THE FUTURE OF THE RELIGION BUSINESS
By Tsvi Bisk
Even though there are no statistics on the economics of religion one might reasonably assume that if one calculated the aggregate turnover and cash flow of all the religions and religious activities globally – their aggregate buying power and the goods and services they produce and consume – that we are talking about one of the biggest business sectors in the world, if not the biggest. The global economics of organized religion, New Age religiosity and various other ‘spiritual’ practices might run into the trillions of dollars.
Religion is the first and largest ‘information/communications business’ in the world. It receives processes and transmits information and has been doing so for thousands of years. Religion has made effective use of every information and communications technology that has ever existed: speaking, writing, printing, radio, television, cassette tapes, Internet, social media etc.
Religion has reinvented itself endless times over the centuries: redefining its mission, repackaging its image, reformulating its message. The oldest and most successful corporate entity in history is probably the Catholic Church; its relatively flat hierarchy, which makes provision for autonomous decision making while keeping its cadre on message and on mission, has anticipated modern management theory by millennia. The franchising system (made famous by MacDonald’s and others) might also be attributed to the Catholic Church: the ever increasing proliferation of like churches providing the same predictable services (products). Just as today an individual can walk into any MacDonald’s anywhere in the world and know with a high degree of certainty that he or she will receive the same products as at any other MacDonald’s anywhere else in the world so have Catholics been able to enter any Catholic Church in the world with the same expectations. When this policy of missionizing and building like churches was instituted it was a complete innovation in the ancient world.
Religion and religiosity are universal services: every culture and every civilization in history (and pre-history) has had a least one religion. This is because the desire for transcendent meaning is universal in every human individual on the planet (including atheists). Religion per se constitutes perhaps the biggest consumer market in the world. Organized religion’s marketing and sales are relentless; its market research and up to date sales techniques are second to none. It has always molded its services to the needs of the ‘consumer’. Therefore it is not farfetched to project future business possibilities inherent in religion, especially when combined with new technologies. Remember the Bible became the first mass produced product in history because its price plummeted as a result of the printing press, much as the price of computing power has been plummeting today. When Bibles became so inexpensive that they could be purchased by every individual a stupendous consumer market was created. Consequently the printing industry enriched itself from the Bible, took inspiration from this enrichment and looked for other books as well as newspapers to publish thus creating a literate reading public and a publishing industry. This enabled the easy exchange of information that facilitated the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment and eventually the development of Constitutionalism and Democracy. The anonymous hero of the American and French Revolutions was the printing press; the preeminence of which can be traced back to the mass produced printed Bible.
Modern Impacts on Religion
Feminism has been one of the most dominate themes of the 20th and 21st centuries. In the West it has revolutionized or begun to revolutionize every institution, including traditional religions and particularly syncretic religiosity. It is inevitable that feminism’s impact on developing countries and the way they live out their own faith traditions in the 21st century will be just as profound.
The subjective awareness and objective options of women have grown exponentially and gender rights have become a new norm in every aspect of international and multilateral activity. It is highly likely, therefore – that over the long term and combined with other developments – feminism will become a significant change agent amongst traditional patriarchal societies that have become part of the global system. Japan, Korea, India and China have already been deeply affected by the issue of women’s place in society. And feminism might very well become the primary driver for change in the Muslim World.
Globalization has become the dominate theme of modern life. Historically, commerce has had a great impact on religious attitudes. Trade is ethnically neutral and inherently ‘tolerant’. It is simply bad for business to kill your customers and your suppliers because they practice a different religion. England became a great economic power because it accepted thousands of Huguenot refugees escaping French persecution and thousands of Flemish refugees escaping Spanish persecution. These refugees transformed England from an undeveloped country dependent on the export of one commodity (wool) into a leading manufacturing country. Previously wool had to be sent to the continent to be dyed and woven into cloth because England did not have the necessary skilled labor – the refugees provided that skilled labor. Cloth-makers came from Antwerp and Bruges, lace-makers from Cambray, glass-makers from Dieppe and Havre. Steel-makers from Liege began the manufacture of steel in Newcastle and Sheffield and potters from Delft instituted pottery. All this reflected Queen Elizabeth’s attitude towards religion: “I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls”, and is known as the “Elizabethan Industrial Revolution” which laid the foundations of the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. Intolerance beggared the continent and enriched England. In the 20th century Idi Amin’s racist expulsion of Uganda’s Indian community beggared Uganda and enriched England again. The entrepreneurial Ugandan Indians created tens of thousands of jobs and now have the largest number of millionaires per capita of any other ethnic group in England.
