Cipinang prison stands like a huge fortress in East Jakarta, its massive walls and guard towers separating the city’s bustling traffic from the criminals held within its gates. I visited in March, sitting at a noisy mess hall filled with hardened, tattooed Indonesian prisoners who greeted their wives and children with hugs and pats on the head. The prison is known for housing many of the country’s most notorious drug criminals and convicted terrorists. But across from me sat a trio of prisoners in bright orange fatigues charged with a different crime entirely: daring to start a new religious movement.

The leader of the group, Ahmad Mushaddeq, a broad-shouldered man with bright gray eyes and a winning smile, is a former national badminton coach turned preacher. In the late 1990s, he said, it was revealed to him that he was the son of God. His followers proclaimed him to be the prophet to succeed Muhammad, sparking a new religious movement based on his teachings, which was eventually called Millah Abraham. The new faith was adopted mainly by disenchanted Muslims. It spread quickly across Indonesia and Malaysia to more than 50,000 followers, according to the group. Mushaddeq’s followers also established a parallel back-to-the-land social movement, called Gafatar, which promoted organic farming and agricultural self-sufficiency, considered by Millah Abraham to be two of the real-life applications of their vaguely New-Age faith.

As strange as Millah Abraham’s beliefs may seem, scholars of religion say the group is simply in the early stages of a process nearly as old as humanity: starting a new religion.

“Often cults are seen as aberrations, or a psychological phenomenon. Psychologists would see cult leaders as having delusions of grandeur. But I see them as something different—as baby religions,” said Susan Palmer, a sociologist and scholar of new religions at Concordia University in Montreal. “I think people are unaware how many of them there are, how constant they are.”

Al Makin, an Indonesian scholar of new religions, estimates that Indonesia alone has seen over 600 new religious movements in its modern history. In this regard the archipelago is hardly unique: New religions spring up regularly in the United States, Canada, Russia—everywhere government authorities are flexible enough to allow them.

And like many other new religious movements, Millah Abraham is dreaming big, with hopes to supersede Christianity and Islam as the dominant Abrahamic faith. Millah Abraham’s followers believe that every Abrahamic faith, from Judaism onward, is fated to lose its way, becoming corrupt and power-hungry, until eventually it is succeeded by a new prophet who will restore the original Abrahamic relationship to God. Followers of Millah Abraham believe that the near-constant wars in the Middle East are just one indication that Islam has fallen and it is Mushaddeq’s turn to continue the eternal cycle and establish the next iteration of Abrahamic faith. In the same way that Judaism was succeeded by Christianity, and Christianity by Islam, Islam is to be succeeded by Millah Abraham.

Though its prophet is in prison, it’s still possible Millah Abraham will succeed in becoming a globally influential faith. There have, after all, been unexpected successes before. “If we had been observers of the religious scene in the year 50 AD, I wonder if we would have bet on that small religious group in the corner of the Roman empire,” said Jean-François Mayer, a Swiss scholar of new religious movements, referring to ancient Christianity. Still, he acknowledges that the odds appear to be very much against Millah Abraham, even without persecution from the Indonesian government.

Not since the angel Gabriel visited Muhammad in a cave around 610 AD, informing him that he is God’s prophet, has there been a new globally influential religion with hundreds of millions of followers. Though the world’s religions are very dynamic, and major faiths continue to shift and evolve in ritual and doctrine, the world today is dominated by the same four faiths that dominated the globe a millennium ago: Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. According to a 2012 Pew study, 92 percent of religiously affiliated people around the globe belong to one of these four faiths.

While some relatively recent faiths have succeeded in recruiting millions of followers—such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormonism), Scientology, and Baha’i—their numbers of adherents are dwarfed in scale by these earlier four. The Baha’i, for example, are a relatively numerous recent faith with an estimated 7 million adherents. That sounds impressive, but it still means that just 0.1 percent of humanity has joined Baha’ism—and the faith has been around for 150 years (since 1863).

Faiths, of course, don’t have to be numerous to deliver spiritual sustenance to their followers, or even to be influential, as Judaism (a religion of 14 million) shows. Still, the small scale of new faiths over the past 1,500 years since Islam raises a question: Why, if creating new faiths is an inextinguishable feature of the human condition, have new religions had such limited recent success?

