Storekeeper: Why are my property taxes so high?
Assessor: I'm sorry, it's because of all the churches in the area, since they don't pay property taxes, someone has to make up for the lost revenue. Hold on while I figure out your tax bill. [Leans over counter]
Storekeeper: [Light goes on in his eyes] Hey! Stop leaning on my altar!
- Rowan and Martin's Laugh InLooking for heaven in all the wrong places, Bob has found a religion that seems to have all the answers. But the faith he has found is really just an empty shell: A scam, a whole lotta nothing, a glaring emptiness hiding behind a paper-thin façade of superficial wisdom. The followers of the Scam Religion are not evil, it's merely a matter of wasting time and resources. In a setting where there is One True Religion, the greatest crime of the Scam Religion is to keep people distracted, thus preventing them from accepting the true salvation. In a setting where there isn't One True Religion, then the Scam Religion is, well, just a scam. That said, even in settings where there is no One True Religion, Scam Religions aren't entirely harmless — some of them can literally ruin the lives of their participants financially or relationally or otherwise, and just because the Scam Religion isn't plotting to kill people in society at large or summon The Legions of Hell does not mean it is not capable of hurting people. (For example, while one may not be seeking to kill people at large, it may be quite willing to kill ex-members who leave and could bring back lawyers and/or media attention. Or the sex the higher-ups are getting is rape. Or the amounts of money being taken are so significant that victims are left impoverished or dependent on the government or other people. Etc, etc...) The founder of the religion is another matter. He might be outright evil, an immoral Con Man, the victim of a The Presents Were Never from Santa situation, Ignorant Of His Own Ignorance, crazy, an unwilling victim of his own hype, a person who has brainwashed himself into believing his own empty hype, all of the above, or whatever. However, if he's still around, he does not (usually) use his cult for purposes more nefarious than getting undeserved admiration, money, and sexual encounters from his followers. The teachings can range from actually useful and positive (e.g. stuff about maintaining a positive mental attitude and helping other people is actually sometimes present in these religions, if only for the sake of presenting a good public image and recruitment) to harmless but silly (e.g. wearing a specific style of clothing or hair to mark oneself as a member, not eating a certain food, doing a chant or mantra every day) to outright evil themselves (e.g. that physical or sexual abuse is a good thing, that suicide is good). In a Low Magic World, a Scam Religion typically has no power at all. In a High Magic World, it will have power — but its power will be empty, inferior, low-level. Arcane tricks rather than true divine miracles. Often a Cult or a Parody Religion. See also Church of Happyology and God Guise. Contrast Path of Inspiration, where the cult members are Obliviously Evil Mooks of some kind of Evil Overlord or Ancient Conspiracy, and Scary Amoral Religion, which leads its followers into depravity. Truth in Television to some extent: there have been "religious" or "spiritual" movements throughout history that were primarily focused on relieving their followers of their money, and some people will use the concepts of religion to promote financial scams (e.g. the "affinity scam" where a person operating a non-religious scam like a 419 Scam or a Ponzi scheme markets it to churchgoers using religious jargon). Compare/Contrast Parody Religion, which is a combination of this played for Rule of Funny and everybody involved knowing it's not a genuine faith. If an individual pretends to be religious to deflect suspicion from a scam or other crime, that's Hiding Behind Religion. No Real Life Examples, please. There is a reason that this trope is the example used on that page.
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Anime and Manga
- Dragon Ball GT had the Luud cult.
- Fullmetal Alchemist: The Church of Leto, led by Father Cornello, who gathers followers in Lior by convincing them he can do amazing miracles with power given to him by the sun god, Leto. In reality he's just a regular alchemist (and not even a particularly talented one), albeit one with a Philosopher's Stone that enhances his alchemy. Edward uncovers the scam very early on in the manga. Much, much later, we find out he was going to use his followers' souls as part of the Gambit Pileup orchestrated by the Big Bad.
- It's implied that the Ishvalan religion was invented by Father in order to have an easy genocide target when the time came. Of course, it's also implied that this god intervened in the fight between Wrath and Scar, blinding the former with a ray of light at a key moment, so who knows.
