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I'm developing a story in which the CIA has investigated the truth of religion. In real life, during the Cold War the CIA investigated things like aliens, psychic powers, etc. That’s because if these things were real, they would have national security implications, like they could pose threats to the US or the US government could use them against other countries.

So I don’t think it’s too far-fetched that the CIA might have tried to investigate which religion is true. After all, a lot of the CIA rank and file and leadership in those days were devout Christians, believing in God and Angels and Demons and so on. So it’s plausible that the CIA might have wanted to figure out what implications such supernatural entities had for the natural security of the United States, as a first step investigating what supernatural entities actually exist.

My question is, how would a Cold War-era CIA program to determine the true religion plausibly work? What methods would they employ, and how might they succeed in identifying the true religion?

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Worldbuilding Meta, or in Worldbuilding Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Commented Apr 1 at 2:14
  • $\begingroup$ What claims of the religion are you asking about, different claims are going to be tested in vastly different ways. as it stands this question is way to vague to answer with anything more than "with science". $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Apr 5 at 15:39

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First, CIA is extremely more likely to experiment on "foreign", largely harmless, and practical religions first, before even trying to tackle something as powerful and domestic as Christianity.

Some ideas:

  • CIA investigators being sent to Sth American, African and Asian jungles to practice animistic shamanism, and try to appease Spirits with sacrifice. This is cheap, easy, and unlikely to backfire in case the Spirits truly are real. Worst case scenario the Spirit-posessed CIA shaman gets smoked by a sniper.

  • Voudoun (oft misspelled as Voodoo), which is conveniently practiced in Louisiana and Haiti, is the perfect religion for CIA shenanigans. The Loa, deities of Voudoun lore are mercantile, with very well defined services they perform for very specific sacrifices, with very well defined prices and results. They do not even need to be worshipped, voudoun bocors and hungans simply haggle with them. This is a perfect situation for a crafty CIA spook to take advantage of: he can simply negotiate with Loa, the same he would with any greedy warlord. Either it won't work, and the spook simply gets a few days of paid vacation in Haiti, or it works and CIA gains powerful allies.

  • Norse religion. the Norse gods, if they exist at all, (or still exist?) have almost faded into obscurity. But the Norse Gods greatly value battle prowess, and clever strategy. The chief Norse god, Odin, is the patron of spycraft, treachery, craftiness, and bloodshed -so exactly the kind of deity that would respond to a CIA spook praying. And Norse prayer is quite simple: you just carve a message to the god in runes, shed blood in sacrifice, and and explain what you want in plain words. Either it works, and CIA would now have Odin, Tyr and possibly even Loki at their side, or it fails, and the CIA spook simply enjoys his time in Norway.

Only once all the far-away, largely harmless, and low-effort religions are thoroughly tested, will they attempt to test Christianity on US soil.

My guess is that they will start with careful and very well researched Saint worship within Catholic dogma. This is unlikely to backfire. Catholic Saints are not known to be particularly vengeful, and tend to assist with very practical, measurable matters. Best option: start venerating and praying to Saint Damien, a fairly recent American saint, and a patron of those suffering from disease. Have CIA beg St Damien to heal some carefully chosen diseased American Catholics, and see if there are measurable results. St Damien, if he really exists, is unlikely to refuse, because even though the CIA spooks are evil bastards, their cause is still good here.

If the St Damien Project works, the CIA can now move to more powerful, combat oriented saints like say St Gorge, from that to a higher level of Virgin Mary. Assuming the last option works, I would stop there. The next tier is praying directly to Jesus, or straight up to Jahwheh, but Jesus would not approve of their actions, and Jahweh is more likely to Smite them for insolence, than help them.

Other than that, I would recommend staying clear of Christian dogma - the risk of offending God and getting Smote is significantly greater than the chance of success.

A cool alternative is to have a Jewish Rabbi join CIA. Rabbis tend to have a much more direct, even sometimes adversarial relationship with their God, and are unlikely to be punished for arguing, or even downright haggling with JHVH. OTOH, this solution is not scalable, because there is just not enough Rabbis in the whole USA to make any kind of country-wide progress with this.

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A couple of highly intelligent, well connected Fruit Loops initially

There are two things that would be critical in such a program:

  • Cost
  • Results

Take for example the Skunk Works projects - Exhorbitant Costs, Eye watering costs...

But really really good results. Tangible Results

The UFO program - not that we know too much about it cue X-Files theme - but there were some results and the Costs were (for a government program) relatively small - for reference This one 22 mill over 5 years seems like a lot to you and I, but for the US Military - that is chump change.

