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!
Looking 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, one 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. Or its existence justifies a corrupt and unjust secular government. Etc, etc...
The founder of the religion is another matter. He's always a False Prophet by default, but he might also 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, Religion of Evil, where the cult members are genuinely evil and they worship demons and evil deities, 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). Also compare Fake Charity, which similarly uses a seemingly worthy cause for a con.
Compare/Contrast Parody Religion, which is a combination of this played for Rule of Funny and everybody involved knowing it's not genuine faith. If an individual pretends to be religious to deflect suspicion from a scam or other crime, that's Hiding Behind Religion.
- The Silver Wolf Order in BNA: Brand New Animal presents a shapeshifting teenage girl as the reincarnation of the Beastman god Ginrou. She's actually Michiru's school friend Nazuna, who used to be human like herself but turned into a Kitsune. At one point Nazuna makes the claim that even if she's a fake god she gives the Beastmen hope, but her priest is actually using her to destroy the Beastmen's faith by exposing her as human at the height of her concert.
- At one point in Death Note, the greedy TV network executive Hitoshi Demegawa starts taking advantage of the growing cult following surrounding "Kira" (AKA Light Yagami) by starting his own literal cult dedicated to Kira, though it's transparently obvious that his only motive is to enrich himself through donations to the cult. This leads to Light having Demegawa and his followers killed during a live TV broadcast, courtesy of his new Dragon, Teru Mikami.
- Fullmetal Alchemist: The Church of Leto, led by Father Cornello, gathers followers in Lior by convincing them he can do amazing miracles with the power given to him by the sun god, Leto. In reality, he's just a regular alchemist, and not even a particularly talented one, who has 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.
- 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.
- A Catholic priest (who is actually an impostor) manipulates a group of hidden Christians to this end as the main plot of the Samurai Champloo episode "Unholy Union". There's a whole scene of him showing off all the extravagant pieces of art and other items he bought for his own enjoyment using alms given to him by the actually faithful Christians, naming each item and how much they cost.
- Carried by the Wind: Tsukikage Ran: One episode has Ran and Meow arrive at a village that's being scammed out of their money by a group of criminals who fool them with alleged "God's teachings" about leaving their material possessions. Meow falls for it, while Ran, being an atheist, doesn't.
- In the original web novel version of Overlord, Zuranon (the cult of death that Khajit belongs to) runs one. Jashin, the God of Death worshiped by the cult, was made up by the higher-ups of Zuranon to manipulate their followers easier. This backfires a little when Ainz shows up, as he ends up usurping control of the cult - the members who aren't aware that Jashin isn't real believe him to be Jashin incarnate, and he has the power to back it up.
- Fables: In The Great Fables Crossover, the belief in Blue Boy temporarily turns into this as Jack takes over as its shepherd.
- An early Transmetropolitan story has Spider covering a massive religious fair for a column. New religions are started every day, and the event feels like a fan convention crossed with a job fair. The whole event is incredibly soulless and pretty much everyone there is clearly some kind of huckster trying to scam new converts. The sheer farce and cynical villainy of it leave Spider so enraged that he ends up on a violent rampage across the fair, dressed as Jesus, denouncing religion, and exposing himself while yelling, "Read my scripture!"
- Wonder Woman Vol 1: Zara of the Crimson Flame is a con artist villain who uses charlatan tricks to dupe people into joining her made up cult and then takes their money and uses threats and more stage magic to make them scared enough to do her bidding.
- X-Men has the Acolytes of Magneto, a group dedicated to the worship of the titular X-Men Big Bad as a more or less a bastardized Christ figure. Their founder, Fabian Cortez, tries to kill off Magneto in the same story he appears in in order to make a martyr of him (and is initially successful; Magneto was "dead" for two years before his inevitable return). Per his Villainous Breakdown Motive Rant to Exodus, Cortez even cooked up the entire religion wholesale so he could have a "flock of sheep" to "work on my behalf".
- 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 Hetalia: Axis Powers-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.
- In The Prince of Egypt, the Abrahamic God has demonstrable power, while Egyptian Mythology is completely fake. The Egyptian 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 King 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. This is actually slightly different than the Book of Exodus, where it seems both sides' gods are real, but the Hebrews' is much more powerful.
- 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.
- In Licence to Kill, Professor Joe Butcher is a televangelist who operates the Olimpatec Meditation Institute; a front organization for drug lord Franz Sanchez's illicit operations. Originally started by Sanchez merely as a cover, he later notes that Professor Joe manages to turn a 'tidy profit' from it.