- The Tatami Galaxy has a combination religion/pyramid scheme.
- In Bakemonogatari, this is part of Senjougahara's backstory. Her mother got scammed by one of these cults and gave away their family's life savings, as well as offered her daughter to be raped by the cult leader (she escaped). Played for drama.
- In With Strings Attached, the ruling religion of Ketafa is quite clearly fake, though it isn't portrayed as a bad thing overall; it encourages good works by the populace. However, the Idri'en Tagen used it to sway the Ketafans to support them by setting up a fake Vasyn, claiming it restored the gods to the formerly godless continent, and encouraging its treatment as a holy object.
- On the other hand, while the gods of Baravada are most certainly real, whatever rule they're exerting over the Baravadans — and it isn't much — has nothing to do with religion and worship; the relationship is more like employers to employees. George speculates that the gods aren't “real” gods but people with some powers who set themselves up as gods, so it may be a weird variant of a Scam Religion.
- In the (vaguely Axis Powers Hetalia-based) fic Sold To The Highest Bidder, the character Toris uses one of these as an instrumental tool in an assassination, by convincing a leader to kill himself in pursuit of divinity.
- Of course, this backfires magnificently in the long run.
- The Oscar-winning documentary Marjoe follows former child evangelist Marjoe Gortner, who returned to evangelism just to make money, but eventually decided to come clean and let them film everything.
- In Leap of Faith, Steve Martin's character is a self-confessed Con Man who sees religion simply as a way to scam the people who attend his revival meetings. However, he's forced to rethink his views on religion when the people's faith starts resulting in actual miracles.
- The Neolites in Babylon A.D. are basically a Mega Corp. making money via New Age religion.
- The Chronicles of Narnia: The seventh book features an ape trickster called Shift, who makes people believe in a fake Aslan that is really a donkey named Puzzle in a cheap lion costume. He also states that Aslan and Tash are one and the same.
- Stranger in a Strange Land has Fosterism, a Dionysian quasi-Christian sect that was founded by scam artists looking to extort money (and sex) from gullible believers. Oddly, its Supreme Bishops become archangels when they die. Or perhaps resume angelic identities they had prior to being born on Earth. It's not that clear.
- Bokononism in Cats Cradle. Quite openly.
- Hillman Hunter of And Another Thing has one of these and is shocked when the apocalypse he's been preaching not only happens, but his cult is let off the planet in time, which (at least superficially) is just as he predicted.
- In the Doctor Who Missing Adventures novel The Crystal Bucephalus, the Lazarus Intent was deliberately founded by a Con Man as a source of suckers who would bail him out when he finally got himself into real trouble.
- The book Leaving Fishers by Margaret Peterson Haddix is about a girl who joins a cult called Fishers of Men. Among the many other things wrong with it, one thing she finds out at the end when she de-coverts is that the head of the cult is using their donations to support a lavish lifestyle, while making it out as though he can barely afford things. The main character admits to having given the cult her college savings...
- Fighting a scam religion forms the main plots of books eight and nine of Ranger's Apprentice.
- Sixth Column: The protagonists, who are seeking to liberate the United States from a PanAsian occupying force, use the one avenue of expression that is permitted to them by their overlords. They form the "cult of Mota" and preach to the masses with a message that is notionally supportive of the occupation but is in reality just subversive enough to attract people who are disaffected. They are aided by a bit of Applied Phlebotinum that gives their "priests" powers that appear genuinely divine in nature.
- There's a form in Galaxy of Fear. The B'Omarr Monks have a degree of scamming built into their way, though they would argue that, for example, having new initiates walk over "coals" with the belief that the faith would protect them when said "coals" are harmless is just a way to get them on the right track. The real scam, though, is run by Grimpen, who flatters interested people, rushes them through some of the rituals, and removes their brains, puts those in spider droids, and puts the brains of criminals into their skulls as part of an elaborate scheme. It's resolved in part by the other monks being blackmailed about the coals thing.
