Take, for example, the Disciples of the New Dawn. While John Oliver is clear in his purpose and parody, the Disciples of the New Dawn (DOTND) -- what I believe to be a parody internet religion -- is subtle and sly. DOTND, supposedly led by the enigmatic Father Patrick Oliver Embry, uses social media to infuriate the masses with its provocative posts and offputting memes on topics as diverse as condemning C-sections and burning pagans and steampunks alive.
Like The Onion-like parody news articles that make their rounds on social media being purported as real reports, so too DOTND have been attacked for their insolent assertions and offensive opprobrium by people who swear they are real. Multiple Change.org petitions were set-up to get the DOTND Facebook page taken down. And they worked. Five times. DOTND's Facebook page is now in its sixth version, having existed in one form or another since 2013.
While DOTND has not made their forgery public knowledge there is evidence that they are a bona fide "authentic fake." Even so, so powerful has the DOTND parody been, and real its effects, that it now has its own parody page -- Disciples of the New Lawn -- which is regularly attacked for its "offensive beliefs and statements" even though it's a fake of a fake.
Why are parody religions and digital fakes so compelling, and in some cases, so convincing? First, their brand of sharp wit and snark are par for the course and increasingly popular among Millennials and their ilk who thrive on the culture of irony. Second, they are a product of digital media. The Interwebs are more than a platform for cat videos and vague Facebook posts. The fact is that the World Wide Web changes how we interact with the world, connect with others, and learn, sort through, and judge the veracity of information. In the world of Google, YouTube, and Wikipedia, the former Englightenment ideals of authenticity and authority are often called into question or undermined entirely.
In the age of the internet, Tweeters can break news faster than CNN. Websites can hold governments accountable. Fake religions can "raise the problem of religious authenticity even when they are obviously fake, because they present themselves as real religion." (Chidester, 192) In the face of the internet -- for all its good and ill -- the traditional tests of what is real and what is hoax are subverted and the lines between authentic and counterfeit are blurred.
Given the smorgasbord of options available to the individual religious consumer today and the competing claims of the commercialized religious marketplace these "authentic fakes" force us to question the very basis of traditional religious identities and claims in the first place. At the same time, they also re-enchant the world as they think, act, and feel like "real" religions. In this sense they are "hyper-real religions," in the words of Adam Possamai, that often take on more meaning and relevance to individuals because they are more related to the experience of the isolated and independent religious consumer.