Everything Is F*cked: A Book About Hope: Part 1 – Chapter 4

How to Make All Your Dreams Come True

Imagine this: it’s 2:00 a.m. and you’re still awake on the couch, staring bleary-eyed and foggy-brained at the television. Why? You don’t know. Inertia simply makes it easier to sit there and keep watching than to get up and go to bed. So, you watch.

Perfect. This is how I get you: when you’re feeling apathetic and lost and completely passive in the face of your fate. Nobody sits up staring at a TV at 2:00 a.m. if they have important shit to do the next day. Nobody struggles with the will to move their ass off the couch for hours on end unless they’re having some sort of inner crisis of hope. And it’s exactly this crisis that I want to speak to.

I appear on your TV screen. I’m a whirlwind of energy. There are loud, obnoxious colors, cheesy sound effects. I’m practically shouting. Yet, somehow, my smile is easy and relaxed. I’m comforting. It’s as though I’m making eye contact with you and only you:

“What if I told you that I could solve all your problems?” I say.

Pfft, puh-lease, you think. You don’t know the half of my problems, buddy.

“What if I told you I know how to make all your dreams come true?”

Riiiiight, and I’m the fucking tooth fairy.

“Look, I know how you feel,” I say.

Nobody knows how I feel, you reflexively tell yourself, surprised at how automatic the response is.

“I, too, once felt lost,” I say. “I felt alone, isolated, hopeless. I, too, used to lie awake at night for no particular reason, wondering if there was something wrong with me, wondering what was this invisible force standing between myself and my dreams. And I know that’s what you’re feeling, too. That you’ve somehow lost something. You just don’t know what.”

In truth, I say these things because they are experienced by everybody. They are a fact of the human condition. We all feel powerless to equalize with the inherent guilt that comes with our existence. We all suffer and are victimized to varying degrees, especially when we’re young. And we all spend a lifetime trying to compensate for that suffering.

And in moments of our life when things aren’t going so well, this makes us despair.

But like most people struggling, you’ve enveloped yourself so much in your pain that you’ve forgotten that pain is common, and that your strife is not uniquely yours—on the contrary, it’s universal. And because you’ve forgotten this, you feel as if I’m speaking directly to you; as if, by some magical power, I’m peering into your soul and reading back to you the contents of your heart. For this, you sit up and at attention.

“Because,” I repeat, “I have the solution to all your problems. I can make all your dreams come true.” Now I’m pointing, and my finger looks gigantic on your TV screen. “I have all the answers. I have the secret of everlasting happiness and eternal life, and it’s this . . .”

What I go on to say is so outlandish, so ridiculous, so absolutely perverse and cynical that you actually think it might be true. The problem is, you want to believe me. You need to believe me. I represent the hope and salvation your Feeling Brain desperately craves, that it needs. So, slowly, your Thinking Brain comes to the conclusion that my idea is so batshit crazy that it just might work.

As the infomercial drags on, that existential need to find meaning somewhere, anywhere, beats down your psychological defenses and lets me in. After all, I have demonstrated an uncanny knowledge of your pain, a backdoor entrance to your secret truth, a deep vein traveling through your heart. You then realize that in between all my big white teeth and shouty words, I’ve spoken to you: I was once just as fucked as you . . . and I found my way out. Come with me.

I keep going. I’m on a roll now. The camera angles are switching back and forth, grabbing me now from the side, now from the front. Suddenly, there’s a studio audience in front of me. They’re wrapped up in every word I say. A woman is crying. A man’s jaw drops. And yours drops with it. I’m all up in your shit now. I will give you permanent fulfillment, motherfucker. I will fill any gap, plug any hole. Just sign up for one low price. What is happiness worth to you? What is hope worth to you? Act now, fucker.

Sign up. Today.

With that, you grab your phone. You go to the website. You put in the digits.

Truth and salvation and everlasting happiness. It’s all yours. It’s coming to you. Are you ready?





An Introduction to a Proven System That Will Help You Achieve Everlasting Bliss and Eternal Salvation!




Welcome, and congratulations on taking the first step to making all your dreams come true! By the end of this course you will have solved all your life’s problems. You will live a life of abundance and freedom. You will be surrounded by adoring friends and loved ones. Guaranteed!*

It’s so simple, anyone can do it. No education or certification required. All you need is an internet connection and a functioning keyboard, and you, too, can create your very own religion.

Yes, you heard me right. You, too, can start your very own religion—TODAY—and begin reaping the benefits of the thousands of mindlessly devoted followers who will lavish on you unconditional adoration, financial gifts, and more social media likes than you know what to do with.

In this so-simple-anyone-can-do-it six-step program, we will cover:


Belief systems. Do you want your religion to be spiritual or secular? Past-focused or future-focused? Do you want it to be violent or nonviolent? These are all important questions, but don’t worry, only I have the answers.

How to find your first followers. And more important: what do you want your followers to be? Rich? Poor? Male? Female? Vegan? I have the inside scoop!

Rituals, rituals, rituals! Eat this. Stand there. Recite that. Bow and kneel and clap your hands! Do the hokey pokey and turn yourself around! That’s what it’s all about! The most enjoyable part of religion is coming up with dumb stuff that you all agree somehow means something. I will provide you with a complete guide to developing the hippest, coolest rituals on the block. All the kids will be talking about it—mainly because they’ll be forced to.

How to choose a scapegoat. No religion is complete without a common enemy upon which to project one’s inner turmoil. Life is messy, but why deal with your problems when you can just blame somebody else for them? That’s right, you’ll discover the best way to choose an evil boogeyman (or boogeywoman!) and how to convince your followers to hate him/her. Nothing unites us like hating the same enemy. Get your assault rifles ready!