When mercantile Venice was threatened with papal interdict for trading with Muslims the Venetians responded “we are Venetians before we are Christians” – in other words don’t make us choose between trade and faith, for trade will win. The Inquisition had a division of labor: the Church sentenced but the State carried out the sentence. However, the Venetians (unlike the Spanish) did not carry out one death sentence during the entire Italian Inquisition; they thought it might offend their Muslim and Hanseatic Protestant trading partners. And in the 13 Colonies theocratic Puritan Massachusetts stopped hanging Quakers when trade with Pennsylvania became a key part of their economy. When the Calvinist Church in the Netherlands called for the expulsion of the Jews the good churchgoing Dutch merchants said no – the Jews were good for business. So when Peter Stuyvesant, Governor of New Amsterdam, denied entry to Iberian Jews escaping the Portuguese Inquisition in Brazil he received a rather nasty communication from the Dutch East India Company instructing him to reverse his decision.
Given these historic examples we must conclude that faith traditions in countries that wish to be part of the global trade system will have to adopt at least an appearance of tolerance or risk being seen as hostile to the economic interests of their own countries. Ironically, this civil tolerance could coexist with even more stringent (and privately intolerant) observance of religious doctrine (or, conversely, it could be a modifier). What is clear is that the more overtly intolerant a society is, the poorer it will be. It is intolerance that causes poverty not poverty intolerance.
The jealousy of those impoverished by their own intolerance could have two results – it could make them even more intolerant and fanatic or it could eventually cause them to transform. But no faith tradition can continue for long to be indifferent to globalization as a change agent. If the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists in Egypt and Tunisia really attempt to apply their ideology it will destroy the tourist industry and plunge these countries into economic disaster; with all the subsequent human suffering and political dislocation that implies. As the impact of oil inevitably declines, Saudi Arabia will have to make a choice: liberalize in order to join the global trade system, or maintain their fanatic Wahhabi theocracy and crumble back into the desert sands.
Constitutionalization, not democratization, is the name of the game. Constitutionalism (like trade) is ‘coerced tolerance’. It protects minorities and individuals against the tyranny of the majority. It guarantees a plurality of views and creates a society that is amenable to the eventual internalization of tolerance as a general societal attitude that can eventually ameliorate even one’s most private prejudices. It must be assumed that the requirements of globalization will necessitate constitutionalization. Constitutionalism will eventually require every faith tradition coeval with political entities wishing to be part of the global system to adapt its civil behavior to the demands of a mutually tolerant pluralistic international society. Constitutional norms will become an ever more important change agent as we move deeper into the 21st century. Faith traditions ignore this at their own risk.
Secularism and individualism, as part of constitutionalism and globalization, have already had a great impact on religious attitudes and practice. The human race has created a secular world framework of capitalism, technology, mass communications, trade, and individual rights. In our everyday lives, this reality has primacy over group identity. Democracy, commercial law, international trade agreements, and regional trading groups affect us daily as individuals more than our religions.
Yet, secularism’s triumph as the practical framework of human civilization appears to have created an immense cultural and spiritual malaise. This has created an entirely new religious/spiritual market – New Age! Worldwide growing numbers of individuals and groups are embarking on spiritual/cultural quests, seeking to correlate spiritual needs with the obvious benefits of living in our technological world. But one’s spiritual identity has become more a matter of individual choice than of accident of birth. Modern individuals pick and choose multiple identities of value for them; for example Jewish Buddhists (or as Rabbi Moshe Dror called them: JUBUs). Great traditions are no longer sold as being inherently valuable. Their value is often argued in utilitarian terms – how they can benefit us in our everyday temporal lives. It is becoming increasingly clear that only faith traditions which provide spiritual benefit for a critical mass of individuals over historical periods of time will survive and flourish; those that do not will pass from the earth.
Fundamentalism and ‘soft religion’ are two sides of this same coin. Fundamentalism appears to have become an almost universal phenomenon in the undeveloped world, most noticeably in the Islamic world; but also in significant pockets of the developed world, most noticeably the United States. For the foreseeable future, the entire world will be preoccupied with the consequences and ramifications of the fundamentalist manifestations of various religions. Yet one of the reactions to fundamentalism will be an equally strong global advocacy for ‘soft religion’. This will come from the grass-roots, somewhat similar to the anti-war protest and the political counter-culture movements in the late 1960s and in the 1970s. ‘Soft religion’ will acknowledge diversity of peoples, cultures, and religions. The key motivator will be a commitment to human dignity per se, as an effect of the requirements and consequences of globalization and constitutionalization.
Pre-modern, modern and postmodern societies existing concurrently in dynamic interaction have created a global situation of cultural tension and conflict. This has resulted in clashes between modernists and anti-modernists and has become a major global change agent. All the major religions are pre-modern in origin but not all have adapted to modernity to the same extent and none have done so completely. This is concurrent with the rise of the non-Western World (Asia, Africa, Latin America) as a dominant global religious force. The unevenness of accommodating to modern life constitutes part of the religious/cultural tension within and between faith traditions. This requires constructing future visions that can unite a pluralistic civilization around common goals.
