We're not here to tell you what to believe, but let's face it: when it comes to religion, most of us weren't exactly presented a smorgasbord of choices. Most of us grow up either believing what our parents believed and maybe angrily believing the opposite once we hit college ("Mom, don't you understand those are your Thetans talking?"). But if you look around, you'll find the world offers a rich array of surprisingly popular alternatives for those looking to, well, think outside the box. And we're not talking about tinfoil hat meetings or Kirk Cameron's fan club - there are religions around the world with hundreds of thousands of followers which we can almost guarantee you know nothing about, if you've even heard of them at all.
As the years have gone by, tons of people have claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, to wildly varying levels of personal success. Among them are Jim Jones, David Koresh, Charles Manson, and Kanye West. Another is a modern-day Chinese woman named Yang Xiangbin, aka Lightning Deng. Her lover founded the Chinese religious sect Almighty God, popularly known as Eastern Lightning, before fleeing with her to New York City's Chinatown once the sect became officially outlawed.
China Public Security Bureau
Looks like Jesus is a fan of the Eleventh Doctor.
Among other things, Eastern Lightning believes that the end of the world is super nigh. This wouldn't necessarily be a problem, except that if you don't agree with them, they will beat the crap out of you until you do. While most religions send out missionaries with pamphlets, Eastern Lightning offers potential converts presents like smartphones. If the ability to play Pokemon Go AND make phone calls still isn't enough to convince them, the church will straight-up kidnap people and torture them, and in some cases kill them. They have also kidnapped leaders of rival churches -- up to 33 in 2002 alone.
The Chinese government, which isn't big on religion in general, hates Eastern Lightning in particular. It included them on a list of 14 religions that were outright banned, and in 2012 arrested over 1,000 of the estimated 700,000 to 1,000,000 adherents for causing panic and riots with their end-of-the-world talk. To make sure everyone got the point, they also posted notices calling Eastern Lightning "a social cancer and a plague on humankind." Considering one follower beat a woman to death in a McDonald's for not giving him her phone number, and then said it was fine because God told him to, they probably have a point.
China Central Television
It remains unclear which God would tell you to go to McDonald's.
Imagine a Justice League for all the religions. About a hundred years ago, a Vietnamese civil servant named Ngo Van Chieu conducted a similar thought experiment, and he came up with a super-religion called Cao Dai. And to be perfectly honest, it sounds kind of awesome.
According to Chieu's vision, God has spoken to mankind in two different eras so far: first through Judaism and Hinduism (simultaneously), then again through Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism (again, all at once). Apparently, God invented precisely the right formats for each culture to get his message. The new religion, Cao Dai, would be God's third and final communication. And because God wasn't lying with all those other faiths, Cao Dai incorporated pieces of all of them into its theology. Fair enough.
Also, God is an all-seeing planet that looks kinda like a Death Star.
Here's where things get weird: Vietnam was run by France in those days, and France, like the U.S. and Britain, was caught up in talking to ghosts via seances. So this new religion emerged at a time when regular people were throwing parties to speak to dead relatives and celebrities. Among the dead people who kept sending messages to the new faith were Joan of Arc, Confucius, William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, and ... French novelist Victor Hugo. There were a LOT of messages from Victor Hugo. So many, in fact, that Hugo ended up a saint in Cao Dai, and got a snazzy captain's hat in a painting in their temple.
Xavier ROSSI / Gamma-Rapho / GettyImages
"Disney fucked up my Hunchback story. Deliver them a plague of Home On The Range."
Depending on who you ask, there are around five million Cao Daists practicing their faith around the world today. They seem very peaceful -- just don't ask what they think about Russell Crowe's "singing" in Les Miserables.
In Pictures Ltd. / Corbis / Getty Images
Imagine the most staunchly vegan, pro-peace, and pro-love hippie you have ever met. They have nothing on your average Jain -- a religion of four to six million people based mostly in India.
Jains believe in karma, like some other religions, which means they think that if they do bad things in this life, it will affect what they are reincarnated as, as well as their chances of finally getting off that endless roller coaster of death and rebirth. So they structure all aspects of their lives around doing as little harm to everything as possible. And we do mean everything.
Jain Cloud / Wiki Commons
They're the rare group of naked old people you don't need to avoid at all costs.
Even plants have feelings in Jainism, so its followers try to eat plants that don't have to die in order to be used as food. Monks and nuns even boil and filter water before drinking it to make sure they are not ingesting any microscopic organisms.