And finally, how to make money. Why start a religion if you don’t profit from it? My guide will give you all the nitty-gritty details on how to milk the most out of your followers. Whether you’re into money, fame, political power, or blood orgies, I’ve got you covered!


Look, we all need communities to build hope. And we all need hope to not go utterly fucking insane and start snorting bath salts. Religions are the basis for that communal hope. And we’re going to learn how to build them from scratch.

Religions are a beautiful thing. When you get enough people together with the same values, they behave in ways they never would when alone. Their hope amplifies in a sort of network effect, and the social validation of being part of a group hijacks their Thinking Brains and lets their Feeling Brains run wild.¹

Religions bring groups of people together to mutually validate one another and make one another feel important. It’s a big silent agreement that if we all come together under some shared purpose, we will feel important and worthy, and the Uncomfortable Truth will be just that much farther away.²

This is hugely satisfying psychologically. People just lose their shit! And best of all, they become highly suggestible. Paradoxically, it’s only in a group environment that the individual has no control, that he gains the perception of perfect self-control.

The danger of this immediate access to the Feeling Brain, though, is that large groups of people tend to do highly impulsive and irrational shit. So, on the one hand, people get to feel whole, like they’re understood and loved. On the other hand, they sometimes transform into murderous, angry mobs.³

This guide will take you through the details of establishing your own religion so you can reap the benefits of thousands of suggestible followers. Let’s get started.





Step One: Sell Hope to the Hopeless


I’ll never forget the first time someone told me I had blood on my hands. I remember it as if it were yesterday.

It was 2005, a sunny, crisp morning in Boston, Massachusetts. I was a university student then and walking to class, minding my own business, when I saw a group of kids holding up pictures of the 9/11 terrorist attacks with captions that read, “America Deserved It.”

Now, I don’t consider myself the most patriotic person by any stretch of the imagination, but it seems to me that anyone holding such a sign in broad daylight immediately becomes a highly punchable person.

I stopped and engaged the kids, asking what they were doing. They had a little table set up with a smattering of pamphlets on top. One had Dick Cheney with devil’s horns drawn on him and the words “Mass Murderer” written beneath. Another had George W. Bush with a Hitler mustache.

The students were part of the LaRouche Youth Movement, a group started by the far-left ideologue Lyndon LaRouche in New Hampshire. His acolytes would spend countless hours standing around college campuses in the Northeast, handing out flyers and pamphlets to susceptible college kids. And when I came upon them, it took me all of ten seconds to figure out what they actually were: a religion.

That’s right. They were an ideological religion: an antigovernment, anticapitalist, anti–old people, antiestablishment religion. They argued that the international world order, from top to bottom, was corrupt. They argued that the Iraq War had been instigated for no other reason than that Bush’s friends wanted more money. They argued that terrorism and mass shootings didn’t exist, that such events were simply highly coordinated governmental efforts to control the population. Don’t worry right-wing friends, years later, they would draw the same Hitler mustaches and make the same claims about Obama—if that makes you feel any better. (It shouldn’t.)

What the LaRouche Youth Movement (LYM) does is pure genius. It finds disaffected and agitated college students (usually young men), kids who are both scared and angry (scared at the sudden responsibility they’ve been forced to take on and angry at how uncompromising and disappointing it is to be an adult) and then preach one simple message to them: “It’s not your fault.”

Yes, young one, you thought it was Mom and Dad’s fault, but it’s not their fault. Nope. And I know you thought it was your shitty professors and overpriced college’s fault. Nope. Not theirs, either. You probably even thought it was the government’s fault. Close, but still no.

See, it’s the system’s fault, that grand, vague entity you’ve always heard about.

This was the faith the LYM was selling: if we could just overthrow “the system,” then everything would be okay. No more war. No more suffering. No more injustice.

Remember that in order to feel hope, we need to feel there’s a better future out there (values); we need to feel as though we are capable of getting to that better future (self-control); and we need to find other people who share our values and support our efforts (community).

Young adulthood is a period when many people struggle with values, control, and community. For the first time in their lives, kids are allowed to decide who they want to be. Do they want to become a doctor? Study business? Take a psychology course? The options can be crippling.⁴ And the inevitable frustration causes a lot of young people to question their values and lose hope.

In addition, young adults struggle with self-control.⁵ For the first time in their lives, they don’t have some authority figure watching over them 24/7. On the one hand, this can be liberating, exciting. On the other, they are now responsible for their own decisions. And if they kind of suck at getting themselves out of bed on time, going to their classes or a job, and studying enough, it’s tough to admit that there’s no one to blame but themselves.

And finally, young people are particularly preoccupied with finding and fitting into a community.⁶ Not only is this important for their emotional development, but it also helps them find and solidify an identity for themselves.⁷

People like Lyndon LaRouche capitalize on lost and aimless young people. LaRouche gave them a convoluted political explanation to justify how disaffected they felt. He gave them a sense of control and empowerment by outlining a way (supposedly) to change the world. And finally, he gave them a community where they “fit in” and know who they are.

Therefore, he gave them hope.⁸

“Don’t you think this is taking it a little too far?” I asked the LYM students that day, pointing to the pictures of the World Trade Center towers featured on their pamphlets.⁹

“No way, man. I say we’re not taking it far enough!” one of the kids replied.

“Look, I didn’t vote for Bush, and I don’t agree with the Iraq War, either, but—”

“It doesn’t matter who you vote for! A vote for anyone is a vote for the corrupt and oppressive system! You have blood on your hands!”

