 '15 at 23:50
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, the only two factors in just about all aspects of society: punishment and reward. +1 I think just about everything in a society falls into one of those two (if not both). $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Jul 7 '15 at 23:52
  • $\begingroup$ What about Buddhism? I don't recall violence playing a major role in its development, but I haven't exactly made a study of it. $\endgroup$ – ryepdx Jul 8 '15 at 16:13
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While the general concept of religion may not be reducible to faith, in the context of successful religion in the real world, faith is central. More precisely, the superior value of faith over evidence is the core.

A semi-formal treatment of religion is included in the concept of a meme. A meme may be thought of as a cultural analogue of genes. While instances of genes are biological, instances of memes are ideas. Just as genes self-replicate, so do memes. However, memes do not use the hot, steamy, lurve-baby, coochy-coochy method of reproduction. They use imitation.

Memes are subject to the same evolutionary forces of selection, though not natural selection, more social selection. This appears to imply that a successful religion must evolve to dominate social attitudes, and this is obviously what we see amongst the world's major religions today.

Anyway, wikipedia does a much better job of explaining memes than I ever could, so if you are interested in this idea, here is a link to the wiki article .

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i don't want to answer broadly, as some posters have already laid out some amazing answers.

i want to add that religions, successful or otherwise, like an above poster said, are social organisms. this means it is difficult if not impossible to separate the origin of a religion from the society it came out of. early christianity came to prominence in the late roman empire, and the clientalism inherent in that society shaped the catholic church. it was over a thousand years before the protestants emerged to challenge the top-down structure of the church.

islam came out of a desert and in an environment of persecution. islam has therefore always had an affinity for water, clannishness (in the name of survival) and a martial tendency absent from many other religions.

a successful religion doesn't necessarily consciously 'adopt' the traits of its mother culture to become strong. rather it has those traits because the culture and religion are, in a sense, evolutionarily related.

as the guy above said, if the religion wants to expand and survive beyond its original cultural milieu, it must have enough flexibility in its ambiguity and doctrine to adapt to new environments.

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