Create Your Own Religion (Out of Someone Else’s): A Class Exercise


by Jospeh Laycock

This semester I had the pleasure of conducting a grand experiment with my students that I have wanted to do for several years. My class ran a simulation in which we created eleven imaginary religious traditions and allowed them to develop from a founder, into a church, and finally into sectarian movements. Pedagogically, the simulation followed the same principle as Sid Meier’s “Civilization” franchise of computer games, which teaches patterns in world history by letting the player create a history that never happened. My simulation was intended to help students develop a sociological imagination and think critically about the history of religions. I am sharing the results of my grand experiment here so that others can consider developing similar exercises, further refining and improving the process.

I first began thinking about simulations for religious studies when I was a teaching fellow at Boston University. Stephen Prothero was known for an exercise in his Introduction to Religion course in which teams of students were assigned to create new religions. (In his book God is Not One, Prothero credits his colleague David Eckel with inventing this exercise). The students would then present their religions to the class to create a spiritual marketplace in which they vied for converts. In one version of this simulation, students could “convert” to one of the religions. In another version, students were given “money” in the form of monopoly money or similar currency that they could distribute to various churches however they liked. At the end of the simulation, teams could boast over whose religion claimed the most converts or money. The exercise has since spread to other campuses where it has been adapted to courses on the sociology of religion. In one iteration of this exercise, students received a grade based on how many of their classmates converted to their religion!

There are several advantages to this exercise. The most obvious is that it gets students to be excited about class and causes them to become invested in the subject. It also forces students to think about what might constitute a “religion” in ways they haven’t thought of before. But I also felt this simulation had room for improvement. In the real world, most religions are not created by or marketed to college students. Other teaching fellows informed me that many of the religions their students created were rather silly and gimmicky. They usually emphasized a lack of restrictive rules and a healthy respect for individuality. Damnation and sacrifice were apparently pretty rare––and the marketplace created by their classmates incentivized students not to include such details. But in the real world we know that hellfire can be a selling point for religions. So can strict rules about sexual propriety, authoritarian leaders, theology that mixes money with the sacred, and all the other elements of religion that college students often find distasteful. We also know that most religions are not created in the way that companies create new products. There are patterns to how and why new religious movements form and I wanted to create a simulation that reflected this.

This semester I was assigned to teach a course called “Prophets, Founders, and Saints.” In keeping with tradition, I centered the course around classic texts like The Interior Castle and The Life Milarepa. But I also wanted students to have a strong theoretical foundation for thinking about how new religious movements often form around extraordinary people, and how the subjective experiences of prophets and mystics are often molded by and filtered through a community with its own needs and desires. I also wanted students to think about how the ideals of prophets and saints are continually re-imagined and come to mean different things in different historical moments. Instead of a “great man” approach to the history of religions, I wanted students to cultivate a sociological imagination. Thus I began Prophets, Founders, and Saints with my experimental simulation.

The Simulation

My grand experiment unfolded in three parts. First, each student created an imaginary founder with a religious vision. Second, students took the founder of one of their classmates and wrote a fictional history of how a tiny, deviant movement developed into a mainstream church. Third, students took the church of one of their classmates and wrote the fictional history of a sectarian movement that sought to return the church to the original vision of its founder. Each phase was supplemented by readings introducing students to a theoretical tool-kit for religious studies.

For the first phase, students read selections from William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience and Anthony Wallace’s essay on “Revitalization Movements.” Armed with James’s psychological profiles of mystics and prophets, and Wallace’s insights into the historical and cultural conditions in which new religious movements arise, the students set about creating an imaginary prophet. In this phase, students were required to 1) describe the founder, 2) describe the founder’s “origin story” (how and why they found a religious vocation), 3) describe their early followers, and 4) describe “sacrifice and stigma” mandated by the prophet in keeping with his or her religious vision.

The fourth requirement was framed as follows:

Your founder must require something from his/her followers that most people would be reluctant to do. Examples could include a requirement to: give away material possessions, associate with disreputable people (i.e. prostitutes and tax collectors), aggressively promote the religion in socially deviant ways, follow unusual dietary requirements or consumer habits, wear unusual clothing, pray multiple times a day (possibly while prostrating in or some other physical posture), or enter marriages with multiple wives/husbands. These requirements should not be random but should somehow fit into the larger vision of your founder. In other words, they may seem silly from the outside but should not seem silly from the inside.

This requirement is based on the economist Laurence R. Iannaccone’s article “Sacrifice and Stigma: Reducing Free Riding in Cults, Communes, and other Collectives” in which he argues that deviant and stigmatizing practices help new religious movements to thrive by weeding out potential members who are unwilling to show full commitment to the movement. Students were not taught to accept Iannaccone’s theory uncritically. But requiring sacrifice and stigma made the entire simulation more interesting. These could not be purely “feel good” religions calculated to win over college students. They now had an other-worldly vision that was not fully compatible with the surrounding culture. Significantly, several students created founders who (for various religious reasons) forbade the use of smart phones and social media.

