I don't know about you, but personally I can't think of any better way to stroke your own ego than starting your very own religion and amassing millions of devoted followers. Well, as long as it's a successful religion that is; obviously there's no point starting a religion that doesn't outlast your own mortal lifespan. For a truly enduring sense of self-importance you want your followers to continue worshipping you for at least a couple of millennia and that's going to be difficult if you don't have any by the time you die.
Clearly the mythology surrounding Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed make them difficult role models to emulate, but if a B-grade science fiction writer can start his own religion in our own life times then you can do it too. So here are my tips on how to start your own successful religion:
Endow Yourself With Divinity
Nobody argues with God. Well, nobody that you need to worry about anyway. So if you want to start a religion, you need to claim some divinity for yourself. The simplest way to do this is to just outright claim to be the messiah from some ancient religion; but many have tried this and failed. A more effective way is to make ambiguous statements like “I am who I am”, and let your followers fill in the blanks. They'll feel very smart for having worked out that you're divine before everyone else, and will spend the rest of their lives spreading your gospel for you thus saving you a great deal of time and effort.
Claiming divine inspiration is important so that when you are questioned by the unbelievers down the track you have something to fall back on. Stories of archangels can come in handy for this, and stone tablets engraved with divine teachings have paved the way before you for centuries. More recently, golden tablets have come into vogue. Never mind that the alleged tablets always go missing; that just adds to the intrigue that helps keep your new belief system alive.
Create A Believable Doctrine
In philosophy, an idea needs to be logical in order to survive. In science, it needs to be testable. But in religion, it only needs to be believable; and the minimum standard required for that is considerably lower than you might first think. Remember to offer your new believers something of immediate value that humans crave, such as a sense of community and a way of dealing with their more troubling emotions.
Keep your kookiest ideas for your privileged inner circle. Once your believers are hooked into your mindset of unlimited possibility, eternal life and the potential for relief from their mental suffering, you can leave it until say level 4 to tell them that the earth was in fact populated by aliens from an exploding volcano.
Your doctrine doesn't need to make logical sense; it just needs to be believable. In fact, too much logical sense can destroy the mind-fracturing hypnotic trance you want your believers in. You want some inconsistency in your doctrine in order to keep theologians speculating and arguing over for centuries to come.
Maintain An Air Of Mystery
People are fascinated by mystery. They want to know. They want answers. Once they have them though, they stop asking questions. Or rather, they'll stop asking you. If you want your new religion to flourish you need to provide just enough facts to hook your believers in, but maintain an air of mystery that keeps them curious so they have to keep coming back for more. If you start pointing out too early in the piece basic facts like that the meaning of your life is whatever you choose it to be, or that so-called spiritual experiences are really just intense emotional reactions in our subconscious, you'll just ruin it for everybody.
Most people have no idea how their own mind works, and by maintaining an air of mystery you can use this to your advantage. Remember that 50% of people have a below-average I.Q., and that even an average I.Q. is... well... pretty average. Modern man is even less well educated when it comes to dealing with their emotions, which are the thing that cause us the most suffering. Offer almost any kind of relief from fear and grief, and they'll come running.
Offer Something Your Followers Will Value
Your doctrine needs to make your followers feel some kind of benefit in following you while also maintaining your permanent position at the top of the pecking order. Humans are emotional beings constantly in search of safety to assuage our anxiety about dying. Your doctrine should incorporate elements that help deal with this primal fear.
Time-honoured approaches to this include an afterlife or some form or reincarnation. These are ideal hooks on which to hang your view of morality by tying it to eternal judgement after death if your followers don't do what you tell them during this lifetime. Obviously nobody can really prove what happens to our soul after we die, which means you can make up whatever shit you like.
I can't stress enough that the belief system you are teaching doesn't need to be logical so long as it offers something of value. Despite hundreds of years of western science, we still respond to new ideas emotionally and then back rationalise with our own internal logic. Emotion always beats logic like rock beats scissors. Plenty of existing religions contain contradictory ideas which the faithful happily swallow, because of the other benefits the religion offers and the fact that they are often indoctrinated into it before they were old enough to realise that it's obviously bullshit.