- In George RR Martin's short story "The Way of Cross and Dragon" the titular sect is a heretical splinter of the Interstellar Catholic Church that not only portrays Judas Iscariot as a saint, but also as a dragon-riding sorcerer king. When the founder of the sect is confronted by the protagonist, who's from the Inquisition, he flat out admits to making it all up. And then tries to recruit him into his secret society of atheists who set up Scam Religions for the supposed good of humanity.
Live Action TV
- In Community, Pierce Hawthorne is part of the "neo-Buddhist" church, which is blatantly obviously one of these. In one episode, they sell him an overpriced lava lamp telling him it's his dead mother's spirit energy inside.
- The Sliders episode "Prophets and Loss" has a fundamentalist church which "sends its believers to paradise" with what the protagonists think is Sliding technology but is actually a human incinerator.
- In Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, the SVU team take on a cult leader, who brainwashes women into his cult by making them his wives so he can get access to their bank accounts.
- Stargate SG-1 dealt with destroying many of these, from the parasitic Goa'uld, to the demigod-like Ori, and even a few fringe cults, like the time an SG team member went crazy/rogue and declared himself a god.
- In an episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Sabrina convinces Miles to join an "alternate reality" group that turns out to be a cult whose leader claims to be a witch.
- JAG: The Wicca religion is portrayed as such in "The Witches of Gulfport".
- "Series/Zoey 101" had the Silver Hammer Society, a supposedly elite group which turned out to be a scam for the leaders to get the people who wanted to join to do stuff for them.
- Hudson And Landry's "Fredrickism" skit; involving the worship of creator Freddie Schultz, obeying the 26 Commandments grants you immortality, and under investigation by the IRS.
- Transhuman Space, with its memetic science, has several bizarre religions, most of which are at least partly engineered. Some of them are genuine, at least one started as a joke that got out of hand, and then there's things like Ecoherence, which is pretty close to being an environmentalism-themed Church of Happyology, carefully designed to create "self-reinforcing cycles of dependency", and charging for brain-scans to judge how "coherent" its followers are. And the Unified Way, which was created as a weapon.
- Dragonlance had the Seekers, who used the void left after the gods abandoned the world in the wake of the Cataclysm to seize power by peddling false religion.
- Pathfinder features the Church of the Living God, a Cult run by Razmir, an incredibly powerful human wizard in God Guise who employs mages disguised as priests to enforce his will. One of the first monsters in the Inner Sea Bestiary splat is an incorporeal undead created from the spirits of the followers of this cult, who realize they were tricked upon reaching the afterlife and are consumed by hatred. Known as Apostasy Wraiths, they prefer to go after living members of the Razmir cult, but suffer an ironic aversion to them that, combined with their spite and envy, makes them quite happy to attack followers of other religions as well, since they resent the people who have true faith in a religion that isn't a scam.
- The Orzhov Syndicate, from the Ravnica setting of Magic: The Gathering, is half of this, and half of Legitimate Businessmen's Social Club. It's a little unclear of how fake the Orzhov church is, but it's abundantly clear that everyone in that guild is there for the money and power, and not the piety.
- BattleTech's pre-schism ComStar (and after the split, Word of Blake) has aspects of this. Heavily shrouded in mysticism towards outsiders and definitely capable of inspiring religious fervor in its own members as well, ComStar is fundamentally just an Ancient Conspiracy hoarding technological know-how and waiting for the Successor States to bomb themselves so far back into the Stone Age that they can step in and take over for the ostensible good of all mankind. (They're not above stirring the pot themselves if it looks like things might actually settle down or quietly eliminating outsiders who might be on the verge of making scientific breakthroughs, either — since they just so happen to control most interstellar communication under the guise of neutrality, they tend to be very well informed.) Interestingly, this is by many accounts not what ComStar's founder ever intended, for all that many members of the organization are prone to dropping supposed pearls of his wisdom into conversations at every opportunity; it's only under his successor that things rapidly started to take on a religious bent.