“Excuse me?”

I didn’t even know how to punch someone, yet I found myself balling my hands into fists. Who the fuck did this guy think he was?

“By participating in the system, you are perpetuating it,” the kid continued, “and therefore are complicit in the murder of millions of innocent civilians around the world. Here, read this.” He shoved a pamphlet at me. I glanced at it, turned it over.

“That’s fucking stupid,” I said.

Our “discussion” went on like this for another few minutes. Back then, I didn’t know any better. I still thought stuff like this was about reason and evidence, not feelings and values. And values cannot be changed through reason, only through experience.

Eventually, after I had gotten good and pissed off, I decided to leave. As I started walking off, the kid tried to get me to sign up for a free seminar. “You need to have an open mind, man,” he said. “The truth is scary.”

I looked back and replied with a Carl Sagan quote I had once read on an internet forum: “I think your mind is so open your brain fell out!”¹⁰

I felt smart and smug. He, presumably, felt smart and smug. No minds were changed that day.


We are the most impressionable when things are at their worst.¹¹ When our life is falling apart, it signifies that our values have failed us, and we’re grasping in the dark for new values to replace them. One religion falls and opens up space for the next. People who lose faith in their spiritual God will look for a worldly God. People who lose their family will give themselves away to their race, creed, or nation. People who lose faith in their government or country will look to extremist ideologies to give them hope.¹²

There’s a reason that all the major religions in the world have a history of sending missionaries to the poorest and most destitute corners of the globe: starving people will believe anything if it will keep them fed. For your new religion, it’s best to start preaching your message to people whose lives suck the most: the poor, the outcasts, the abused and forgotten. You know, people who sit on Facebook all day.¹³

Jim Jones built his following by recruiting the homeless and marginalized minorities with a socialist message minced with his own (demented) take on Christianity. Hell, what am I saying? Jesus Christ did the same damn thing.¹⁴ Buddha, too. Moses—you get the idea. Religious leaders preach to the poor and downtrodden and enslaved, telling them that they deserve the kingdom of heaven—basically, an open “fuck you” to the corrupt elites of the day. It’s a message that’s easy to get behind.

Today, appealing to the hopeless is easier than ever before. All you need is a social media account: start posting extreme and crazy shit, and let the algorithm do the rest. The crazier and more extreme your posts, the more attention you’ll garner, and the more the hopeless will flock to you like flies to cow shit. It’s not hard at all.

But you can’t just go online and say anything. No, you must have a (semi-)coherent message. You must have a vision. Because it’s easy to get people riled up and angry about nothing—the news media have created a whole business model out of it. But to have hope, people need to feel that they are a part of some greater movement, that they are about to join the winning side of history.

And, for that, you must give them faith.





Step Two: Choose Your Faith


We all must have faith in something. Without faith, there is no hope.

Nonreligious people bristle at the word faith, but having faith is inevitable. Evidence and science are based on past experience. Hope is based on future experience. And you must always rely on some degree of faith that something will occur again in the future.¹⁵ You pay your mortgage because you have faith that money is real, and credit is real, and a bank taking all your shit is real.¹⁶ You tell your kids to do their homework because you have faith that their education is important, that it will lead them to their becoming happier, healthier adults. You have faith that happiness exists and is possible. You have faith that living longer is worth it, so you strive to stay safe and healthy. You have faith that love matters, that your job matters, that any of this matters.

So, there’s no such thing as an atheist. Well, sorta. Depends what you mean by “atheist.”¹⁷ My point is that we must all believe, on faith, that something is important. Even if you’re a nihilist, you are believing, on faith, that nothing is more important than anything else.

So, in the end, it’s all faith.¹⁸

The important question, then, is: Faith in what? What do we choose to believe?


Whatever our Feeling Brain adopts as its highest value, this tippy top of our value hierarchy becomes the lens through which we interpret all other values. Let’s call this highest value the “God Value.”¹⁹ Some people’s God Value is money. These people view all other things (family, love, prestige, politics) through the prism of money. Their family will love them only if they make enough money. They will be respected only if they have money. All conflict, frustration, jealousy, anxiety—everything boils down to money.²⁰

Other people’s God Value is love. They view all other values through the prism of love—they’re against conflict in all its forms, they’re against anything that separates or divides others.

Obviously, many people adopt Jesus Christ, or Muhammad, or the Buddha, as their God Value. They then interpret everything they experience through the prism of that spiritual leader’s teachings.

Some people’s God Value is themselves—or, rather, their own pleasure and empowerment. This is narcissism: the religion of self-aggrandizement.²¹ These people place their faith in their own superiority and deservedness.

Other people’s God Value is another person. This is often called “codependence.”²² These people derive all hope from their connection with another individual and sacrifice themselves and their own interests for that individual. They then base all their behavior, decisions, and beliefs on what they think will please that other person—their own little personal God. This typically leads to really fucked-up relationships with—you guessed it—narcissists. After all, the narcissist’s God Value is himself, and the codependent’s God Value is fixing and saving the narcissist. So, it kind of works out in a really sick and fucked-up way. (But not really.)

All religions must start with a faith-based God Value. Doesn’t matter what it is. Worshipping cats, believing in lower taxes, never letting your kids leave the house—whatever it is, it is a faith-based value that this one thing will produce the best future reality, and therefore gives the most hope. We then organize our lives, and all other values, around that value. We look for activities that enact that faith, ideas that support it, and most important, communities that share it.


