I'm not talking about beliefs from major religions, though certainly some of those are pretty wacky if you scratch the surface. This article is dedicated to looking at some of the strangest and most unusual fringe-religious beliefs worldwide, all of them in practice today.
1. Some People Think the Queen's Husband is a God
His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, is a very fine fellow, but to a remote tribe of the Vanuatu islands, he's more than that. The people of Yaohnanen believe that Prince Philip is a living god. Since some time in the early 1950s, they have believed that Prince Philip is actually a mountain spirit taken human form. Anthropologists have guessed that this idea might have arisen after seeing colonial officials (Vanuatu was under a joint British-French colonial administration until 1980) showing respect to the images of the Queen and her Prince-Consort.
Prince Philip himself only became aware of the fact that he was being worshiped as a mountain-god sometime in the late 1970s. When he found out, in typically understated British aristocratic fashion, his response was to send the islanders a signed photograph of himself. They very happily replied by sending him back a ceremonial hunting club. After that, he sent them another photograph of himself posing with the club. The tribesmen continue to venerate Philip, celebrating his birthdays and other important dates. In 2007, five of the tribesmen were brought to England by British TV station Channel 4, where they got to meet their god in person. The meeting was off-camera, but it is reported that Prince Philip gave them a new signed photograph of himself to take home with them.
2. Some People Think They are Ambassadors of the Interplanetary Confederation
The Unarius movement are a weird group, something halfway between a new-age organization and a cult, who believe they are the messengers of a race of fourth-dimensional aliens who will soon be coming to Earth to bring a new age of human evolution.
Unarius was founded by a couple named Ernest and Ruth Norman, although she later called herself "Uriel". Uriel was the leader after her husband died, guiding the group through their period of greatest popularity. They based their belief system on a set of 'revelations' Ernest Norman had in the mid-1950s, where he claimed that Earth was under the guidance of an interplanetary confederation; originally said to exist on Venus and other local worlds, but later retconned into existing in a "4th dimension". He claimed that the "Space Brothers" would be arriving on Earth in a fleet of 33 space-ships in 2001, to bring on a new era of "Wisdom and Harmony", and that Unarians were to represent them. Their belief system was a mix of alien UFOlogy, and new-age teachings; the Normans claimed to have lived hundreds of past lives (including being Jesus and Mary Magdalene), and that the beings of the Interplanetary Confederation were also the Angels and Archangels of religious mythology.
The group is well known for having made very lavish and extremely cheesy movies of their celebrations (of their Earthly 'conclaves' of the Confederation), which you can today find on Youtube if you want a good chuckle; and also for their utterly extravagant sci-fi costumes. Their popularity has declined considerably after "Uriel's" death in 1993, and more so after 2001 came and went without the 33 starships showing up. But in spite of this, there are still Unarian groups active today.
3. Some People Believe a Popular Economist is the Buddha, Even Though He Says Otherwise
Raj Patel is a well-respected Economist and Sociologist, trained at Oxford, the London School of Economics, and Cornell, who currently teaches at Berkeley. He has written several books, appeared on national news stations, and is an active left-libertarian campaigner for economic reform who has protested for pro-democracy movements. According to some new-age believers, he is also the latest incarnation of the Buddha; namely, the Maitreya Buddha (the Buddhist version of the Messiah, who is destined to appear and help guide humanity to a new era of Enlightenment). Only he swears he's not.
But that hasn't helped Dr. Patel's cause, because according to the people who claim he is the Buddha, claiming not to be the Buddha is one of the incontrovertible proofs that he in fact is the Buddha. It sounds like something out of a Monty Python movie, but there's possibly thousands of people who are dead serious about it.
