Religion is an established market, but there’s always room for new players. Would-be messiahs just need to get the uniforms right, says Hugh Pearman
Nobody has ever asked me to run a design course, more’s the pity. But just in case anyone does, here’s the task I would set the students/ design me a religion.
Religions are the last refuge of bad design. You can, I suppose, just about find excuses for the content – millennia of mistranslation, misinterpretation and general corruption of dodgy second- or third-hand accounts of ancient tribal conflicts is not exactly conducive to clarity.
But then, nobody ever pretended that religions made sense. Everyone has the right to believe whatever hokum they choose. No, it’s the presentational aspects that concern me. Any attempt to update the image of a religion seems doomed to failure. The trendy vicar is a comic staple.
Remember, nothing is so absurd that people won’t buy it. Take a relatively modern Christian breakaway movement, like Mormonism.
Mormonism today is huge. It is also madder than usual. Like all religions, it’s a case study in mass delusion, but I’m fond of it because it could easily be regarded as a satire on all the others. Read it up, and you are forced to the conclusion that the snake-oil salesman who invented it – one Joseph Smith – was openly taking the piss with his angels, golden plates and polygamy. These days he’d be in the profitable business of writing saucy fantasy fiction.
Of course, I apologise unreservedly to any reader who regards Smith as a true prophet. Your naivety is charming. Besides, Mormons usually dress well, in that doorbell-ringing kind of way. My students will have to do better, however.
And don’t forget theosophy, which flourished in the years after World War I and was linked to Indian mysticism. It had a bewildering number of variations, one of which produced a handsome new messiah who later got a bit embarrassed by the whole thing and disbanded the sect. Needless to say, theosophy is still simmering away, and New Ageism is one aspect of it. No religion, however implausible, ever quite seems to die. And they all have periods of precipitous growth. This is what I want to exploit.
Such matters are, of course, elegantly dissected by anti-religionists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, but I prefer satire, such as Will Self’s masterly The Book of Dave, which details a religion of the post-apocalyptic future based upon the discovery of the crazed scribblings of a misanthropic London cabbie. The great thing about it is that its internal logic is entirely consistent, right down to internecine conflicts and a Dave-style inquisitor.
So it’s easy to invent a religion – we could all do it in an afternoon. Mine would be a variant of paganism, would probably include some kind of friendly insect-god such as a bumblebee, and involve the discovery of sacred texts by me as chief prophet. Engraved on crystal tablets, or maybe titanium plates. Sorted. Now the tricky part – designing it.
I shall tell my students to mentally combine the presentational aspects of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party – the banners, the uniforms, the rallies – with the online money-extracting efficiency of a successful budget airline. Any new religion has much to learn from both. Our mission is not to take over the world, oh no. All I ask is a billion-dollar turnover within ten years, achieved with effortless style. I shall then renounce my own religion and retire on the proceeds. It’s all very simple. Ready, students?