It’s around now that some of the more scientifically minded readers start raising their hands and pointing out that there are these things called facts and there is ample evidence to demonstrate that facts exist, and we don’t need to have faith to know that some things are real.

Fair enough. But here’s the thing about evidence: it changes nothing. Evidence belongs to the Thinking Brain, whereas values are decided by the Feeling Brain. You cannot verify values. They are, by definition, subjective and arbitrary. Therefore, you can argue about facts until you’re blue in the face, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter—people interpret the significance of their experiences through their values.²³

If a meteorite hit a town and killed half the people, the über-traditional religious person would look at the event and say that it happened because the town was full of sinners. The atheist would look at it and say that it was proof there is no God (another faith-based belief, by the way), as how could a benevolent, all-powerful being let such an awful thing happen? A hedonist would look at it and decide that it was even more reason to party, since we could all die at any moment. And a capitalist would look at it and start thinking about how to invest in meteorite-defense technologies.

Evidence serves the interests of the God Value, not the other way around. The only loophole to this arrangement is when evidence itself becomes your God Value. The religion built around the worship of evidence is more commonly known as “science,” and it’s arguably the best thing we’ve ever done as a species. But we’ll get to science and its ramifications in the next chapter.

My point is that all values are faith-based beliefs. Therefore, all hope (and therefore, all religions) are also based on faith, faith that something can be important and valuable and right despite the fact that there will never be a way to verify it beyond all doubt.

For our purposes, I’ve defined three types of religions, each type based on a different kind of God Value:


Spiritual religions. Spiritual religions draw hope from supernatural beliefs, or belief in things that exist outside the physical or material realm. These religions look for a better future outside this world and this life. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, animism, and Greek mythology are examples of spiritual religions.

Ideological religions. Ideological religions draw hope from the natural world. They look for salvation and growth and develop faith-based beliefs regarding this world and this life. Examples include capitalism, communism, environmentalism, liberalism, fascism, and libertarianism.

Interpersonal religions. Interpersonal religions draw hope from other people in our lives. Examples of interpersonal religions include romantic love, children, sports heroes, political leaders, and celebrities.


Spiritual religions are high risk/high reward. They require, by far, the most skill and charisma to get going. But they also pay off the most in terms of follower loyalty and benefits. (I mean, have you seen the Vatican? Holy shit.) And if you build one really well, it’ll last way after you die.

Ideological religions play the religion formation game on “Normal Difficulty.” These religions take a lot of work and effort to create, but they’re fairly common. But because they’re so common, they run into a lot of competition for people’s hopes. They are often described as cultural “trends,” and indeed, few of them survive more than a few years or decades. Only the best last through multiple centuries.

Finally, interpersonal religions are playing the religion formation game on “Easy” mode. That’s because interpersonal religions are as common as people themselves. Pretty much all of us, at some point in our lives, completely surrender ourselves and our self-worth to another individual. The interpersonal religion is sometimes experienced as an adolescent, naïve sort of love and it’s the type of shit that you have to suffer through before you can ever grow out of it.

Let’s start with spiritual religions, as they have the highest stakes and are arguably the most important religions in human history.


Spiritual Religions


From the pagan and animalistic rituals of early human cultures, to the pagan gods of antiquity, to the grandiose monotheistic religions that still exist today, the majority of human history has been dominated by a belief in supernatural forces and, most important, the hope that certain actions and beliefs in this life would lead to rewards and improvement in the next life.

This preoccupation with the next life developed because for most of human history, everything was completely fucked and 99 percent of the population had no hope of material or physical improvement in their lives. If you think things are bad today, just think about the plagues that wiped out a third of the population on an entire continent,²⁴ or the wars that involved selling tens of thousands of children into slavery.²⁵ In fact, things were so bad in the old days that the only way to keep everyone sane was by promising them hope in an afterlife. Old-school religion held the fabric of society together because it gave the masses a guarantee that their suffering was meaningful, that God was watching, and that they would be duly rewarded.

In case you haven’t noticed, spiritual religions are incredibly resilient. They last hundreds, if not thousands, of years. This is because supernatural beliefs can never be proven or disproven. Therefore, once a supernatural belief gets lodged as someone’s God Value, it’s nearly impossible to dislodge it.

Spiritual religions are also powerful because they often encourage hope through death, which has the nice side effect of making a lot of people willing to die for their unverifiable beliefs. Hard to compete with that.


Ideological Religions


Ideological religions generate hope by constructing networks of beliefs that certain actions will produce better outcomes in this life only if they are adopted by the population at large. Ideologies are usually “isms”: libertarianism, nationalism, materialism, racism, sexism, veganism, communism, capitalism, socialism, fascism, cynicism, skepticism, etc. Unlike spiritual religions, ideologies are verifiable to varying degrees. You can theoretically test to see whether a central bank makes a financial system more or less stable, whether democracy makes society fairer, whether education makes people hack one another to pieces less often, but at a certain point, most ideologies still rely on faith. There are two reasons for this. The first is that some things are just incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to test and verify. The other is that a lot of ideologies rely upon everyone in society having faith in the same thing.

For instance, you can’t scientifically prove that money is intrinsically valuable. But we all believe it is, so it is.²⁶ You also can’t prove that national citizenship is a real thing, or even that most ethnicities exist.²⁷ These are all socially constructed beliefs that we’ve all bought into, taken on faith.