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Dwi Adiyanto, an Indonesian marketing professional in his mid-30s living in central Java, told me that when he first encountered Millah Abraham’s teachings in a local study group, it gave him a sense of purpose and clarity about his life’s mission that Islam had never provided. The group’s religious teachings, which posited a continuous pattern of faiths rising and falling as they strayed from Abrahamic teachings, resonated with Dwi, as did the sense of social purpose he gained from joining a farming community. “It offered a source of faith that could really be trusted,” he told me, “a path that was clearly correct.” Dwi sold all his belongings in late 2015, and moved to rural Borneo, along with around 7,000 members of Millah Abraham.

Though Indonesia’s constitution promises citizens religious freedom, starting a new religion here is illegal, and a crackdown quickly followed. Indonesia has just six legal religions—Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism—and sects that split off from Muslim orthodoxy are punished with blasphemy charges. After Gafatar branches throughout the Indonesian archipelago began running into trouble with local authorities, the organization’s authorities encouraged adherents like Dwi to sell all their possessions and use the money to buy land in remote Indonesian Borneo, where they hoped state authority would be lax enough to allow them to farm in peace. The goal was to establish a Zion, similar in concept to the one Mormons founded one and a half centuries ago in Utah—a faraway community where followers could live according to their faith without being challenged by outsiders. The young faith was rapidly evolving, and as followers moved out to Borneo it took on an increasingly ecological bent, with Millah Abraham leaders arguing that cities were corrupting and alienating, and the best way to worship the Lord was to till land in harmony with nature.

But the utopian effort would not last long. Just a week after the national government formally banned Gafatar in January 2016, local mobs stormed the group’s compound in West Borneo and burned their farms to the ground. “There were around a thousand men who brought clubs and daggers. They burned our homes in front of our eyes,” Dwi recounted to me. “There was no respect for human rights, although police were right there.” Indonesian police officers then forcibly returned around 7,000 Gafatar members to their home provinces—on waiting planes and boats. After being returned home, Gafatar members were given classes on Indonesian nationalist doctrine by soldiers; evaluated by psychologists, and encouraged to return to their old faith, which was generally Islam.

Ahmad Mushaddeq awaits trial at a court in Jakarta in 2008 (Adik Berry / Getty)
Ahmad Mushaddeq awaits trial at a court in Jakarta in 2008 (Adik Berry / Getty)

“They have their own system, they have their own country—in my opinion it is dangerous for Indonesia,” Koentjoro Soeparno, a professor of social psychology who evaluated Gafatar members after they were returned home from Borneo, told me in an interview. He said that de-radicalization was necessary. “Gafatar has a lot of similarities with what happened in the United States with Jim Jones,” he added, referring to the American cult leader who persuaded hundreds of followers to follow him to the remote jungles of Guyana to participate in a giant agricultural project, before conducting a mass suicide that killed around 900.

But followers I spoke with said there had been no coercion, and Gafatar members had moved to West Borneo to live communally and worship freely, not to challenge the Indonesian state or conduct mass suicide. They “never had that desire, to create a new country,” Yudhistra Arif Rahman, a lawyer who represented Mushaddeq, told me. In total, more than 25 members of Gafatar were convicted of blasphemy around the archipelago, with around a dozen spending time in prison. Human Rights Watch called the Indonesian government’s treatment of Gafatar one of the worst examples of religious persecution since Indonesia began transitioning to democracy in 1998.

Members of the faith insist they will soldier on; their persecution, after all, is in keeping with prophesy. “We were prepared for this mentally,” Farah Meifira, a Millah Abraham adherent, told me. But it’s far from clear whether the faith will be able to carry on effectively, given the Indonesian state’s apparent determination to stamp it out.

State persecution, aided by religious authorities, is in fact a major reason why new faiths fail in parts of the world where government polices religious doctrine. “New religions have always existed; they are an organic phenomenon like weeds in a garden. In some societies they are considered weeds and will be uprooted; in other societies they will be allowed to grow and take root and become plants,” said Palmer, the scholar of new religion. To the Indonesian government, Millah Abraham is a weed.