- In The Invention of Lying the depicted world with no concept of lies or fiction has no religions until Mark, the world's first liar, tries to reassure his dying mother with a story about a "man in the sky", although in this case he isn't actually trying to scam people (he can do that just by walking up to them and saying "You owe me money"), and he didn't intend for other people to start believing in it.
- 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.
- Isaac Asimov's "The Mayors": In order to teach the people of the Four Kingdoms how to use the technology from the Foundation, they're taught "meaningless ritual" and moral mummery. Students who prove exceptionally bright are taken to a different school and taught as proper scientists, allowing the Foundation to advance technologically. Once the regular students graduate, they're priests of the "religion of science", they speak of the Galactic Spirit who watches over all, and spread the word of his Prophet Hari Seldon. It is from this "Galactic Spirit" that the Foundation extends the Divine Right of Kings to the rulers of each of the Four Kingdoms. When Anacreon tries to start a war with the Foundation, the priests running their ships and infrastructure go on strike and incite riots among the devout populace, proving that Terminus had ultimate control of both the technology and the people.
"[Y]ou were forced to surround these scientific gifts with the most outrageous mummery. You've made half religion, half balderdash out of it. You've erected a hierarchy of priests and complicated, meaningless ritual." — Sef Sermak
- 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. The purveyors have a pattern of entering an area, establishing a church of Alseiass apparently peacefully, then the region starts to mysteriously suffer problems, which the preachers attribute to the influence of their god's enemy, Balsennis. And to fight Balsennis' influence, Alseiass will need offerings of gold to strengthen him! Cue a cycle of attacks that diminish for a time after offerings, escalate when offerings are deemed inadequate, and only cease completely when the preachers vanish in the night and take all the gold with them.
- The main conflict of Safehold is between a scam religion that managed to outlast its creators by nearly a thousand years and a protagonist who knows it's a scam and needs to bring it down because the Church enforces the Medieval Stasis.
- 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.
- Star Wars Legends
- In The Han Solo Trilogy, the T'landa T'il males can produce a state of complete pleasure in a person. This state of pleasure is highly addictive. Normally it is used to attract T'landa T'il females but instead, the self-appointed clergy use it to lure their victims to Ylesia. They go from planet to planet and recruit people. People who experience it and are not strong enough to resist it are drawn into it and become addicted. The pilgrims become slaves in the Ylesian spicemines. The revival is a major part of their day where the pilgrims get their daily fix. These poor slaves are completely brainwashed and cannot live without their drug. The faux religion that the T'landa T'il have established is just a ploy to get free slaves and spice. The whole operation is owned by the Hutts. When the slaves are brainwashed and grow dependent enough they get shipped off to the spice mines of Kessel or sold as sex slaves in a brothel.
- 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 R. R. 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.
- In John Scalzi's The Android's Dream, the Church of the Evolved Lamb is the only religion whose members fully realize that their founder did it to make money and completely made up all the "prophecies" (his goal was to swindle a wealthy old lady out of her billions, but she turned out to be much smarter than that and, instead, had him dancing to her tune). But they're determined to make it work.
- In Paratime, as part of the "Home Timeline comes first" approach of Paratime users, they periodically set up fake religions to cover their exploitation. To be absolutely fair, though, the one scam religion we do see at least tries to be reasonably positive in doctrine if not in background.
- Release That Witch: The witch-hunting Church in the story was actually created by witches, as a means to capture and sacrifice any witch deemed to have lost the Superpower Lottery to make more magical Super Soldiers for the coming The End of the World as We Know It.
- The John Carter of Mars series has two of these:
- The first one is the religion of Issus, which is the main religion on Barsoom. In the second novel, "The Gods of Mars", it's revealed that Issus is just an old Black Martian, not a goddess.
- The novel "The Master Mind of Mars" introduces a religion centered around the god Tur. Unlike the Issus-based religion, which is global, this one appears to be limited to just the city of Phundahl. And like Issus, it's all a big scam. The statue of Tur in the temple is just an animatronic operated from within. When the heroes discover this, they make great use of it.
- In Nightmare Alley, the main character Stan pretty much builds one of these around himself as the phony spiritualist preacher 'Reverend Carlisle', holding actual religious services to help reel his wealthy clientele in.
- The Golden Hamster Saga: The field hamsters in Freddy to the Rescue worship a clay jar called the Jar of Hope into which they put offerings every week. They hope the jar will protect them from bulldozers, but their offerings are really being eaten by the priest Fronso.
- The Church of the Survivor of Mistborn is an arguably benevolent example. On the benevolent side, it was founded to give the enslaved skaa hope and something to believe in other than their tyrannical God-Emperor. On the sketchier side, the founder was a Con Man who made himself the god they worshiped albeit by martyring himself, and intended to incite the skaa to rebellion against their god-king.