The problem with evidence and ideologies is that humans have a tendency to take a little bit of evidence and run with it, generalizing a couple of simple ideas to entire populations and the planet.²⁸ This is our human narcissism at work—our need to invent our self-importance, our Feeling Brain run amok. So, even though ideologies are subject to evidence and verification, we’re not exactly good at verifying them.²⁹ Humanity is so vast and complex that our brains have trouble taking it all in. There are too many variables. So, our Thinking Brains inevitably take short-cuts to maintain some otherwise shitty beliefs. Bad ideologies such as racism or sexism persist due to ignorance far more than malice. And people hold on to those bad ideologies because, sadly, they offer their adherents some degree of hope.

Ideological religions are difficult to start, but they are far more common than spiritual religions. All you have to do is find some reasonable-sounding explanation for why everything is fucked and then extrapolate that across wide populations in a way that gives people some hope, and voilà! You have yourself an ideological religion. If you’ve been alive for more than twenty years, surely you’ve seen this happen a few times by now. In my lifetime alone there have been movements in favor of LGBTQ rights, stem cell research, and decriminalizing drug use. In fact, a lot of what everyone is losing their shit about today is the fact that traditionalist, nationalist, and populist ideologies are winning political power across much of the world, and these ideologies are seeking to dismantle much of the work accomplished by the neoliberal, globalist, feminist, and environmentalist ideologies of the late twentieth century.


Interpersonal Religions


Every Sunday, millions of people come together to stare at an empty green field. The field has white lines painted on it. These millions of people have all agreed to believe (on faith) that these lines mean something important. Then, dozens of strong men (or women) plod onto the field, line up in seemingly arbitrary formations, and throw (or kick) around a piece of leather. Depending on where this piece of leather goes and when, one group of people cheers, and the other group of people gets really upset.

Sports are a form of religion. They are arbitrary value systems designed to give people hope. Hit the ball here, and you’re a hero! Kick the ball there, and you’re a loser! Sports deify some individuals and demonize others. Ted Williams is the best baseball hitter ever, and therefore, according to some, an American hero, an icon, a role model. Other athletes are demonized for coming up short, for wasting their talent, for betraying their followers.³⁰

Yet, there is an even grander example of interpersonal religion than sports: politics. Across the world, we come together under a similar set of values and decide to bestow authority, leadership, and virtue onto a small number of people. Like the lines on a football field, political systems are entirely made up, the positions of power exist due only to the faith of the population. And whether it’s a democracy or a dictatorship, the result is the same: a small group of leaders is idolized and exalted (or demonized) in the social consciousness.³¹

Interpersonal religions give us hope that another human being will bring us salvation and happiness, that one individual (or group of individuals) is superior to all others. Interpersonal religions are sometimes combined with supernatural beliefs and ideological beliefs, resulting in pariahs, martyrs, heroes, and saints. Many of our interpersonal religions develop around our leaders. A charismatic president or celebrity who seems to understand everything we go through can approach the level of a God Value in our eyes, and much of what we deem right or wrong is filtered through what is good or bad for our Dear Leader.

Fandom, in general, is a low-level kind of religion. Fans of Will Smith or Katy Perry or Elon Musk follow everything that person does, hang on every word he or she says, and come to see him or her as blessed or righteous in some way. The worship of that figure gives the fan hope of a better future, even if it’s in the form of something as simple as future films, songs, or inventions.

But the most important interpersonal religions are our familial and romantic relationships. The beliefs and emotions involved in these relationships are evolutionary in nature, but they are faith-based all the same.³² Each family is its own mini-church, a group of people who, on faith, believe that being part of the group will give their lives meaning, hope, and salvation. Romantic love, of course, can be a quasi-spiritual experience.³³ We seem to lose ourselves in someone we have fallen for, spinning all sorts of narratives about the cosmic significance of the relationship.

For better or worse, modern civilization has largely alienated us from these small, interpersonal religions and tribes and replaced them with large nationalist and internationalist ideological religions.³⁴ This is good news for you and me, fellow religion-builder, as we don’t have as many intimate bonds to cut through to get our followers emotionally attached to us.

Because, as we’ll see, religion is all about emotional attachment. And the best way to build those attachments is to get people to stop thinking critically.





Step Three: Preemptively Invalidate All Criticism or Outside Questioning


Now that your fledgling religion has its core tenets of faith, you need to find a way to protect that faith from the inevitable criticism that will be flung its way. The trick is to adopt a belief that creates a self-reinforcing us-versus-them dichotomy—that is, create a perception of “us” versus “them” in such a way that anyone who criticizes or questions “us” immediately becomes a “them.”

This sounds difficult, but is actually quite easy. Here are some examples:


If you don’t support the war, then you support the terrorists.

God created science to test our faith in God. Therefore, anything that contradicts the Bible is merely a test of our faith in God.

Anyone who criticizes feminism is sexist.

Anyone who criticizes capitalism is a Communist.

Anyone who criticizes the president is a traitor.

Anyone who thinks Kobe Bryant was better than Michael Jordan doesn’t understand basketball; therefore, any opinion they hold about basketball is invalid.


The point of these false us-versus-them dichotomies is to cut off at the knees any reasoning or discussion before your followers start questioning their beliefs. These false us-versus-them dichotomies have the added benefit of always presenting the group with a common enemy.

Common enemies are hugely important. I know we all like to think we’d prefer to live in a world of perfect peace and harmony, but honestly, such a world wouldn’t last for more than a few minutes. Common enemies create unity within our religion. Some sort of scapegoat, whether justified or not, is necessary to blame for our pain and maintain our hope.³⁵ Us-versus-them dichotomies give us the enemies we all desperately crave.