It all started with a new-age movement called Share International, which was founded by Benjamin Creme, a self-proclaimed prophet or messenger/spokesman of the Maitreya. His ideas are heavily founded on Theosophy, the 19th-Century grand-daddy of all New Age belief systems, which has a past track-record of claiming people were the "Coming World Teacher", though never correctly. But new-agers are famous for not taking failed prophecies as a reason to quit, and believed in Creme when he claimed that the Maitreya would manifest himself in 1982. When that flopped, they kept right on believing him anyway. In 2010, Creme made some obscure statements that suggested that the Maitreya had appeared on a popular TV show. He had earlier stated that the Maitreya would be a dark-skinned man with a stutter born in 1972. As it happens, Raj Patel has a stutter, and was born in 1972, and in 2010 appeared on the Colbert Report to promote one of his books.
Now the new-agers won't leave the poor bastard alone. When Patel denied being the Buddha, they claimed that cinched it. Even when Creme publicly stated that Patel was not the Maitreya, Patel has continued to have a devoted following of loonies that insist he must be the New-Age Messiah.
4. Some People Believe in a Divine G.I. From WWII
Very close to the area where some people worship Prince Philip, on Vanuatu, there's a sect that venerates a U.S. soldier named "John Frum". The people of Tanna practice an example of what's called a "Cargo Cult". During World War II, the US armed forces set up bases all over the Pacific islands. In some areas, these were the first modern westerners the local natives had ever encountered, and they brought with them strange and wondrous things, like little boxes that had voices coming out of them. They also had strange magic rituals, like raising and saluting a flag, and marching in formation. When the war ended, the soldiers left, and left behind some of their 'cargo'. Years later, visiting scholars discovered a whole religion had been built up around these servicemen, their equipment, and their practices. The natives had even built themselves landing strips like the ones used to drop off 'cargo', in the hopes that John Frum would return again and bring more miraculous goodies with him.
"John Frum" might not even have been the real name of the soldier in question, the name might just be a degeneration of "John, from America". Over the years this religion got intermingled with other local legends and traditional beliefs, but to this day the followers of the cult will dress in shirts with the letters "USA" on them, and will imitate parades, and raise, lower, and salute the flag each day.
5. Some People Venerate Steven Seagal as a Reincarnated Buddhist Lama
Portly b-grade action star Steven Seagal is not exactly the first thing that comes to mind for most people when you think of a Tibetan Lama, and his famous narcissism and bad attitude on set don't exactly match the stereotype of Buddhist detachment. Then again, there have been tons of famous Tibetan masters who were wild, violent, dangerous, drunk or crazy, and were still considered great masters. I'm just not sure if Seagal is really all that 'masterly' a wisdom-teacher. Even so, technically speaking, Tibetan Buddhists are pretty much obliged to accept that he is in fact the reincarnation of a famous Buddhist lama named Chungdrag Dorje.
Why? It's not just some kind of whim, he was officially recognized as such by His Holiness Penor Rimpoche, master of the Nyingma (or "Red Hat") School, one of the four major sects of Tibetan Buddhism. Penor was a major teacher in that school, and utterly and totally legitimate. And yet, in 1997 he declared Steven Seagal to be a Terton (a "revealer of treasures"), and officially identified him as the reincarnation of Chungdrag Dorje. Rumor has it that the main reason for this was tied to some very large donations to Penor's lineage.
But whatever the reason, Tibetan Buddhists worldwide, and particularly those of the Nyingma lineage, are now stuck with him. Seagal has even been known to travel to Tibetan Buddhist communities to lecture the locals on his own brand of "Buddhist wisdom". A lot of Buddhists have serious trouble believing in this revelation, but there's at least one person who's absolutely convinced in the Buddha-nature of Steven Seagal: Steven Seagal himself. In interviews, Seagal has claimed he was "born clairvoyant, born a healer", and that he can teach people their buddha-nature just by his very presence and gestures. In the meantime, his various other spiritual activities have included several contentious marriages, multiple accusations of sexual harassment, and hanging out with and endorsing Vladimir Putin.