- Dragonlance: Interestingly done in books set after the Cataclysm, wherein the gods seemingly abandoned Krynn. A new religion called the Seekers shows up, who's priests use a combination of sleight of hand, minor arcane magic, and basic herbology to convince the populace their gods are real. While horrible, the book Hedrick the Theocrat reveals that the dark gods of Krynn are coopting this scam religion in order to rebuild their strength and conquer the world.
- In Alice in Borderland, Chota's mother raised him as part of a cult worshipping the "Holy Mother" but it becomes painfully apparent early on that it's just a front for the leadership to extort money and sex from gullible women. He even almost experienced a Primal Scene with his mother and the cult leader as a boy, with the other women shooing him away as he watched her undress. In the present day she would come to his workplace on occasion to ask him for money to give to them, with him relenting every time.
- 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.
- What's Happening!! had an episode where Rerun joined a cult that worshiped a head of lettuce named Ralph. The couple behind it are scam artists who tell their new "followers" to give up all their possessions to them.
- 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".
- Zoey 101 had the Silver Hammer Society, a supposedly elite group that turned out to be a scam for the leaders to get the people who wanted to join to do stuff for them.
- Red Dwarf has Silicon Heaven, which is a rare overlap of this with Robot Religion. In a rare variant, nobody actually takes Silicon Heavennote seriously apart from the mechanoids who have been forcibly programmed to believe it, because the fact that it's just a cheap, lazy way to try and keep mechanoids happy with slaving away to serve humanity is written in the "humans only" section of every mechanoid operating manual.
- Monty Python's Flying Circus has "Crackpot Religions," displaying a series of rather silly holy sees which is then interrupted by what appears to be a serious minister addressing the issue. Then he gets a phone call:
Minister: Hello? (pause; pulls out Financial Times) Well, how about Allied Breweries? (pause) All right, but keep the Rio Tinto.
- Schitt's Creek: Alexis Rose gets hired by a fitness company called Elevation, which is a multi-level marketing scheme but also a full-on cult that trains its member to climb to something called The Gateway and join up with a UFO. Alexis realizes the cult is bad news fairly quickly and shuffles her friends, whom she has recruited, out the back door.
- Shoestring: The Starshiners from "I'm a Believer" buy run-down houses, renovate them for free, and sell them. Their founder tells them that the money will go towards spreading the religion when it's actually being spent on his mansion.
- One character from the Starsky & Hutch episode "Terror on the Docks" capitalizes on the occultism craze of the mid-'70s by founding his own version of Hollywood Satanism, complete with statues of Egyptian gods, a goat mask that distorts his voice, and a plastic skull that plays creepy organ music when Starsky picks it up.
Ezra: Listen, I laugh all the way to the bank. Demonology and devil-worship, man. That's the latest fad. It's legal and tax-deductible. These nuts and kooks all want to be sorcerers and pay for the privilege.
- Evil (2019): In the episode "I is for IRS", the team is hired by the IRS to investigate the New Ministry of Satan, which is applying for tax exempt status, to see if they're a legitimate religion or a con. After their investigation, they come to the conclusion that it is indeed fraudulent, only using Satanic imagery to get attention so that people will buy their merchandise (with the ministry's leader taking the bulk of the profits for himself).
- Parodied in Les Luthiers's play "El Sendero de Warren Sánchez". It includes everything ranging from false testimonies (including a single person pretending to be two different people), their motto ("Salvation is guaranteed; if you die and you're not saved, you get your money back!") to having people spend money on several phony ideas (such as their weekly lotto). Furthermore, their founder, the aforementioned Warren Sánchez, is an FBI fugitive.
- Iron Maiden's song Holy Smoke has this as its main subject, sung from the perspective of no other than a very exhasperated Jesus of Nazareth, it primarily alludes to the hypocritical nature of profit based religious movements.
- 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.
- The parody religion the Church of the SubGenius (whose radio show, "The Hour of Slack" is heard on some thirteen stations across the United States) doubles as a scam religion and they're not afraid to admit it. $25 gets you eternal salvation or triple your money back.
- 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.
- 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.
- Dungeons & Dragons:
- Illithids are too arrogant to worship actual deities, but have a similar devotion towards the Elder Brains that rule their communities. An Elder Brain's instructions are obeyed without question, and Mind Flayers fight without fear of death, knowing that should they die, their own brains will be removed and put in the Elder Brain's pool for absorbtion, and the Illithids will join the Mind Hive within the Elder Brain. However, while Elder Brains do indeed absorb Mind Flayer brains, they also feed on the knowledge and psionic energy within them, and no part of the Illithids' consciousness survives this process. The Elder Brains are very careful to keep this secret from their Mind Flayer subjects.