After all, you need to be able to paint a really simple picture for your followers. There are those who get “it” and those who do not get “it.” Those who get it are going to save the world. Those who do not get it are going to destroy it. End of discussion. Whatever “it” is depends on whatever belief you’re trying to sell—Jesus, Muhammad, libertarianism, gluten-free diets, intermittent fasting, sleeping in hyperbaric chambers and living off Popsicles. Also, it’s not enough to tell your followers that nonbelievers are bad. You must demonize them. They are the downfall of everything that is good and holy. They ruin everything. They are fucking evil.

You must then convince your followers that it is of the utmost importance that everyone who does not get “it” be stopped, no matter what. People are either near the top of the value hierarchy or at the bottom; there are no in-betweeners in our religion.³⁶

The more fear, the better. Lie a little bit if you have to—remember, people instinctually want to feel as though they’re fighting a crusade, to believe that they are the holy warriors of justice and truth and salvation. So, say whatever you need to say. Get them to feel that self-righteousness to keep the religion going.

This is where conspiracy theories come in handy. It’s not just that vaccines cause autism; it’s that the medical and pharmaceutical industries are getting rich by destroying everyone’s families. It’s not just that pro-choicers have a different view on the biological status of a fetus; it’s that they’re soldiers sent by Satan to destroy good Christian families. It’s not just that climate change is a hoax; it’s that it’s a hoax created by the Chinese government to slow the U.S. economy and take over the world.³⁷





Step Four: Ritual Sacrifice for Dummies—So Easy, Anyone Can Do It!


Growing up in Texas, Jesus and football were the only gods that mattered. And while I learned to enjoy football despite being terrible at it, the whole Jesus thing never made a lot of sense to me. Jesus was alive, but then he died, but then he was alive again, then he died again. And he was a man, but he was also God, and now he’s a kind of man-god-spirit-thing that loves everyone eternally (except maybe gay people, depending on whom you ask). It all struck me as kind of arbitrary, and I felt—how do I say this?—like people were just making shit up.

Don’t get me wrong: I could get behind most of the moral teachings of Christ: be nice and love your neighbor and all that stuff. Youth groups were actually a ton of fun. (Jesus camp is maybe the most underrated summer activity of all time.) And the church usually had free cookies hiding somewhere, in some room, every Sunday morning, which, when you’re a kid, is exciting.

But if I’m being totally honest, I didn’t like being a Christian, and I didn’t like it for a really dumb reason: my parents made me wear lame dress clothes. That’s right. I questioned my family’s faith and went atheist at age twelve over kiddie suspenders and bow ties.

I remember asking my dad, “If God already knows everything and loves me no matter what, why does he care what I wear on Sundays?” Dad would shush me. “But Dad, if God will forgive us our sins no matter what, why not just lie and cheat and steal all the time?” Another shush. “But, Dad—”

The church thing never really panned out for me. I was sneaking Nine Inch Nails T-shirts into Sunday school before my balls had completely dropped, and a couple of years later, I struggled my way through my first Nietzsche book. From there, it was all downhill. I started acting out. I bailed on Sunday school to go smoke cigarettes in the adjoining parking lot. It was over; I was a little heathen.

The open questioning and skepticism eventually got so bad that my Sunday school teacher took me aside one morning and made me a deal: he’d give me perfect marks in our confirmation class and tell my parents I was a model student as long as I stopped questioning the logical inconsistencies of the Bible in front of all the other kids. I agreed.

This probably won’t surprise you, but I’m not very spiritual—no supernatural beliefs for me, thank you. I get a sick pleasure from chaos and uncertainty. This, unfortunately, has condemned me to a life of struggle with the Uncomfortable Truth. But it’s something I’ve come to accept about myself.

Now that I’m older, though, I get the whole dress-up-for-Jesus thing. Despite what I thought at the time, it wasn’t about my parents (or God) torturing me. It was about respect. And not to God, but to the community, to the religion. Dressing up on Sunday is about virtue-signaling to the other churchgoers, “This Jesus stuff is serious business.” It’s part of the us-versus-them dynamic. It signals that you’re an “us” and that you should be treated as such.


And then there are the robes . . . Ever notice that the most important moments in life are always accompanied by somebody in a robe? Weddings, graduations, funerals, court hearings, judicial committee hearings, open heart surgeries, baptisms, and yes, even church sermons.

I first noticed the robe thing when I graduated from college. I was hungover and on about three hours’ sleep when I stumbled to my seat for commencement. I looked around and thought, holy shit, I haven’t seen this many people wearing robes in one place since I went to church. Then I looked down and, to my horror, realized that I was one of them.

The robe, a visual cue signaling status and importance, is part of the ritual thing. And we need rituals because rituals make our values tangible. You can’t think your way toward valuing something. You have to live it. You have to experience it. And one way of making it easier for others to live and experience a value is to make up cute outfits for them to wear and important-sounding words for them to say—in short, to give them rituals. Rituals are visual and experiential representations of what we deem important. That’s why every good religion has them.

Remember, emotions are actions; the two are one and the same. Therefore, to modify (or reinforce) the Feeling Brain’s value hierarchy, you need some easily repeatable yet totally unique and identifiable action for people to perform. That’s where the rituals come in.

Rituals are designed to be repeated over a long period of time, which only lends them an even greater sense of importance—after all, it’s not often you get to do the exact same thing that people five hundred years ago did. That’s some heavy shit. Rituals are also symbolic. As values, they must also embody some story or narrative. Churches have guys in robes dipping bread in wine (or grape juice) and feeding it to a bunch of people to represent the body of Christ. The symbolism represents Christ’s sacrifice (he didn’t deserve it!) for our salvation (neither do we, but that’s why it’s powerful!).