Futurist Business Opportunities in Religion
As the largest business sector in the world, religion presents tremendous business opportunities to the postmodern entrepreneur. For example, marketing services that analyze religions and religious attitudes in a rapidly changing world according to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Values (physiological needs, security, love & belonging, respect & self respect, self-actualization & self-transcendence). Maslow did not sanction the radical dichotomy between science and religion and felt that “religious” (small ‘r’) peak experiences were an ultimate expression of one’s essential humanity. Such a service would be for marketing purposes and how to direct advertising. This would be a service provided at the highest end of the information-knowledge scale.
Another opportunity would be to do ‘SWOT/PEST Evaluations’ (both on the basis of Maslow’s hierarchy and in terms of geo-political impact). What are the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of a particular religious tradition at a given time and what is the political, economic, social and technical environment influencing it. Businesses could use this to develop special services designed to answer the needs of well educated but observant Muslim women living in western societies – or in Islamic countries. Religious Feminism is an economic opportunity driven by a particular political and social environment. The status of women in every religious tradition will be in constant flux during this century. SWOT/PEST can be applied to other needs besides feminism, for example where to establish a branch, how to market a product etc.
Social media and Internet entrepreneurs could set up Cyber Chapels and Chat rooms enabling Orthodox Jews or Evangelical Protestants to keep in touch with their religious obligations when on a business trip to India or China. How does a lone Hindu doctor in a small town in Oklahoma keep in touch with his or her tradition? Religions are communal, yet globalization often deprives the follower of a particular tradition from feeling part of his faith community. One might envisage Google or Yahoo either running or hosting such a service. Part of this service could be commoditized, part personalized with different cost grades.
Interactive online theological discussions (chat rooms) would enable people to come on line with their spiritual dilemmas and concerns. Faith based matchmaking is another opportunity (find your ‘soul mate’ literally – perhaps the people you are closest to spiritually live thousands of miles away). This could be a spin off service of the Cyber Chapel/Chat rooms. Information and views expressed would be part of this service’s “eternal library” and with a special search engine a customer could bring up previous observations of the same issue that was troubling him or her. This service answers the needs of the globalization and individualism.
Personalized study kits (from the Internet) about religions, comparative religion and individual spiritual needs could evolve into a substantial market. Given the proper algorithm and questionnaire this could be both individualized and commoditized. It could be marketed as a self-realization service. Write in your concerns and interests and get your own syncretic religious package: Our Applied Theologics Service.
One might envision a firm that would produce “Future Visions” (The Future Vision Service) for emerging multi-cultural religiously pluralistic countries: for example a Nigeria 2030 vision. Only a future vision can provide the meta-ideological and meta-cultural framework in which the citizens of such a culturally diverse country (250 tribes and the Christian Moslem divide) can work together.
Another market might be to produce time and project specific cultural profiles for business people. Since religious traditions have internal and external drivers in ever increasing intensity and interaction, this service cannot be provided by academia, which by its nature is incapable of working in a real-time environment.
Cultural due diligence service for global companies might find a ready market. For example biotechnological companies must be particularly sensitive to religious doctrines. If you are engaged in stem cell research you might not want to locate a facility in a community dominated by Catholics and Evangelical Protestants – who believe that the fertilized egg is already a human being. A Jewish or Muslim environment might be more amenable. Majority Orthodox Jewish opinion holds that the embryo only becomes human 40 days after conception; in Islam a fetus becomes fully human between 40 and 120 days after conception depending on the religious authority. Both traditions favor actual life over potential life; thus in Judaism it is an obligation to abort the fetus if it endangers the life of the mother and Islam permits stem cell research from aborted fetuses as long as the abortion was before the 40th or 120th day of pregnancy. Both traditions say that anything that is not specifically forbidden and can save a life is obligatory – thus stem cell research is not only permitted it is obligatory. Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Malaysia are all conducting stem cell research. In cultures molded by Eastern spirituality (Hinduism, Buddhism etc) this is not even a debate.)
Syncretic African and Chinese Christianity might have special needs that the established Churches are not willing to sanction or serve. In another 10 years all of China will be online and in another 20 years all of Africa. Communities with unique needs can have e-books modeled especially for them. Religious information could be “Lego-ed” and stored in a virtual library – to be matched to the expressed concerns and interests and needs of the community. This would be a semi-commoditized service.
Information service about the practices (or changed practices) of the adherents various religions could become a must for business people. For example how many non-Jews would know that an Orthodox Jew would appreciate being offered tea or coffee in a glass rather than a porcelain cup? All faith traditions have their peculiar practices. For example Islam has a lunar calendar without a leap year. This means that Ramadan (the month of fasting during daylight hours) can move from autumn to spring. You would not get optimal results from a business trip to a Muslim country during this period. On Ramadan you could call your Muslim colleagues and wish them “an easy fast”! These niceties are deeply appreciated when performed by someone not of one’s culture.