- The Church of Balor, which is attended by many Fair Folk. Every single one of the churchgoers know that it is fake, but they join anyway because it gives them the identity as enemy of Creation, and identity matters greatly to The Fair Folk. FYI, the Church is named after the leader of the most devastating Fair Folk incursion in the recent history of Creation.
- Also the Immaculate Order: it was created from scratch as a social control tool by the Sidereal Exalted, and is still secretly controlled by them. Still, nobody knows this, the huge majority of his priests and adepts are sincere, and the teachings, while discutable and obviously biased, can't be described as merely evil or egoistical.
- In The Dark Eye the Church of Borbarad was founded as a way to make money through donations and simony. Turned into Church Of Evil after Xeraan's death.
- The Rhythm of Life Church in the musical Sweet Charity. It was supposedly founded at the urging of a mysterious Voice:
And the voice said, "Brother, there's a million pigeons
Ready to be hooked on new religions."
- Fall from Heaven has a spirit magic user in the backstory who regularly did this.
- Fable II features T.O.B.Y., the Temple of Business and Yodeling, also known as the Temple of Benevolent Yokels. A quest in Bloodstone involves you running errands for the founder, Toby, but you eventually find out it's just a front for Toby to find suckers he can con into buying useless crap or running errands for him.
- And hookers. Don't forget the hookers.
- In the first game, the backstory reveals that both Avo the God of Good and Skorm the God of Evil are fakes invented by an enterprising merchant as a way of collecting money from the donations of followers. The scam works because their temples are built over places of very strong naturally occurring magical energy, so the power itself is real, even though the deities themselves are not.
- Deus Ex: Invisible War has the order, a front for the illuminati created for the sole purpose of unifying all religion. Aside from the leader herself everyone thinks it's the real deal, even the leader's second-in-command.
- Grand Theft Auto: Vice City has Pastor Richards, who is raising money for a Salvation Statue to save himself and his followers from the apocalypse. He admits on the radio his plan to use the statue money to build a mansion in Hawaii.
- Final Fantasy X has the Church of Yevon. It teaches that Sin was a divine punishment for using machina, that machina weapons are evil, that Sin will go away with enough prayer and repentance, and that the Final Summoning can free the world from Sin. While it's true from one point of view that machina brought about Sin (Bevelle won the war because of their superior weaponry, and Yu Yevon created Sin as his revenge), they are not inherently evil and Sin is not divine; the church uses this lie to keep the populace under control (no advanced weaponry = harder to overthrow the church). Sin will not go away with any amount of prayer or repentance, and the Final Summoning is actually how Sin is reborn; this lie is used to give the people false hope and keep them ignorant of the true state of things. It's made very clear that the Maesters are fully aware of the continued lies they spread. The church also has no compunctions using machina themselves — Bevelle's temple uses machina transporters, their soldiers wield machina rifles, and they use machina war machines even more advanced than the Al Bhed's.
- The usual game plan of the Big Bad of the last four Ultima games. The most obvious example is the Fellowship in Britannia, but he pulls the same trick in at least three other worlds to weaken them for conquest. Where he succeeds the scam quickly metamorphoses into a Religion of Evil.
- In Persona 3, the Moon Social Link for Minato at one point requires a "salvation fee" of 320,000 yen which you don't actually have to pay. You can even later call out the person you share the link with.
Minato: You're scamming them, too?
- EarthBound's Happy Happyism is a prime example. The leader of the cult, Carpainter, is essentially high on the presence of the Mani-Mani statue. In fact, the Mani-Mani statue, through which the Big Bad Giygas works his evil will, is the source of evil in the form of false beliefs and Corrupt Corporate Executives where ever it goes.
- In Xenogears, the Ethos is revealed to be a mere front for a Solaris operation, much to Billy's dismay.
- In the Sengoku Basara series, Xavism (the resident stand-in for Catholicism) is vaguely hinted to be this (though their main schtick is to play up the Funny Foreigner part). Its 'founder' Xavi appears to have founded it to make himself rich, although his extreme Cloudcuckoolander Love Freak nature makes it ambiguous: It's possible he actually believes his own insane dogma and is just too loony to recognize the inherent hypocrisy of his teaching. It's normally played for laughs more than anything. Despite this, Xavism is evidently very successful at gaining followers as various characters occasionally show up as converts in certain stages such as Yoshihiro, Motonari and Kanbe.