Countries create rituals around their founding or around wars they’ve won (or lost). We march in parades and wave flags and shoot off fireworks and there’s a shared sense that it all signifies something valuable and worthwhile. Married couples create their own little rituals and habits, their inside jokes, all to reaffirm their relationship’s value, their own private interpersonal religion. Rituals connect us with the past. They connect us to our values. And they affirm who we are.


Rituals are usually about some sacrifice. Back in the old days, priests and chiefs would actually kill people on an altar, sometimes ripping out their still-beating hearts, and people would be screaming and banging on drums and doing all kinds of crazy shit.³⁸

These sacrifices were made to appease an angry god, or ensure a good harvest, or bring about any number of other desired outcomes. But the real reason for ritual sacrifice was deeper than that.

Humans are actually horribly guilt-ridden creatures. Let’s say you find a wallet with a hundred dollars in it but no ID or any other info about whom it belongs to. No one is around, and you have no clue how to find the owner, so you keep it. Newton’s First Law of Emotion states that every action produces an equal and opposite emotional reaction. In this case, something good happens to you without your deserving it. Cue guilt.

Now think of it this way: You exist. You didn’t do anything to deserve existing. You don’t even know why you started existing; you just did. Boom—you have a life. And you have no idea where it came from or why. If you believe God gave it to you, then, holy shit! Do you owe Him big time! But even if you don’t believe in God—damn, you’re blessed with life! What did you ever do to deserve that? How can you live in such a way as to make your life worthwhile? This is the constant, yet unanswerable question of the human condition, and why the inherent guilt of consciousness is the cornerstone of almost every spiritual religion.

The sacrifices that pop up in ancient spiritual religions were enacted to give their adherents a feeling of repaying that debt, of living that worthwhile life. Though back in the day, they’d actually sacrifice human beings—a life for a life—eventually, people smartened up and realized that you could symbolically sacrifice a life (Jesus’s, or whoever’s) for the salvation of all mankind. That way, we didn’t have to keep cleaning blood off the altar every other day. (And the flies—don’t even get me started on the flies.)³⁹

Most religious practices are developed for the alleviation of guilt. You could even say that that’s really all prayer is: miniature episodes of guilt alleviation. You don’t pray to God to say, “Fuck, yeah. I’m awesome!” No. Prayer is like a gratitude journal before there were gratitude journals: “Thanks, God, for letting me exist, even though it sucks to be me sometimes. I’m sorry I thought and did all those bad things.” Boom! Sense of guilt absolved, at least for a while.

Ideological religions handle the guilt question far more efficiently than spiritual ones. Nations direct people’s feelings of existential guilt toward service—“Our country gave you these opportunities, so put on a damn uniform and fight to protect them.” Right-wing ideologies usually perceive necessary sacrifice in terms of protecting one’s country and family. Left-wing ideologies usually see necessary sacrifice as giving up for the greater good of all society.

Finally, in interpersonal religions, sacrificing oneself generates a sense of romance and loyalty. (Think about marriage: I mean, you stand at an altar and promise to give your life to this other person.) We all struggle with the sense that we deserve to be loved. Even if your parents were awesome, you sometimes wonder, wow, why me? What did I do to deserve this? Interpersonal religions have all sorts of rituals and sacrifices designed to make people feel they deserve to be loved. Rings, gifts, anniversaries, wiping the piss off the floor when I miss the toilet—it’s the little things that add up to one big thing. You’re welcome, honey.





Step Five: Promise Heaven, Deliver Hell


If you’ve made it this far in starting your own religion it means you’ve assembled a nice group of hopeless people desperately avoiding the Uncomfortable Truth by studying a bunch of bullshit you’ve made up, ignoring their friends, and telling their families to fuck off.

Now it’s time to get serious.

The beauty of a religion is that the more you promise your followers salvation, enlightenment, world peace, perfect happiness, or whatever, the more they will fail to live up to that promise. And the more they fail to live up to that promise, the more they’ll blame themselves and feel guilty. And the more they blame themselves and feel guilty, the more they’ll do whatever you tell them to do to make up for it.

Some people might call this the cycle of psychological abuse. But let’s not allow such terms to ruin our fun.

Pyramid schemes do this really well. You give a scumbag some money for a bunch of products you don’t want or need and then you spend the next three months desperately trying to get other people to sign up for the scheme under you and also buy and sell products nobody wants or needs.

And it doesn’t work.

Then, instead of recognizing the obvious (the product is one big scam selling a scam to a scam to sell more scams), you blame yourself—because, look, the guy at the top of the pyramid has a Ferrari! And you want a Ferrari. So, clearly the problem must be you, right?

Fortunately, that guy with the Ferrari has graciously agreed to put on a seminar to help you sell more crap nobody wants to people who will then try to sell more crap nobody wants to more people who will sell it . . . and so on.

And at said seminar, most of the time is spent psyching you up with music and chants and creating an us-versus-them dichotomy (“Winners never give up! Losers believe it won’t work for them!”), and you come away from the seminar really motivated and pumped, but still with no idea how to sell anything, especially crap nobody wants. And instead of getting pissed off at the money-based religion you’ve bought into, you get pissed off at yourself. You blame yourself for failing to live up to your God Value, regardless of how ill-advised that God Value is.

You can see this same cycle of desperation play out in all sorts of other areas. Fitness and diet plans, political activism, self-help seminars, financial planning, visiting your grandmother on a holiday—the message is always the same: the more you do it, the more you’re told you need to do it to finally experience the satisfaction you’ve been promised. Yet that satisfaction never comes.