For the second phase, students we discussed Max Weber and the routinization of charisma. Sudents were also exposed to the theory of the sect-church process as described by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark. Finke and Stark argue that new religious communities begin with an other worldly vision that sets them at odds with society at large. The movement becomes a “church” when this vision is relaxed and the community is no longer in a state of tension with society. This relaxation inevitably causes some members of the community to feel that their values have been compromised. Discontent church members seeking to reclaim the vision of the founder form sectarian movements that are once again at odds with society. The process then begins anew. In exposing students to this theory, I was careful to explain that “church” and “sect” are simply heuristic categories that Finke and Stark are imposing onto various groups in order to set up a comparison for analysis.

Armed with this new theory, students took the founder created by a classmate and expanded this early movement into a church. In this phase, students had to 1) give their movement a name, 2) invent an organizational structure, 3) create a system for justifying a religious perspective on modern problems (interpreting sacred texts, convening a council, etc.), and 4) find a way to relax the requirements of sacrifice and stigma set down by the founder. If possible, this compromise had to be done in a way that could be justified using the logic of the religion.

Students traded projects again in the third phase. Students took a church invented by one of their classmates and wrote a fictional history of a sectarian movement that sought to return the religion to the original vision of the founder. In this phase, students had to include 1) a new founder with a fictional history and origin story, 2) a name for the sect to distinguish it from the church, 3) at least one objection to one of the church’s practices or social views, 4) a reversal of the compromises made by the church. The sectarian movement should try to return to the standards of the founder and may even demand a stricter lifestyle than that of the movement’s original followers. Students received a separate grade for each phase. Grading was generous and based largely on the effort demonstrated and whether the submission conformed to the requirements.


After each phase, students would share out their ideas with the rest of the class. Several students expressed that they enjoyed being creative and had fun doing the assignment. However, there was also a certain amount of anxiety about building on someone else’s creative work as well as seeing one’s own creative work being modified by another. Occasionally, students would try to apologize to the person who had come before them or ask questions about the founder’s intent. I discouraged this line of questioning and pointed out that modern religious people are not able to ask their founder directly what they meant.

For me, the most interesting part of this simulation was seeing how many of the changes my students made in the simulation conformed to larger patterns in the history of religion. One student created a sectarian movement that predicted an imminent apocalypse. The group purchased property in Montana where they built a bunker to await the catastrophe. I asked the student if she was familiar with the Church Universal and Triumphant or the Montana Freemen. She answered that she had never heard of these groups but simply felt that if she were going to form an apocalyptic sect, Montana seemed like the logical place to build a bunker and wait for the end. I also noticed several religious movements that began with female prophets but ended with male leaders vying for organizational control. This is a pattern that Catherine Wessinger and others have noticed. Discussing these connections between the simulation and actual patterns in the history of religion led to some stimulating seminars. Students seemed more invested in analyzing these patterns because they had, in a sense, created some of the data.

Problems and Improvements

I made notes throughout the simulation about what I will change if I ever do this again. One student set out to make a racist and misogynistic founder that appeared to be a pastiche of the Westboro Baptist Church and other unpopular movements. In some ways, I thought this made the simulation more interesting. Many of my students come in with the assumption that religion and morality are synonymous and that distasteful or offensive worldviews cannot really be “religion.” But I was also reluctant to pass this prophet off to another student. For this reason, I decided not to reassign the projects randomly. I made sure to hand off the toxic prophet to a student whom I felt would not experience undo distress from analyzing an offensive worldview.

I briefly thought about forbidding “hateful” prophets and religions in the future, but I think that religious studies should prepare students to analyze the motivations of controversial and even dangerous religions. As extreme as he was, the toxic prophet added something important to our analysis. However, I think I will make it clear to students in the future that they can refuse to work with a classmate’s project if they feel uncomfortable doing so.

There was also a significant logistical problem involving execution. I initially tried to use a wiki site for the course, but this became confusing as not all of the students were familiar with editing wiki sites. We eventually settled for a class forum where students would post their extensions to the imaginary histories we were creating.

Another problem was that students did not always follow my formula strictly. The story-telling process seemed to take over so that students sometimes failed to articulate how their writing met the four requirements. This became a problem when their work was handed off to other students. For example, several students did not create any sort of “sacrifice and stigma” in phase 1. This meant that their classmates had nothing to work with in phase 2. I think the way to solve this problem in the future is to spread the project over a longer period of time, so that I can grade students’ initial work and ask them to make necessary changes before their project is uploaded to the forums.

Readers of the blog are welcome to adapt and experiment with this simulation however they like or to create their own. Creative pedagogy is an inherently messy process that can never be fully controlled. But it also has more impact on students and a greater potential to change the way they think than more traditional classroom activities. Readers who are especially interested in how games and imagination shape the way we think may enjoy my new book Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says About Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds.

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One Response to Create Your Own Religion (Out of Someone Else’s): A Class Exercise

  1. Rebecca Raphael says:

    But were the simulations narrated by Nimoy?

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