- One of the pieces of local color in Westmarch during the first part of Act V in Diablo III: Reaper of Souls is the "Order of Malthael", a "religion" that plays off people's fears of the Reapers in order to get them to "sacrifice" their money and valuables to the order's scam artist leader so that the Angel of Death may spare them. Since Malthael is an Omnicidal Maniac who wishes to Kill All Humans for having demon blood, anyone who knows what he's about can see through this scam quite easily.
- Unitology in the Dead Space series is an unholy (heh) cross between a doomsday cult, this, and terrorist extremism (at least in the third game).
- The White Mantle in Guild Wars Prophecies was engineered by the Mursaat in order to gain control of Kryta and use them to prevent the Flameseeker Prophecies from coming to pass. Most Mantle honestly believed in the divinity of the Mursaat and that the associated nastiness was necessary.
- The Charr religion preached by the Shamans was a scam by Abaddon to gain control of the Charr and destroy the human kingdoms of Tyria. After the defeat of the Titans the Shamans had presented as gods, the Shamans delved into full-on scam by trying to offer the mindless Destroyers as substitute gods.
- The Church of Wayne in Scary Go Round is really just a con to net money and women for Wayne.
- The Hymn of One in lonelygirl15 is actually a front for The Order.
- Inverted with several scambaits, which feature a fake religion meant to prevent scams (of the 419 variety), or at least humiliate the scammers. The baiter will usually assume the identity of a priest of said religion, claim that he wants to help the scammer's made-up cause but that sending the money is against his religion and force the scammer to do various humiliating actions (including getting a tattoo bearing the baiter's name or getting photographed in a bizarre pose in order to join the church and receive the (non-existent) money. After joining, the scammer will usually be presented with all sorts of crazy excuses to delay payment, until the scammer gives up.
- Movementarianism from The Simpsons (which is also Happyology).
- Family Guy: Many episodes portray mainstream Christianity and Judaism as a scam, either in spot gags or as a main driver of the plot.
- South Park has portrayed both Scientology and Mormonism in this way. Ironically, other episodes have shown that Mormons are the only people who get into Heaven, so it's not taking itself that seriously. That said, the episode about Mormonism was pretty much entirely "Woah, Mormonism is a load of bull — but Mormons are the sweetest people on Earth, so who cares?"
- The Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers episode "The Case of the Cola Cult" has Gadget half-heartedly attempt to join a soda-worshiping cult of mice. The evil second-in-command of the cult was using all the belongings new members gave up and keeping them.
- Sympathetic example: in the Avatar: The Last Airbender episode "The Painted Lady", Katara starts one of her own. As she helps some villagers, they mistake her for their local deity—and instead of trying to clear up the mistake, she chooses to make the most of it, turning herself into a false deity for them to worship. Of course, the villagers are outraged when they find out that she has deceived them, but they quickly forgive her since they realize that the help she gave them was genuine rather than part of some manipulative plot. After the whole thing is over, it turns out that the Painted Lady actually does exist—and she is pleased with Katara's deeds.
- In The Prince of Egypt, this is how the Egyptian mythology is portrayed. The High Priests replicate Moses' stick-to-snake miracle, but it's all about creative lighting, ominous statues and chanting, sleight-of-hand tricks and a big helping of showmanship. While Rameses is impressed, he fails to notice that Moses' snake devours the priests' snakes during the Villain Song. The priests are later exposed when they prove to be utterly useless against the Abrahamic God's ten plagues.
- An episode of Chilly Beach has Dale set one of these up; a Cult of Personality centered on himself that dupes a few townsfolk into waiting on him hand-and-foot-for about as long as it takes for the government to destroy the black hole Dale told everyone was the devil (the science of the episode is soft enough to spread on toast, of course).