James McGrath has recently tagged me (well. really a very large set of people) with the meme of naming three religions you find fascinating of which you are not or have not been a member.
I'm going to place a few additional restrictions on my choices:
First, I am not going to pick any purely fictitious religions. Thus, for example, I'm not going to pick any religions from Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series (although there is a very large temptation to try to pick some of those). Similarly, I'm not going to pick any religion
that started as a fictional religion and then became real. Thus, Melkorism and Cthulhu worship are both out. Finally, I'm not going to pick any parody religions. Thus, Invisible Pink Unicornism and Flying Spaghetti Monsterism are both out although I will note that IPUism was around long before FSMism which is a sad little upstart in comparison (I mean, c’mon. It doesn't even have an oxymoron in its title.).
So of the real, non-parody religions, what will I choose are Cargo Cults, Roman Catholicism and Bahai in no particular order.
Cargo cultism is a religion with which some may not be familiar. It is also as far as I am aware the only example where nearly identical religions arose independently which already makes it very interesting. However, where and how cargo cults arose explains this feature. At the same time, it makes them all the more fascinating. During World War II, the United States used islands whose populations previously had had little or no contact with the outside world. Many people in Western and other civilizations believe in forms of sympathetic magic or the like, but small tribal groups often take this to an extreme. In these cases, the tribes saw the US soldiers doing apparently ritualistic activity that included marching in formation, talking to themselves on pieces of wire, and clearing out large fields. The tribes further saw the immediate responses to this activity: Airplanes came and dropped cargo to the soldiers, including food, medicine and clothing. The tribal members concluded that if they could engage in the same ritualistic behavior, they might get the same or even better results.
Thus, the cargo cults were born.
When the soldiers left, the tribes assigned priests who talked to spirits on the radio which would generally consist of a few pieces of wire. They cleared out or kept clear airplane landing fields. And they wore uniforms and conducted drills. These religions were derisively labeled "cargo cults." These remained strong through the mid 1970s. Members retained their beliefs and practices even when confronted with more features of modern civilization and explanations of what US soldiers had been actually doing. Cargo cults still exist in limited numbers today, seventy years after World War II.
The second religion is Roman Catholicism. The Church has been and remains a fascinating set of contradictions. On the one hand, it is hard to reconcile the gilded architecture and massive hierarchy with the ascetic messages preached by Jesus. The Church has a history of encouraging violence from the Crusades to the Inquisition. When the Church has not encouraged war and killing for its own ends, it has been silent when speaking up could save lives. The Church has also actively persecuted individuals such as Galileo who disagreed with the Church. On the other hand, the Church helped preserved learning that would otherwise be lost. The Church was a bastion of knowledge against the tides of ignorance (tides possibly encouraged by aspects of the Church. but still) The Church has provided shelter and relief to the poor for centuries. In the last fifty years, the Church has strived to modernize and reconcile its beliefs with science while many other religions have gone out of their way to attack science.
The Roman Catholic Church is the Church of Torquemada But it is also the Church of George Coyne and J. R. R. Tolkien. Whether the Church survives this next century and whether it embraces modernity or not will be some of the major questions impacting this century.
The third is the Bahai. The Bahai are the youngest of the major Abrahamic religions. They have consistently embraced reason over dogma and thus far have a history of being the least persecutory of the Abrahamic religions (although how much this is due to their still small numbers remains to be seen). If I had to name a single religion that I might be comfortable with drastically increasing in size over the next few centuries, I would likely name the Bahai.
Edit: It was pointed out to me by multiple people that I neglected to tag this meme for anyone. So I'll tag Kurt because he hasn't blogged much since he got married, Apikores because I'm just curious what he has to say, and Kat because she commented on this post already so hey, why not? And I suppose anyone else who has enough free time who reads this blog regularly and has a blog can consider themselves tagged.