- 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.
- In Eberron, the Blood of Vol was started entirely as a cover for Vol's minions and to sucker the common believers into providing (indirect) material support to her minions, including the Order of the Emerald Claw, a terrorist group. It is not itself a Religion of Evil as most followers are perfectly normal people who are seeking an alternative to the known grey, gloomy, The Underworld-style afterlife of Dolurrh where all you have to look forward to is your soul slowly fading away. There are some Corrupt Church elements in that much of the dogma pre-dates Vol herself, she just manipulated things to repackage the dogma of a few scattered refugees to the mainland in a way that'd allow it to spread and her to exploit it.
- Multiple religions in Ravenloft are social tools of whatever Darklord is in charge of the region. The Eternal Order is one started by Azalin to scare the living populace of Darkon into obeying the undead ruling class, and the faith of Yutow might be one (its dogmas do seem to be tailor-made to help out the Darklord of Valachan, but there's no confirmation either way).
- The Church of Balor, which is attended by many Fair Folk. Every single one of the churchgoers knows 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 disputable and obviously biased, can't be described as merely evil or egotistical. On the other hand, the teaching most Exalted will encounter is the definite lie that Solar and Lunar exalted are all evil and must be killed on sight.
- 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.
- 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. Note that this setting has Black and White Magic, so Razmiran "priest" antagonists are seen using decidedly non-priestly magic. 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 and others who were deceived by their faith, who realize they were tricked upon reaching the afterlife and are consumed by hatred. Known as apostasy wraiths and rechristened abandoned zealots in Second Edition, they prefer to go after living members of the same faith, 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 people who have true faith in a religion that isn't a scam.
- 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.
- 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."
- Deus Ex: Invisible War has the Order Church, 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.
- Devotion has the cult run by Mentor Hueh, which preaches (among other things) that medical practice can be replaced by religious rituals and donations of money to the cult. Hueh's final scene implies that either she realized that the cult was about to fall apart on her and booked it with her ill-gotten gains, or was arrested by the police. The cult has definitely killed at least two people with its beliefs- an old man with cancer who refused chemotherapy, and the protagonist's daughter Mei Shin, who suffered from an anxiety disorder. He tried to cure her using a dangerous ritual instead of getting psychiatric help, but it ended up killing her.
- 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.
- One case in Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth - Hacker's Memory has Keisuke investigate a prosperity religion that believes buying $2000 "holy" tap water from the cult leader will cause their dragon god to give them happiness and good fortune. Said dragon god, actually a Goldramon, was also being strung along by the cult leader and merely thought he was helping people. He is not happy when he finds out.
- Fall from Heaven has a spirit magic user in the backstory who regularly did this.
- In Fable I, 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Final Fantasy X has the Church of Yevon. It teaches that Sin was 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 main plot of Final Fantasy Tactics revolves around this starting from the end of the second chapter when you discover that the zodiac braves revered by the church are actually demons, and Saint Ajora was the worst of the lot bent on world destruction. The main character gets branded as a heretic in order to prevent this truth from coming to light, and the author of the in-universe book, the Durai papers, upon which the story of the game is drawn from is burnt at the stake to prevent the truth from being revealed
- 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 the Hero 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.
P3 Hero: 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.
- Unitology in the Dead Space series is an unholy cross between a doomsday cult, this, and, in the third game, terrorist extremism.
- Guild Wars:
- 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 a full-on scam by trying to offer the mindless Destroyers as substitute gods.
- Tlacolotl from Nexus Clash is always running shell organizations, scamming cults and feints in support of his plans to keep the other Powers That Be fighting one another and unable to stop his evil goals. The other Dark Powers are too insane to keep up this level of subtlety and their cults are always a straight-up Religion of Evil.
- The Catholic-esque cult in Resident Evil Village, formed by Miranda over a hundred years ago to find a suitable vessel for her deceased daughter to be reborn in, but pretends to be both a path to enlightenment and long life or immortality. As soon as she finds (what she thinks is) the perfect vessel in Rosemary, she has the entire village massacred by Lycans and guides Ethan to dispose of the four Lords as well.