6. Some People Worship Elvis
You know, I have to admit partial defeat on this one. I did some extensive research for this article, and I found a variety of Elvis religions, but I couldn't claim to find one that was absolutely serious. Some are clearly lighthearted, like the Church of Elvis, which is more of fan-club/business than a church. While others, like the First Presleytarians or Church of Christ Elvis seem somewhere in between a joke and sort-of maybe serious?
In any case, I found a lot of people who adore Elvis. A few who think he didn't die. I think that most Elvis-worshipers are probably just really really huge fans, but when push comes to shove they're good Pentecostals or Baptists or whatever. That doesn't stop them from making what are clearly shrines to Elvis, quasi-religious art, or from quoting his words (either lyrics or sometimes just stuff he said) as if Elvis was the Buddha. I just couldn't quite find one who literally and clearly believed Elvis was a god. If you can, please share it in the comments!
7. Some People Worship Cthulhu
The horror stories of H. P. Lovecraft have been slowly trudging their way into our popular culture from the peripheries of geek-lore for quite some time now. The stories are all about Ancient Dark Gods, most of them with a lot of tentacles, spoken of in the (totally fictional) grimoire known as the Necronomicon, with cults of madmen who want to summon up these terrible beings to end the world.
Now, there have been books and fictional characters who have become religions in the past. But it just seems to me to be a really bad idea to read those books and decide that the mad cults who want to end the world are the guys to imitate! Even so, that's what a small number of ridiculous occultists do. The Cult of Cthulhu has become real. Some of its followers insist that the Necronomicon really is a real book of ancient magic, and that the very clear proof of it being totally made up by Lovecraft is just some kind of cover-up. Others think that the book 'became real', or that it was actually put in Lovecraft's mind by these ancient dark gods. In any case, there's a small group of people, who are mainly laughed at even in the often laughable world of occultism, that actually try to do rituals to the various fictional monsters of the Cthulhu mythos, in exchange for power or madness or whatever.
I've often pointed out that the fact that the world hasn't ended in madness and tentacle-porn yet is pretty much proof that they're all either really awful magicians, or that they're completely deluded. Lucky for us!
8. Some People Worship Bruce Lee
Man, we've really messed up some primitive tribes. I mean, of course, there's lots of people all over the world that venerate Bruce Lee. Even now, more than 40 years after his death, he's a symbol to all kinds of people all over the world. For some, an inspiration, for others, a hero, mostly just someone we admire for kicking ass and making some amazing kung-fu films.
But according to at least some accounts, in the depths of Malaysia, there's a tribe of people who worship Bruce Lee as a kind of god. They believe that he falsified his death, might be immortal, and may return someday in a kind of Messianic role. Now, unlike the other totally 100% proven accounts about the cults of Prince Philip and John Frum, in the case of the "Bruce Lee tribe" it seems that the claims go back to one single source: a book called "The Legend of Bruce Lee", by Alex Ben Block. Block has since acknowledged that his work included a lot of speculation and rumor, so it may just be that this is one screwed-up primitive tribe that doesn't actually exist.
Even so, I'm pretty sure that there's a lot of martial art film-fans out there who just about reach the level of religious devotion in their ideas of Bruce Lee's power or wisdom.
9. Some People Believe in Scientology
There are some people who still believe in Scientology. Recent articles and studies indicate that the "church" of Scientology has been steadily declining in membership for decades and may be in serious trouble, but there's no question that there's still thousands of Scientologists out there in the world.
And what do Scientologists believe? They believe that 75 Million years ago, a galactic warlord named Xenu transported billions of aliens to Earth on spaceships that resembled DC-8 planes, placed these aliens around volcanoes and blew them up with atomic bombs. The spirits of these aliens then entered the bodies of humans, and these alien spirits cause all kinds of disorders in human beings. Only Scientology's methods, which cost an incredible amount of money and require lifelong servitude to the church, can free people from the effects of these evil aliens.
They also think humans evolved from clams.