Jains don't even kill insects or arachnids, meaning if a spider should happen to land on a Jain's shoulder, their only option is to politely ask it not to bite (which the spider would of course ignore). More serious Jains walk around with a broom, sweeping away any tiny insects in front of them they might step on. They won't go out at night, since they can't be sure they won't accidentally squash something in the dark. And you thought having to worry about stepping in dog crap was annoying.
Jainsim also requires you to be nice to everyone, all the friggin' time. And no hypocrisy -- even bad thoughts are not allowed. People being people, this is pretty hard to remember to do, so many wear a flap of white cloth over their mouths as a kind of bad-thought "you shall not pass" barrier.
Arjun / Jainpedia
Either that or it's so you can't see them making faces at you.
John van Hasselt / Corbis / GettyImages
For many of us, our first and last bits of information about the Nation of Islam came from Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, in that order. And as good as he was at talking, Ali wasn't the greatest at communicating the tenets of his faith.
Bettmann / GettyImages
Very few people respond to getting punched in the face with "Yes, I will believe what you believe."
It's not surprising, then, that many of us assumed the Nation of Islam was a customized version of Islam itself. Boy howdy, would we be wrong. According to the Nation of Islam's co-founder, Wallace Fard Muhammad, all of humanity descended from a single tribe, the Shabazz, which lived in the Nile Valley about 60 trillion years ago. They lived in paradise, with no wars and plenty of food to go around.
Then a little shit named Yakub was born 6,600 years ago. He decided that in order to take control of the Shabazz, he needed an army of men that were their complete opposites -- in this case, that meant colorless white people. So he started trying to convince people in Mecca about his great new idea, but he and his followers were soon deported to the island of Pelan. This might be a good point to mention that, even as a child, Yakub had a big ol' head. When he grew up, he was described as a "big head scientist."
Luidger / Museo Nacional de Antropologia
But Yakub didn't give up on his dream of human husbandry. He spent the next 600 years breeding his followers together, creating "red, brown, and yellow peoples" until he finally got what he wanted: a white race. But his plans went haywire when white people turned out to be completely unmanageable due to their "lack of righteousness." Soon, they were warring against all the other races and enslaving black people.
Big Head Scientist
He would've gotten away with it if it weren't for those meddling non-pigments.
In fairness, the story of white people enslaving nations and destroying the planet isn't so much a piece of religious mythology as it is an accurate history of the world.
Safin Hamed / AFP / Getty Images
When you think about religion in the Middle East, you figure you'll run into Muslims, Jews and some Christians -- they're the ones always in the news, anyway. But sprinkled here and there you get colorful groups like the Yazidi, a group of Kurds who worship a spectacular bird angel, because their main god is simply too incredible to be addressed directly with prayer (picture a Miami Vice era Don Johnson diverting all of his fan mail to Phillip Michael Thomas to answer). There are about 700,000 Yazidi spread around the world, but the bulk of them live in Iraq. The faith is centered around a god called Yasdan, who's so amazing that humans can't worship him directly. There are seven lesser gods between Yasdan and his human followers, and he basically does a whole lot of delegation among those lesser gods to help him out with all the nitty-gritty. The most important of these lesser gods, the one who actually carries out Yasdan's will, is the Peacock Angel known as Malak Taus.
Seen here, peacocking.
Malak Taus is so important and revered that Yazidis pray to him five times a day. Unfortunately, Malak Taus' other name is Shaytan, which is Arabic for "devil." Like Satan in Christianity, Malak Taus / Shaytan fell from grace. However, unlike Satan, he was eventually forgiven. But this misunderstanding has led to other groups seeing Yazidis as devil worshipers, and unfortunately, one of those groups is ISIS. If you've read any of our series on ISIS, you know this shit is about to get dark. In addition to the many groups ISIS is currently fucking over, they've specifically targeted the Yazidi for eradication. And because ISIS is basically Matt Damon from School Ties with an endless supply of machine guns, the situation for the Yazidis in Iraq is very, very grim.
Eric Lafforgue / Berengere Cavalier
For reference, this is the exact opposite of devil worshiping.
We live in a world where you can believe whatever you want, but it's important to remember that differences in those beliefs that we may see as quirky or strange actually define the lives of hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people. In other words, you can believe what you want, but it's entirely possible you might get fucking murdered for it.
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