Get Yourself Some Disciples
Obviously in order to have followers spread your message for you, you're going to need to have some. Getting yourself disciples is easier than you think as there are plenty of people desperate to escape their tedious, mundane lives to choose from.
If you can pepper your teachings with some simple practical wisdom like “Be nice to other people, and they'll be nice to you” then you'll attract a bunch of people who will be grateful for all you've done to improve their lives. Point out to them that you are the one true path to enlightenment, and they'll be yours forever.
Once you've achieved sufficient critical mass, even smart people with low self-esteem will begin following out of sheer peer pressure. Eventually a government will form that takes on your ideas and encourage the rest of the masses to follow suit with draconian laws based on your teachings. Finally you'll be home and hosed once an army or two launch a few crusades/jihads to impose your belief system on everyone else, backed with a moral justification for the reckless murdering and greedy pillaging of all those who don't immediately recognise your divinity when faced with a lethal weapon.
Start Your Own Community
A few disciples are a good start, but you'll need a whole community of people to promote your new-found wisdom to the world, with you as their guru. Communities are great because people naturally gravitate towards them. We evolved in small tribes no bigger than a hundred or so, so modern life forces people to group into smaller groupings where we feel safe. It helps give people a sense of us-and-them that's important for feeling that we belong.
To use this to your advantage, you need to start a hierarchical community of your own that you can be the leader of. Endow your disciples with leadership responsibilities, and they'll remain loyal to you as long as you keep stoking their self-esteem by privately pointing out that they're better than all those plebs below them. Include some abstinence-based teaching that keeps your leadership hierarchy eternally restless and before long you'll be making the Catholic church look like Lord of the Flies.
Declare Any Dissent Blasphemous
Religious ideas hold a special pride of place in believers hearts and we've often been taught that we should respect other people's cherished beliefs no matter how ludicrous they may be. You can capitalise on this and reinforce it by declaring any dissent from your teachings to be blasphemous.
Somehow the mere fact that someone believes some crazy shit means that everyone else should at least treat that shit with respect. This will cover a multitude of sins on your part if you use it to your advantage. Punishments like stoning to death, burning at the stake, social ostracism via excommunication and more recently litigation have all been used by religions through the ages to deal with the sin of blasphemy by their detractors. This helps keep the faithful too frightened to speak up for themselves, and permanently angry with those who choose not to follow your teachings as a prophet.
If you declare that you are above insult and criticism, your followers will run riot killing anyone who speaks against you, for insulting their prophet. You might think that if your followers can't handle the thought of you being insulted then their faith in you must be pretty insecure; but don't worry, history shows that this will never occur to them.
Once the faithful are indoctrinated with an appropriate sense of self-righteousness over the idea that they are following the one true religion, the natural human tendency to avoid admitting to ourselves that we've been taken for a ride will keep your fancy new belief system rolling along for generations to come.
Teach Your Ideas To Children
Young children have fertile imaginations largely because their brains haven't developed sufficiently for them to have strong powers of reason and a good grasp on reality yet. This makes them the ideal planting ground for your wacky new ideas. Once indoctrinated as children, it's very difficult for adults to completely divorce themselves from the ideas they heard when they were too young to know any better.
As adults your followers will even argue in favour of beliefs that you taught them as children, having completely forgotten that they weren't endowed with these ideas directly from God himself. Instead, they'll think they came up with them through their own volition. Promote your ideas under the guise of religious education and you'll be able to get away with all sorts of mental and spiritual abuse that would otherwise land you in jail.
Avoid Being Martyred Too Early
Although martyrdom has been a successful route to social immortality for many religious leaders, you want to think very carefully before following this well trodden path. A lot of martyrs end up forgotten altogether and even the successful ones don't get to enjoy the full fruits of their labours. Before you fall for your own bullshit remember that like all other religious belief systems, yours is completely made up.
Once you've martyred yourself you'll be out of the picture entirely and you won't get to enjoy the lasting satisfaction which comes from being a household deity. Stories of your imminent return may keep your followers faithful and eager for centuries, but it won't help you any. If you must die for your cause, try to leave it until old age was just about to take you out anyway.