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Even new faiths originating in countries with tolerant and non-repressive governments have a difficult time gaining significant traction. Palmer wrote a book on Raëlism, a religious movement founded in France in the mid 1970s by Claude Vorilhon, a former French race car driver whose faith held that humans were “scientifically” created by aliens millennia ago. The religion states that the aliens have decided to leave human beings to their own devices, but that once “embassies” are built to welcome back the aliens, the aliens will help advance human technology and even contribute to human immortality. Raëlism has gone international, with active membership in North America, Europe, and Japan, but it’s only a minor faith, with followers numbered in the thousands rather than the millions.                                                                                                         

Scientology, another faith that believes aliens had a deep influence on the human condition (they deposited their humanity-haunting souls here after a hydrogen-bomb powered volcanic explosion 75 million years ago) has claimed to have around 10 million members worldwide. But Scientology has struggled recently, as former high-level members of the faith described the immense sums of money required to advance within the Church hierarchy, as well as threatening actions the Church takes against dissenters. The faith’s founder, science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, aggressively recruited Hollywood celebrities to promote the faith in a successful bid to generate publicity. But despite all the glitz and glam, many celebrities once linked to Scientology have disavowed it. All signs point to a declining membership, and today the faith is independently estimated to have as few as 50,000 members worldwide.

Not all new faiths fall flat on their faces, however. Santa Muerte—Our Lady of Holy Death—is the rare example of a new religious movement that appears to be steadily gaining followers in the Americas. The Lady, represented as a female skeleton, is believed to have power over life and death. She’s become popular among people living in parts of Latin America and North America ravaged by drug violence, who can pray to her for things that it would be inappropriate to request of Jesus—such as revenge, or that a drug shipment arrives safely. Andrew Chesnut, an author who has written a book about the vibrant new faith, suggests that as many as 10 million people may worship Santa Muerte, though as with most new religious movements numbers are difficult to verify, and other scholars I spoke with said that figure may be inflated. “It’s a very informal religious movement, it’s not institutionalized,” said Stefano Bigliardi, an assistant professor at Akhawayn University in Morocco, who spent years researching Santa Muerte in Mexico. Still, the faith has only been above-ground since 2001, suggesting a rapid gain in influence.

Santa Muerte raises another question that comes up in relation to many other new religious movements: How far off from an established religion does a new movement have to veer before it’s considered its own separate religion? Many worshippers of Santa Muerte still attend Mass and consider themselves Catholic, merely praying to Santa Muerte as they might to another saint. Some priests and nuns grudgingly accept their parishioners’ decisions to make offerings to Santa Muerte, but others harshly condemn it. It’s quite clear that the Catholic Church is alarmed by the rise of Santa Muerte, with the Vatican’s representatives condemning worship of her as “blasphemous.” So is Santa Muerte distinct enough from mainstream Catholicism that it should be considered a new religious movement?

For scholars of new religions, there is no easy way to answer this question. Mayer grappled with it in a paper in 2000, when he asked how best to classify Mormons, who say they received new, distinct revelations in the Book of Mormon, but worship Jesus and identify as Christian: “Is it an autonomous new religion, or rather a new tradition within the wider Christian fold? Did it really depart from traditional Christianity as much as Christianity departed from Judaism?” Ultimately, Mayer concluded that there is no foolproof way to determine whether a new movement should be classified as distinct from the old faith tradition, though certain moves, like developing new sets of scripture or radically changing ritual practices, indicate that a new religious movement is making a radical break from the past.

Regardless of how scholars classify it, efforts to stamp out Santa Muerte—the Mexican government has been bulldozing roadside shrines, perhaps out of concern over the faith’s association with narco culture—haven’t been enough to keep it from acquiring a following among marginalized communities in the Americas. Still, even with Santa Muerte’s relative success, 10 million followers is a pittance relative to any of the big four faiths.

