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.
"How do you interview for a messiah?" he said, in an interview early on. "It's a really difficult question that we're struggling with. We have to go out and find a guru, but what kind of questions do you ask? Have you ever been arrested for preaching? Have you ever conducted any miracles? Have you ever raised anyone from the dead? Do we go that route? Or do we just say, `Tell us about your religion."'
The interviews ranged from the humorous to the bizarre. Some applicants were genuine believers; others were just taking the opportunity to poke fun at established religions.
The filmmakers gravitated to the believers. Among others, there was Remedy Aquino, who promoted a religion based around the worship of water. She even had a personal narrative to back it up, telling of how she was born dead and was revived by water.
"It is what we are really," she said, wearing a slinky, aqua-colored dress. "The reason we die, the reason we continue to change, is we are made of water."
Then there was Damian Phoenix, a hulking figure with an elaborate tattoo on his back of an insectlike creature that he called Arkon. He described a world of alien parasites that negatively influenced people and said he had the ability to heal them.
"I help people who are troubled by these certain entities," he said. "I suck out negative energies into me."
There were false starts. One finalist, a freestyle-rapping Reiki healer, quit after deciding that starting a religion was too much work. Another was arrested for stealing a car.
Over the last few months, Deemer has been following Boden.
Deemer said he wound up choosing a religion that he could follow himself. He would be the religion's first apostle.
Boden, who had been working as a facilities manager at a music school in Brooklyn until he lost his job recently, said he initially applied for the grant on a lark. But as he has plunged deeper into the project, he has become passionate about it.
"When it first started, I saw it just as a hoot," he said. "But the more I started thinking about it, the more I realized it was kind of important, especially in this day and age."
He is trying to establish the Church of Now, a God-optional religion that lists 14 precepts, including, "The only `sin' is not living fully," and, "This life is the one that counts; this IS your eternal reward."
The religion has elements of Buddhism, Taoism and New Age thinking. Although some of the beliefs might sound unorthodox and nonreligious ("Laughter is a must!"), Boden is earnest in his beliefs and his desire to establish a spiritual community.
As a teenager in Virginia, he dabbled in the New Age movement, experimenting with crystals and Wicca.
In his early 20s, he came across the Tao Te Ching, reading the slim volume at the center of Taoism in a single rhapsodic half-hour sitting at a coffee shop.
"I just sat there vibrating," he said.
He eventually moved to New York to pursue music full time but continued to search for a spiritual outlet. The search has taken on new urgency over the last few years.
"I felt I needed a spiritual focus," he said.
He turned to Buddhism, popular among many of his musician friends. But parts of Buddhism, as well as some of the practitioners he met, frustrated him.
He has always played the role of counselor among his friends, and many of them urged him to do something more with his ideas, he said. For a while, he considered starting a book club with a metaphysical bent. But now he has found his platform.
In his religion, divinity can be found in the everyday, the laughter of a child, the changing of the leaves. No one tells anyone else what to believe. Instead, the goal is for the congregation to embark on a search for answers together.
Another precept: "There is no quick fix in life, nor any pat answers."
But the first service for the Church of Now, held recently at Mo Pitkin's, an East Village bar, did not go too well. Boden rambled in his 15-minute sermon. Most in the small crowd, composed almost entirely of friends, indicated they would probably not come back. They wanted him to sell them more on his beliefs, which frustrated Boden.
"I was disappointed because what I heard coming back to me through others was that I wasn't telling them, `Believe this.' I wasn't saying, `Here are the rules,"' he said. "I was saying, `Let's figure this out together."'
He has found that attracting followers to even come out to a service in the first place can be arduous. He has created a MySpace page, and a marketing consultant helped produce some fliers and postcards. But two hours spent camped out in Union Square this week with a big sign that said, "Talk to Me About Living in the Now" yielded just three substantive encounters.
By watching Boden's struggles, Deemer said, he has learned a thing or two about starting a religion, and he is mulling whether he should give it a try himself.
But for now, Boden and Deemer are pressing on, believing that the Church of Now, as well as the documentary, has something to offer a world rife with conflict over religious belief.
"Maybe it'll get people to talk, to open up their minds a little bit, to share ideas," Boden said.
After all, another one of his precepts states: "We are God."
That is, if you believe in God.
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