Fri, Sep 01, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Starting a new religion is not an easy path

A documentary film team's ad for would-be gurus sounded like a joke, but director Andy Deemer is trying to determine how religious movements begin and take hold

By Michael Luo  /  NY TIMES SERVICE , NEW YORK

The help-wanted ad had the whiff of a practical joke. "Documentary will pay you $5,000 to start your own religion," it said. "No exp. necessary."

"I laughed out loud," said Joshua Boden, 35, a bald-headed bassist in an indie rock band, the Angelic Bombs, who stumbled across the ad in the Village Voice last spring.

But Boden, whose friends have long urged him to write down some of the bits of pop religion and philosophy that he has developed over the years, said his curiosity was piqued. He went to the corresponding Web site and dashed off an application.

As it turned out, the advertisement was seeking participants for a very real, albeit unusual, social experiment: take US$5,000 to start your own religious movement, in exchange for allowing a film crew to follow you around as you try to get under way.

The project, while certainly amusing to some, is intended to examine a serious set of questions about how religious movements begin and take hold.

"It's not cynical or skeptical," said Andy Deemer, 33, an independent filmmaker who hatched the idea. "Ultimately, I want the project to be interfaith and supporting different faiths."

And while it may seem like a funny idea, embedded within this project lies a historical truth: Every religion, from the ones with millions of believers worldwide to those with just a handful, started somewhere, with someone.

While the major religions have histories and customs so long and deep that it is hard to imagine a time when they did not exist, new religions have actually been emerging on a regular basis in North America, especially since the end of the Civil War.

J. Gordon Melton, executive director of the Institute for the Study of American Religions at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said perhaps 40 to 45 new religious groups are emerging a year, compared with just a handful a year a little over a century ago.

The New York City area has long been a hotbed for new religions, as well as the staging ground for overseas religious movements trying to make the leap into the American spiritual marketplace, Melton said. New religions tend to form in urban areas, where it is much easier to gather an initial group.

Some of the movements that began in this country in the New York City area include Hare Krishna, modern incarnations of Wicca and an array of guru-centered groups.

The most successful new religion of the past century?

"Probably Scientology," Melton said.

Other successful movements include the Unification Church, led by the Reverend Sun-myung Moon; Church Universal and Triumphant, a New Age group; and the Universal Life Church.

Whether or not Deemer's idea leads to a movement like those, his project, and his association with Boden, provides a rare glimpse of what someone with a spiritual bent, looking for a new religious approach, faces in New York City, as well as some of the new tools that are available to spread the word.

In order to find a guru worth filming, Deemer posted on Craigslist, put up posters across Brooklyn and Manhattan and placed the classified ad in the Village Voice. He wound up with about 300 applications from across the country. Some seemed fanatical; others facetious.

He winnowed the candidates down to 100 for phone interviews. About 40 were asked to come in for an interview on camera.

The filmmaking team grappled with what to ask their would-be messiahs and how to select one, Deemer said.

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