A follower holds up a Santa Muerte figurine at a celebration in Mexico City (Henry Romero / Reuters)
A follower holds up a Santa Muerte figurine in Mexico City (Henry Romero / Reuters)

I asked Palmer if a reason why new faiths typically struggle to gain adherents is that we tend to laugh when we hear claims about fantastic and miraculous events that occur in the present day—such as when Vorilhon, the founder of Raëlism, claimed he learned about humanity’s origins after being abducted by aliens. “This is true,” she said. “We’re capable of accepting Muhammad’s claims of hearing God and Jesus’s claims of being the son of God, because it happened 1,000 or 2,000 years ago. The mist of time lends its authenticity. If someone today says these things, we’ll say he used to be a vacuum salesman or something.”

But the religion scholars I spoke with said that perhaps the biggest reason that new faiths like Scientology, Raëlism or Millah Abraham have failed to take off is the lack of state sponsorship. A major turning point for classical Christianity was when Constantine the Great decided to halt the persecution of Christians in the Empire, instead embracing elements of the faith. Over the next few centuries Christianity became the dominant religion in the Empire. Christianity wasn’t the only major religion to be boosted this way: Islam also spread by the sword, with armies sweeping forth to conquer and convert North Africa and Spain in the centuries after Muhammad’s death. Throughout their history both Buddhism and Hinduism have been powerfully lifted by state patronage.

Today, though, it is difficult to imagine that any new faith movement will get the boost of having a powerful state patronize the religion and fund its spread. In large part that’s because global norms have changed and—with the exception of a country like Saudi Arabia—few powerful states see it as their role to sponsor any faith, let alone a new faith. It’s also because there’s much less conquest today, meaning it would be unlikely that even a powerful country that adopted a new faith would be able to spread it by force. But, in an alternate reality, we can see how useful it would be for Millah Abraham if Indonesia’s government were to turn around and support Millah Abraham to the exclusion of other faiths, and proceed to conquer neighboring nations. Then there would be the possibility of its widespread adoption, at least in the region.

But even though state conquest does not offer the possibility to spread faiths quickly anymore, prophets today have more ways than ever to spread their teachings abroad. In a Singapore airport, I met with three Malaysian members of Millah Abraham who joined the faith after watching a Youtube video of Mushaddeq preaching. But this era of accessibility also comes with a downside for a new faith: There are so many religions on offer in most countries that it’s hard for any new religion to gain a critical mass.

“It’s a paradox of the current world that at the same time there is unprecedented opportunity for religious groups to spread but it also offers unprecedented competition in the religious field,” said Mayer, the Swiss historian of religion. “Even if you start with a very evangelistic intention, the likelihood is you might find a tiny percentage of the people interested in your offer.”

Mayer’s analysis uses the metaphor of the market, treating new religions as products that have to distinguish themselves from their competition in order to gain adherents. Early Christianity, for example, distinguished itself from many pagan beliefs with its intense focus on the afterlife, and the possibility of eternal salvation and heaven. “This was something that was really powerful for people, making people even willing to sacrifice their lives and believe it was worth doing,” Mayer said.

Looked at this way, any new religion, to be successful, would have to present millions of believers with an offer they couldn’t refuse. What would that look like?

“It must offer meaning, meaning to your life and your death that gives real answers that sound convincing,” said Mayer, adding that it would also have to offer a sense of community, and would benefit from being reasonably compatible with a scientific understanding of the world, given that we live in an era when many people treat scientific claims with respect. But he said that no new religion he is aware of currently qualifies.

Instead most of the dynamism is happening within existing faith traditions, as religious entrepreneurs within established traditions adapt their faiths to the needs of 21st-century parishioners, leading to trends like the major growth of Pentecostalism among former Catholics in Latin America and the rise of puritan strains of Islam around the Muslim world.

Mayer said that a few years ago he was asked to contribute an academic article assessing the possibility that a new, major religion would rise in the next 30 years. One plausible scenario he came up with was that a Chinese preacher might meld elements of Christianity with a “universalist message of inner harmony” and gain millions of followers.

The point is to never say never. “If something really meaningful is to be offered,” he said, “it cannot be completely ruled out” that it will become a new, globally influential religion.

Just don’t tell that to the Indonesian government.