The results were that identifying an unknown flying object has real-world implications. Even if it is never Aliens, having a system and procedures in place on how to record data, which chains of command to escalate it to etc. these are all pragmatic things which can be used to justify the cost.

Perhaps a more appropriate Facsimile would be the various Psychic research projects in the 70s: Renamed the Stargate project

From a large Militaries point of view - you have to consider the following:

  • The chance of success is relatively small (or non-existent...) but should it succeed, it would be game-changing.
  • If you aren't employing these types of people, the chance that the enemy might recruit them is rather high.

Therefore - it is more cost effective, to keep these people hired and working for you, on the off-chance that they might succeed, than it is to take the risk that they go work for someone else.

You could probably read up on the Psychic experiments that the CIA did (that we know of...) and use that as your framework. I think the description of 10-20 men in leaky old wooden buildings is probably the best start.

Perhaps throw in a couple of stories around human sacrifice in parts of the world where the Geneva convention does not apply (The CIA loves to do dirty work in places outside of conventional jurisdiction) and always keep it tied to something legitimate.

e.g. Say you are researching whether a specific regions Deities are real? Have the US Military send a peacekeeping or scientific research mission to that area, and have your staffers tag along. Plenty of things that could have real world benefit, and since we are already there, no extra cost etc.

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Their assumption: One or more religions are actually true.

Their unconscious bias: Their religion, or one close to it (i.e. a part of Western Christianity), is actually true.

That means disproving any other religion would not actually help, because their expectation is that those are false, anyway. In fact, proving any of those might be disbelieved, or swept under the carpet.

How to prove it?

  • Statistics and the prosperity theology. This interpretation of Christianity believes that faith and good deeds lead to divine favor and tangible benefits in this world, not just the next one. Run the numbers if faith and good deeds do correlate with wealth and beauty.
  • Biblical archaeology, searching for corroboration of biblical stories and hence enhancing the credibility of the not-yet-corroborated parts. Imagine they found the Ark, or the blasted ruins of Sodom, or the Egyptian troops on the bottom of the Red Sea.
  • Researching the concepts of consciousness and self-awareness, with the goal of proving that there is a fundamental gulf between homo sapiens and other primates which cannot be reconciled with gradual evolution. Disproving Darwin might be the icing on the cake, but showing that the sixth day of Genesis differs from the fifth would be a start.
    (Along that line, in a pre-genetics era, study principles of convergent evolution to reconcile Mendelian inheritance and Darwin with a 6,000-year timeline.)
  • Investigate the early-modern-age narratives of witchcraft and congress with the devil. If this could be shown, that would again bolster the entire narrative, including God. Surveillance of suspected witches, investigation of their alleged effects, looking for incidents science alone cannot explain.
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They wouldn't care about the true religion

Government programs are there to provide temporary advantages to the government so that the officials in charge can bolster their careers, gain some military advantage, or do a variety of short term goals. As such, they would care about finding supernatural powers, not the overall goal generally.

For example, suppose the 'true' religion was that satan created the universe, and god stole his thunder. Would that matter to the CIA if god offered more benefits and was better behaved? Religion is a matter of faith, but benefits are eternal.

They would abduct a lot of possessed people.

Possessed people are essentially foreign agents here to cause chaos, if real. They are also mentally ill people. As such, it would be easy for the government to abduct them and torture them to find out their affiliation and the nature of any hidden masters. They could seek to pressure them into spying on their enemies.

Hybrids are an avenue for supernatural powers.

Devil or angel hybrids with humans would be an obvious Montauk Experiments chance. You can seek to find people with supernatural bloodlines and experiment on them and see if you can use any powers they have.

Supernatural animals or items are weapons

A magical item or easily controllable animal with some reliable religious power is a weapon to use against your enemy.

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Recreate instances of intervention

Most religious texts claim at least a few instances of divine intervention. The CIA could research them and try to recreate those circumstances.
For example they could try to recreate Sodom and sodom and gomorrah in an attempt to get the god of the old testament to intervene and thus prove himself.

For some religions there might be more direct ways to prove/disprove them, for example the CIA could assassinate the dalai lama and carefully spy on the process to find his reincarnation and see if they can confirm it being true.

I think most of the programs would be either outright ridiculous or terrifyingly inhumane for the reader. Ranging from CIA agents practicing ancient rituals over constructed micro cities up to captured and tortured people and human sacrifices (a lot of religions really like those).

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