Look, time out for a second. Let me be the one to break the bad news to you: human pain is like a game of Whac-A-Mole. Every time you knock down one kind of pain, another one pops up. And the faster you whack them, the faster they come back.

The pain may get better, it may change shape, it may be less catastrophic each time. But it will always be there. It’s part of us.⁴⁰

It is us.

A lot of religious spokespeople out there make a lot of money claiming they can beat the pain of the Whac-A-Mole game for you, once and for all. But the truth is that there is no end to the pain moles. The faster you hit them, the faster they come back. And that’s how all the douche canoes in the religion game stay in business so long: instead of admitting that the game is rigged, that our human nature is fundamentally designed to generate pain, they blame you for not winning the game. Or, worse, they blame some nebulous “them.” If we could just get rid of “them,” we’d all stop suffering. Pinky swear.⁴¹ But that doesn’t work, either. That just transfers the pain from one population to another, and amplifies it.

Because, seriously, if someone really could solve all your problems, they’d go out of business by next Tuesday (or get voted out of office next week). Leaders need their followers to be perpetually dissatisfied; it’s good for the leadership business. If everything were perfect and great, there’d be no reason to follow anybody. No religion will ever make you feel blissful and peaceful all the time. No country will ever feel completely fair and safe. No political philosophy will solve everyone’s problems all the time. True equality can never be achieved; someone somewhere will always be screwed over. True freedom doesn’t really exist because we all must sacrifice some autonomy for stability. No one, no matter how much you love them or they love you, will ever absolve that internal guilt you feel simply for existing. It’s all fucked. Everything is fucked. It always has been and always will be. There are no solutions, only stopgap measures, only incremental improvements, only slightly better forms of fuckedness than others. And it’s time we stop running from that and, instead, embrace it.⁴²

This is our fucked-up world. And we’re the fucked-up ones in it.





Step Six: Prophet for Profit!


So, this is it. You’ve come to the end. You have your religion, and it’s time to reap all its benefits. Now that you’ve got your little following giving you their money and cutting your grass, you can finally have everything you’ve ever wished for!

Want a dozen sex slaves? Just say the word. Make up scripture. Tell your followers that “Stage Six of Manatee Enlightenment” can only be found in the Prophet’s orgasms.

Want a huge piece of land out in the middle of nowhere? Just tell your followers that only you can build paradise for them and it needs to be really far away—oh, and by the way, they need to pay for it.

Want power and prestige? Tell your followers to vote you into office or, even better, overthrow the government with violence. If you do your job well, they should be willing to give up their lives for you.

The opportunities really are endless.

No more loneliness. No more relationship problems. No more financial woes. You can fulfill your wildest dreams. You just have to trample on the hopes and dreams of thousands of other people to get there.

Yes, my friend, you’ve worked hard for this. Therefore, you deserve all the benefits without any meddlesome social concerns or pedantic arguments about ethics and whatnot. Because that’s what you get to do when you start your own religion: You get to decide what is ethical. You get to decide what is right. And you get to decide who is righteous.


Maybe this whole “start a religion” thing makes you squirm. Well, I hate to break it to you, but you’re already in one. Whether you realize or not, you’ve adopted some group’s beliefs and values, you participate in the rituals and offer up the sacrifices, you draw the us-versus-them lines and intellectually isolate yourself. This is what we all do. Religious beliefs and their constituent tribal behaviors are a fundamental part of our nature.⁴³ It’s impossible not to adopt them. If you think you’re above religion, that you use logic and reason, I’m sorry to say, you’re wrong: you are one of us.⁴⁴ If you think you’re well informed and highly educated, you’re not: you still suck.⁴⁵

We all must have faith in something. We must find value somewhere. It’s how we psychologically survive and thrive. It’s how we find hope. And even if you have a vision for a better future, it’s too hard to go it alone. To realize any dream, we need support networks, for both emotional and logistical reasons. It takes an army. Literally.

It’s our value hierarchies—as expressed through the stories of religion, and shared among thousands or millions—that attract, organize, and propel human systems forward in a sort of Darwinian competition. Religions compete in the world for resources, and the religions that tend to win out are those whose value hierarchies make the most efficient use of labor and capital. And as it wins out, more and more people adopt the winning religion’s value hierarchy, as it has demonstrated the most value to individuals in the population. These victorious religions then stabilize and become the foundation for culture.⁴⁶

But here’s the problem: Every time a religion succeeds, every time it spreads its message far and wide and comes to dominate a huge swath of human emotion and endeavor, its values change. The religion’s God Value no longer comprises the principles that inspired the religion in the first place. Its God Value slowly shifts and becomes the preservation of the religion itself: not to lose what it has gained.

And this is where the corruption begins. When the original values that defined the religion, the movement, the revolution, get tossed aside for the sake of maintaining the status quo, this is narcissism at an organizational level. This is how you go from Jesus to the Crusades, from Marxism to the gulags, from a wedding chapel to divorce court. This corruption of the religion’s original values rots away at the religion’s following, thus leading to the rising up of newer, reactionary religions that eventually conquer the original one. Then the whole process begins again.

In this sense, success is in many ways far more precarious than failure. First, because the more you gain the more you have to lose, and second, because the more you have to lose, the harder it is to maintain hope. But more important, because by experiencing our hopes, we lose them. We see that our beautiful visions for a perfect future are not so perfect, that our dreams and aspirations are themselves riddled with unexpected flaws and unforeseen sacrifices.

Because the only thing that can ever truly destroy a dream is to have it come true.


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