10. Some People Believe Black People Are Racially-Superior Aliens
The Nuwaubians are one of many 'black supremacist' movements that mix racial politics with kooky religion, but they stand out as among the kookiest. Founded by Dwight "Malachi" York, they believe that the ancient Egyptians, as well as all the other great cultures of antiquity, were actually black civilizations. But beyond that, they believe that humanity comes from a race of super-aliens, but that only black people are the perfect humans; Satan cursed humanity thousands of years ago and this curse is the cause of Caucasian and Asian people. These 'mutants' have lied and manipulated history to steal credit for all the great black inventions (which is to say, all inventions). Oh, and white people do not have souls.
Malachi York claimed that in the year 2000 the super-aliens would return to take him and 144000 of his followers back to their homeworld, while the rest of the world would be destroyed. Turns out that didn't happen. Instead, what did happen is that York was charged with 197 counts of molesting children in his cult, and his church was charged with a number of financial scams as well. In spite of this, the Nuwaubian cult continues to have a large number of followers across North America, and especially significant influence in hip-hop culture.
11. Some People in 2016 Believe the Earth is Flat
People usually think that Christopher Columbus was the guy who 'proved' the Earth was round, but in fact, the ancient Greeks were quite sure the Earth was round since Parmenides in 500BCE. The Christian 'church father' St. Augustine argued against the notion of a flat earth a thousand years later (and still a thousand years before Columbus), and this was in keeping with the general intellectual thought of the time. Only uneducated and ignorant people believed in a flat Earth, and by the 17th century, the idea had almost died out.
Then in the 1840s an English nutcake named Samuel Rowbotham wrote a book claiming that science had it totally wrong, and that actually the Earth was flat and circular, with the North Pole in the center of the world and the South Pole was really a huge wall of ice that surrounded the whole periphery. He based this on his interpretation of the Bible plus a lot of extremely crappy logic. This led to the birth of modern "Flat Earth Societies". In the 20th century, at least 3500 people were members of the largest Flat Earth Society, who claimed a massive cover-up was keeping the truth hidden from the masses because reasons (Satan, Communism, science-elitists, etc). The idea's popularity declined over the last half of the 20th century but has experienced a revival thanks to the internet, which allows weirdos and lunatics to come together in ways they never could before. There's now several Flat Earth organizations worldwide, with their own websites and ridiculous theories; they appear to spend a lot of their time engaging in online flamewars with each other about their differing theories.
12. Some People Believe They are Jedis
Star Wars has a lot of fans, but some people take it to the next level. Over the last 15 years, a phenomenon occurred where a large number of people listed their religion as "Jedi" on national census forms; so many people that it would make "Jedi-ism" the 7th largest religion in Britain. A lot of these were essentially jokes, but it turns out that there are a number of people who believe they are (or can be) Jedis in "real life".
There are a number of "real Jedi orders": the Jedi Temple, the Temple of the Jedi Order, the United Jedi Order, and others; plus a large number of people who just claim to be solitary or unaffiliated Jedi. Some of these Jedis just believe in the 'philosophy' of the Force, that new-agey quasi-Taoism of everything being connected and of trying to be peaceful. But many groups go beyond that: many Jedi 'orders' engage in light-saber training as part of their 'religious instruction'. Some Jedis go around the streets dressed in full Jedi-Robes, and there have been court cases in the UK of people claiming 'religious discrimination' when businesses tried to force them to take their Jedi hoods off. There are even some groups that claim that they can train you to use the force 'for real', and have written "manuals" for developing Force Powers. Some of these manuals are really just meditation, yoga, or creative-visualization stuff, while others really pretend that you'll be able to move stuff with your mind! Or with the Force. Whatever.
13. Some People Pray to a Dead Gaucho
In Argentina, a popular worship has emerged that is totally outside the official approval of the Catholic Church. They've basically made up a saint. The name of this "saint" is "Gauchito Gil" ('little gaucho Gil'), who according to legend was a gaucho who lived in the 19th century. His myth claims that he was a typical gaucho, doing cowboy stuff and even fighting in the war with Paraguay, and getting in trouble with the law. According to this story, he then started to help the poor and fought with corrupt officials, and showed magic powers, including immunity to bullets. In time, the police caught him, and hung or crucified him upside down from a tree, and slit his throat. Before dying, Gauchito Gil warned the police chief that his son would soon fall ill, and could only be saved if the chief prayed to Gil for help. When the chief got home, he found his son deathly ill, and so he prayed to Gil and the boy was miraculously cured.
