The question of the origins of religions is an intriguing one. Some dismiss these new phenonema as mere “cults.” Of course in the Darwinistic struggle for existence, most will not survive. Some are led by obvious charlatans.
Still, many religions that are important today started in this fashion. At the time of their founding Mormonism and Christian Science initially generated much resistance. Yet today both are recognized as bona fide religions. Some hold that Scientology (founded a half century ago by L. Ron Hubbard as Dianetics) is the most successful twentieth-century religion. I believe that the conversion of what started as a psychotherapy movement into a religion was originally instituted as a tax dodge.
In order to understand the phenomenon one must resist the temptation to be censorious. Study of the origins of religion needs to be conducted objectively, without imposing judgments as to the plausibility of the belief system. In this perspective probably all religions are vulnerable (apart from a few where the roster of required beliefs has dwindled down to almost nothing). By the same token all religions are grist for the mill in an effort to understand the motivation for starting and sustaining them.
On a personal note, I had a close friend who started a new religion. The late Mikhail Itkin (1936-1989) started his own version of Christianity, which eventually morphed into the Holy Apostolic Catholic Church of the East (Chaldean-Syrian). Having absorbed Old Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Quakerism (among other Christian denominations) he at length adopted the Syrian tradition as his bedrock. He reasoned that since Jesus spoke Aramaic (an assumption now questioned by some scholars), the Christians in Syria had preserved the most authentic version. Perhaps he was able to absorb a wide variety of influences, more or less impartially, because he had been brought up in the Jewish faith (not unlike Our Lord, he would say, though Mikhail was certainly not a Jew for Jesus).
Bishop Itkin repeatedly altered his theology and liturgy to reflect the twists and turns of gay liberation (his central commitment), feminism, ecology, and other present-minded issues. The liturgy varied accordingly. It may be that he was too smart to found a durable church, because he kept changing the groundplan, based on sophisticated reading and reflection. This variability, combined with his lack of personal charisma, severely limited the growth of the church. At one point he claimed fifteen parishes, though from what I was able to tell most existed in name only. He had one faithful priest, a woman. They would hold services even if only one or two persons showed up. I doubt that Bishop Itkin’s church long survived him. Unfortunately, I have misplaced the literature that he gave me as part of his missionary efforts.
The question of the origin of religion tends to be murky. A case in point is the Nation of Islam (NoI; the “black Muslims”). Reputedly it was founded by a mysterious figure in Detroit during the 1920s. The founder disappeared and reliable records of his initial missionary activity are scarce.
Now an independent filmmaker Andy Deemer is making a film documenting the first steps of a new religion (New York Times, August 28). Deemer offered a grant of $5,000 to someone who would agree to start a faith. After sifting out the applications, the filmmaker selected a certain Joshua Boden, who founded the Church of Now. Boden’s initial idea, to use Buddhism and the Dao de jing as basic building blocks, was promising. However, the result is little different from secularism. Belief in God is optional, and the only sin is not living fully. Ho hum. At any rate, the initial gathering of the Church of Now, held at an East Village bar in New York City, failed to generate a communicant base.
But it may not have helped if Mr. Deemer had chosen an individual with more traditional beliefs in divine intervention and the after life. Most new religions fail. However, to show a full profile of origins one needs to find an innovative religion that enjoys some success.
Some more general reflections are in order. From the examples given above-- Mormonism, Christian Science, and the Nation of Islam--one might conclude that all religions start with an obscure but charismatic leader who gradually assembles a group of faithful followers. This certainly seems to be the case with the great Middle Eastern religions that started 2000-1500 years ago. Preeminently these are Christianity and Islam. However, that creative period generated competitors that did not survive, such as Manichaeism and Mithraism. (By the way, the first recorded example of the latter type is the monotheistic cult of the sun, established by the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton, some thirty-four centuries ago.)
In addition to this type, with a known founder, there are other religions that have evolved organically, stemming ultimately from prehistoric or folk sources. Examples of the founderless type include Hinduism and most tribal religions. An exception in the latter category is the Ghost Dance, a messianic faith begun towards the end of the nineteenth century by the Paiute prophet Wovoka.
It seems to me that Judaism is an example of the organic type, though it is usually ascribed to a founder, either Abraham or Moses. Recent research suggests that primordial Judaism, not originally monotheistic, evolved out of Canaanite polytheism.