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Shortcuts: Starting your own religion

By Justin Gest for CNN
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(CNN) -- Last week, two self-proclaimed Jedi Knights appealed to the United Nations to recognize their faith as an official religion and accordingly rename the International Day for Tolerance to Interstellar Day of Tolerance.

The petition from Britons John Wilkinson and Charlotte Law, who call themselves Umada and Yunyun, comes after a 2001 British census recorded 400,000 people who "practice" the Jedi faith.

Here are some basics to starting a new religion and recruiting others who believe the Force is with you, even without the help of a blockbuster film.

Some divine intervention

In their book, "Theory of Religion," Rodney Stark and W.S. Bainbridge identify four primary inspirations for founding a new religion:

The Psychopathological: Religion inspired by a period of severe stress in the life of the founder. The founder endures psychological problems, which are resolved thanks to the founding of the religion.

The Social: Religion founded because members of a group spend increasingly less time with outsiders, and increasingly more time with each other. Such reclusive behavior will naturally inspire a new theology and ritual.

The Normal: Religion inspired by the interpretation of the pedestrian as supernatural. For instance, remember how your shrink told you that you were schizophrenic? Well, maybe you really did hear those voices.

The Entrepreneurial: Religion inspired by the desire to develop new ideas and sell them to the increasingly disenchanted faithful. According to this model, founders take ideas from the pre-existing religions, and try to improve on them to make them more appealing to the religious consumer.

Construct a shrine

Once you've reached that epiphany, it is time to crystallize that sense of Enlightenment into an asylum for worship.

Dan Frydman, a 16-year-old high school student in London, has erected a shrine to John Lennon in his bedroom. "It's not like a giant sculpture or anything. It's just a lot of crap all over the walls... like posters and records, you know."

While Frydman believes the deceased Beatle is the greatest songwriter ever, he is not a fundamentalist Lennonist. "I would never force anyone to believe that," he said.

In terms of making the shrine functional, Frydman was inspired by the film, "Almost Famous." In an attempt to see the future, he spun The Who record, "Tommy," drew the curtains, lit a candle, and lied down on the floor underneath his shrine and "saw a flash there."

Merchandising

All viable religions are equipped with physical manifestations of divinity available for purchase. How else are you supposed to afford to buy all the gold and posters for your shrine?

For some inspiration, we asked the good people at Aahs, a popular novelty store in Los Angeles, California."We do have the Jesus action figure, Jesus with nunchucks, and the Jesus bobble-head," said store cashier Johnny Alvarez. They also stock a Jesus magic eight-ball. Other Aahs hot-sellers included various saints to protect your cats, your computer, or to guard against a hangover.

Your religion may want to engrave some shot glasses, snow globes, or key chains to sell in the shrine's gift shop.

Talk to your lawyers

New religions appear all the time. "The Encyclopedia of Cults, Sects, and New Religions," edited by James R. Lewis, identifies everything from the Aaronic Order to Zoroastrianism. But for legitimacy, you'll probably need to register somewhere beyond a book.

Belarus is unlikely to be a good home. In October 2002, the national government there passed a law stating that all religious groups that were not registered in 1982 would be prohibited from consideration as a "religious association" -- the legal status required for publishing literature or administering any charities or schools.

Not that the United Nations proved anymore supportive in response to the Jedis' proposal. "The UN is not in the business of certifying religions," said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric. "With or without light sabers."


The way of the Jedi -- followed by 400,000 in the UK according to the last census.

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