The globalized paradox is that as globalization makes all of us more cosmopolitan it also forces us to be more informed about and tolerant of an ever growing range of religious, cultural and spiritual trends – this does not only offer political and spiritual benefits but also economic opportunities.
Future Impacts of/on Religion
A sophisticated mind must be able to embrace ambiguity and paradox. For despite the ever growing secularization of global public space it is almost certain that the religious imagination will continue to impact on society, culture and science – for better and worse. Religion will continue to be an inspiration for human creativity, sometimes even as a reaction to the evil religious fanaticism can do. For example, the ideology of tolerance was an essential aspect of the European Enlightenment. It was a reaction to the slaughter of the Wars of Religion, wherein the various branches of believers in the ‘Prince of Peace and Love’ butchered one another without restraint and decimated the population of parts of Europe almost to the same degree as the Black Plague. Queen Elizabeth’s hesitation about creating a window into men’s souls was a similar reaction to the stupidity of religious dispute; and consequently the source of England’s eventual economic hegemony.
On the other hand Monotheism was essential for the development of Science, Constitutionalism and Democracy. Monotheism was a kind of proto-Occam’s Razor, which loosely interoperated means ‘all things being equal the most efficient explanation is the simplest’. Monotheism replaced the complexity of the hierarchies of pagan religions with one simple explanation for the ‘is-ness’ of existence and the purpose of human existence. William of Ockham was an English Franciscan friar engaged in dispute with various theological theories about the proofs of God. For him, the only truly necessary entity was God; everything else was contingent. In other words the motivation behind the foundational principle of modern science was theological. Science’s endless search for simplicity, elegance all inclusiveness (e.g. the theory of everything) is a derivative of the monotheistic, religious imagination. Nicolaus Copernicus found the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic cosmology too complicated and thus an insult to God. If God was God (and he was) then he would have been capable of making a simpler universe. His motivation, like Ockham’s, was religious and the Copernican Revolution marked the beginning of the Scientific Revolution and from that the Enlightenment and from that the American and French Revolutions.
The Catholic Church democratized sanctity. Given that one God ruled the universe and created man in his own image every human soul was sacred. This was an unprecedented assumption in the story of human civilization; neither the Greeks, nor the Chinese, nor the Hindus, nor any other culture had ever even considered such a truism. The initial effects of this assumption were horrific: conquest and forced conversion; the torture chambers of the Inquisition. These were a necessary duty to ‘save men’s’ souls’ and avoid the agony of everlasting suffering in hell by making people suffer for a short period on this earth.
Protestantism democratized belief; every human being must have an unmediated relationship with God. Thus one had to read the Bible on one’s own. This led eventually to almost universal literacy in the Protestant countries as well as to an endless proliferation of denominations. Belief eventually became a totally private affair which had to be protected by the State; thus the birth of Constitutionalism guaranteeing the freedom of conscious.
During the English Peasants Revolt in 1381 a Lollard priest named John Ball, preached a sermon in which he asked: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” In other words if we are all children of Adam and Eve (e.g. brothers and sisters) why are some more privileged than others, and if we are all equal in God’s eyes why should all be equal in the eyes of human law. This marked the beginning of the democratization of English Constitutionalism which began with the Magna Carta in 1215 and reached its apotheosis in the American Declaration of Independence: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”. The indirect effects of the religious imagination can be even more significant than the direct effects.
The American experience has influenced religion even more than religion has influenced America. The lay Catholic revolt against the Church in Boston regarding pederast priests will be seen in future history to be point of reference in the eventual democratization of the governance of the Church. Can one really doubt that eventually there will be female priests and perhaps gay priests and nuns; that de Chardin will replace Aquinas as the philosophical foundation of Catholicism; that the Jews will reclaim Spinoza and revoke his excommunication? The long term trend will be towards natural theology; supernatural theology will be discarded. So why religion at all(?); because while science is necessary it is not sufficient. Any religion that has an obligatory belief system that contradicts the findings of science cannot survive over time.
But science cannot deal with questions like: What is the point of our individual lives? Who or what cares? Why are we here? What is here? Why does existence exist? Why is there anything at all? Why are we alive? What is life? What is the meaning and purpose of our life? Does life itself have any meaning? Why does this planet have life on it and does the Cosmos even care? WHAT THE HELL DOES IT ALL MEAN?
The discoveries and explanations of science cannot stop human beings from asking these questions; and the condescending attitude of scientists towards those who do ask these questions will not stop people from asking them. Now religion cannot answer these questions either, but religion treats those who do with respect; not only recognizing the questions as legitimate but perhaps as being even more fundamental than the questions that science deals with. Because of this the Religion business has a bright future.