In 1988 my friends Eric and John invented a religion. They did this as a point of utility, as we needed something to print on a flyer we planned to distribute as part of a sociology experiment. The boys produced the whole thing one night over coffee at Denny’s. I was impressed with their work, which included a creation story to explain our existence, a moral code to prescribe how to live, and a very interesting description of the Creator’s character, which was wholly indifferent to creation, his believers being more deist rather than theist. They even invented a silly rite of devotion which I watched them perform one night in the parking lot of a Pizza Hut. The first and only ritual invocation of worship to the deity initially called ‘Gurd.’
The new religion broke down fast when a schism arose between Eric and John over the important point of whether ‘Gurd’ should be spelled with a capital G or a lower case g. The church split and both friends implored me to join their side. When I refused each I was doubly branded heretic and warned of grave consequences to follow. All of this happened in a 24 hour period, after which we quickly typed up the whole theology to fit on a letter sized flyer.
The next day we were on the campus quad for an afternoon of handing out bright orange leaflets and telling people about the Gurd or gurd as we alternated the spelling on the flyer to satisfy both sects. Our female classmate Teelyn was with us, as our aim was to measure how people responded to informational pamphlets being given out by men or women. We simply wanted to find out if one or the other sex had better luck engaging reception. As you can imagine, our study showed conclusively that people were more receptive to women (or at least the woman in our study) than Eric. In hindsight I guess we didn’t do a very good job of controlling for factors such as Eric’s manic grin, wild hair and inside-out army jacket which probably dissuaded more than a few people from accepting his flyer.
But our study had a side effect we hadn’t expected. The nonsense we’d printed on the flyer about the Gurd/gurd was producing results. Several times during the afternoon the people we gave the flyer to took a real interest in the subject; asking questions and engaging Teelyn or Eric in conversation. They each found themselves inventing more to the story in an effort to keep up the bluff. The character and story of the Gurd/gurd grew with each passing hour. And by the end of the afternoon we could have easily added a few more pages to the growing testament. A few people even came back, and noting that our group consisted of four, we were asked when and where we met? And could they join us? And how could they learn more? One young man even suggested seriously that we organize and make a more formal go of the new religion.
A year later the Gurd/gurd was utterly forgotten. We four had moved on in life, had selected our major courses of study and were thinking more of the immediate future than of the eternal indifference of the Gurd/gurd.
One day after summer break, I was walking through the dorms when I passed a bulletin board where a bright bit of orange caught my eye. It was one of our flyers; posted with care at the center of the board. I was startled and bit disturbed. Though I suspect the flyer was placed there as a joke, a bit of college humor, I nevertheless remembered those select individuals who had taken us seriously, and who sought us out to learn more, and who had even suggested we transform our bluff into a serious proposition. I wondered at how easily the mind can be engaged by a well-conceived story, a tactful proposition of truth, an engaging claim filled with the promise of a happy ending. Eric and John had done a good job of invention. Maybe too good.
For me the larger lesson of that experience wasn’t that people are more receptive to women than men, but that minds are receptive to meaningful connection, to community, and to the force and character of those who communicate; and that this reception and willingness to engage often has little or no relation to the reality or pedigree of a claim. Even an indifferent deity such as the Gurd/gurd can find interest and adherence in those seeking something other than the truth.