There are multiple shrines to Gauchito Gil throughout Argentina, and statuettes and pictures of him are sold all over the place. He has several hundred thousand adherents who believe in his miraculous powers. Most of the people who pray to Gil would consider themselves good Catholics, even though many Catholic leaders have condemned the practice as a kind of paganism, a made-up saint based on a folk tale about someone who may never have even existed. But in recent years, even the church seems to have given up on trying to fight it. Pope Francis (himself Argentinian) has suggested that instead of condemning the annual 'pilgrimages' to the shrines of Gil, priests should accompany the people and just try to "emphasize the symbol of the cross".
14. Some People (Especially Mexican Drug Lords) Have Turned Death Into a Saint
All over Central America and the southern U.S. as well, there has been a folk-veneration of the spirit of Death, as though Death was a saint. Hence, "Santa Muerte" ('saint death'), depicted as female dressed similarly to the virgin Mary, but with a skull for a face. The practice is a mix of Catholicism with traditions related to the ancient mesoamerican people's worship of death-spirits.
It wasn't a very big deal, mostly just something some country-folk and the urban poor did in a few areas, until around the turn of this century. Over the last 10 years, the Santa Muerte cult has perhaps become the fastest-growing religious belief in the world. Estimates are hard to pin down, but there's somewhere between 5-20 million adherents of Santa Muerte; mostly in Mexico, but maybe as many as a hundred thousand in the United States.
This rise has gone hand in hand with the catastrophic rise of Mexican Narco-gangs and the violence and death they've caused. Ironically, the worship of Santa Muerte has become huge among both the gangsters and the poor who are their frequent victims. Santa Muerte is said to be able to protect you from harm, if you offer her shrine cigarettes, flowers, booze, candies, and money. Likewise, she can be prayed to if you want to bring death to your enemies. Unlike the more benign folk-saints like Gauchito Gil, the Catholic Church in Mexico has taken a very hard line against Santa Muerte, calling it blasphemy of the worst kind. But this hasn't stopped her cult from continuing to grow steadily.
15. And Then There's These Guys!
It's one of the weirdest religions in the world. But if you're not Vietnamese, you've probably never heard of it. Followers of Cao Dai (and there's somewhere around 6 million of them) direct their worship to the 'Left Eye of God'. I mean literally, the left eye. This is due to a vision received by the founder of the religion, Ngo Van Chieu, who was an employee of the French Colonial administration back in the 1920s. Cao Dai began around that time with a group of Vietnamese mystics, who preached that all religions were one, and also campaigned strongly for Vietnamese nationalism. Refreshingly, they don't believe the world is about to end; instead they believe that the "Great Universal Religious Amnesty" will shortly happen, which will be a kind of new golden age. Their religion is a weird mix of wacky folk religion, Chinese Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, mingled with ideas from western Theosophy (basically, New-age beliefs), and some unique craziness. They recognize Buddha, Lao Tzu, Confucius and Jesus as prophets; but they also have a weird list of saints that includes Dr. Sun Yat-Sen (a Chinese republican politician), Victor Hugo (the guy who wrote Les Miserables), Julius Caesar, Lenin (as in, the atheistic founder of the USSR), Joan of Arc, Dr. Louis Pasteur, Shakespeare, and others.
Their temples are absolutely trippy. They have very rigorous rules, a huge administration with a ton of titles, and the head of their religion is called a Pope. Believers can communicate with saints through seances and visions, so a Caodaist who is having a problem at work might get some advice on what to do from Lenin or Shakespeare. These guys are even weirder than the Scientologists; though a lot more fun and less awful.