- In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, this was the case for the so-called "Priests of Nocturnal". Nocturnal is the Daedric Prince of Darkness and the Night, who is also associated with Thieves and Luck. She is the patron of the Thieves' Guild and the only mortal servants she actually seems to care about are the Nightingales, who have pledged to serve her in life and in death, protecting her Twilight Sepulcher and the Ebonmere, a conduit between her realm of Oblivion, Evergloam, and Mundus, the mortal plane. The "Priests" set up in the Twilight Sepulcher and claimed to have Nocturnal's favor, but they were really just a scam set up to prey on the gullible. Nocturnal herself didn't actually pay them any attention or care what they did, as long as they didn't interfere with the Nightingales or threaten the Ebonmere.
- In Yakuza 0, one of Majima's sidequest has him rescuing a young woman from a shady cult extorting its members for money and planning to make a harem from its women by infiltrating the cult and beating the crap out of the leader. 17 years later in Yakuza Kiwami, one of the cult leader's subordinates tries to revive the cult using the club scene with party drugs and it's Kiryu's turn to kick his ass. Eleven years later in Yakuza 6, Kiryu has to put the cult down again, this time with help from the original founder who wants to rescue a woman he likes from losing her pension to the new leader.
- Honey, I Joined a Cult has this as your day-to-day purpose of the cult. While your leader can commune with your deity of choice and plot an ultimate, divinely-inspired goal for the cult, the rest of your minions are busy ripping people off. You start with your temple where they preach the word and pass the collection plate and develop different "therapy" rooms; starting with simple meditation, but then apparently healing people with the power of therapeutic electroshocks, communing with the dead, and sitting in pools of maggots. Charging by the minute, of course.
- In Daughter for Dessert, the Church of the Aquarian Revelation seems like this, at least for Lainie. Shes in good standing as long as she can provide them with free food. If not, then she's subjected to horrifying rituals.
- The Church of Wayne in Scary Go Round is really just a con to get 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.
- HAT Films and 'The Hand of Truth' in Cornerstone. Not entirely clear what the religion involves, but it sure likes gold.
- In Orion's Arm, the Epimethian movement promoted subsingularity abdication, that is, returning to an animal consciousness on the basis that language and cognition are a barrier to the true understanding of the world. It managed to convince several sophants to revert back to average primate intelligence to become Homo Epimetheus, which was to live in a park managed by the Epimetheus Foundation, which would receive all the adherents' properties. It was later discovered that the said Foundation was a money-making scheme, and the managers of this scam only invested a minimal amount in the park, which their charges couldn't protest since they already had lost any higher cognitive capacities.
- Movementarianism from The Simpsons shows the Leader flying off with the funds that he'd claimed would be used to build a spaceship.
- 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 portrays Scientology as an elaborate means to get celebrities to endorse a religion based on pseudo-science and nonsense mythology. There was also the one-off appearance of "Blainetology", which was explicitly about illusionist and eccentric New-Age Retro Hippie type David Blaine trying to make himself the prophet of a new religion for the sole purpose of tax evasion.
- 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 leader of the cult is benevolent and genuinely believes in what he says, but his evil second-in-command was taking 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.
- 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).
- On Bob's Burgers, an aquarium that Tina frequents is about to close because they can't even pay their own taxes. After hearing that churches get tax exemptions, Louise convinces the woman who runs the aquarium to register as the Church of Aquaticism. Unfortunately, they do such a good job of convincing the IRS agent that he wants to join.
- In The Crumpets episode "Belief Relief", Uncle Hurry and Aunt Harried introduce their Paymeism religion to the Crumpet family as the "one and only belief system". They require payments in exchange for teachings and "blessings", and are seen giving the family mobile phones, and falsely cured leeks in response to the family's dying lunar leeks. Hurry proclaims to be the prophet and its God, warns that nonbelievers will perish, his wife saying no "crazy questions", and Hurry forces his brother Pa to divorce his "infidel" wife and puts her to trial for disobeying. Ma washes off the gold paint coating the leeks to show that Paymeism isn't legitimate, argues that people should believe what they wish, and the Crumpets retreat from Paymeism. Another episode reveals that Paymeism is promoted in Hurry and Harried's TV network.
- In King of the Hill episode "Fun with Jane and Jane", Luanne and eventually Peggy are tricked into joining the Omega House, a cult that disguises itself as a college sorority and brainwashes its recruits by depriving them of protein, bathrooms and contact with their families and friends before sending them to a ranch to make jams and jellies for the cult to sell.
- The Owl House: Most witches in the Boiling Isles worship the Titan, believing that Emperor Belos is his prophet and will lead them to utopia during the upcoming Day of Unity. Though the Titan may be indeed alive to some extent, Belos is actually a human witch-hunter and plans out to wipe out the entire witch species through the aforementioned Day of Unity. His various dogmas, such as the necessity of the Coven system, exist only to make the process go as smoothly as possible.