Thursday, June 09, 2005

Know Your Market

"By their fruit you shall know them." some guy once said. But don't buy their fruit until you know them. One of the best ways to evaluate a religion or a denomination or a sect or a cult or an organization which may be taking a page out of the religion "How to" manual is by looking at how they try to gain new converts. If the numbers are all that matter to them and they do not care about things like informed consent, they will probably try to get at people at their most vulnerable. Maybe they have just experienced a natural disaster. You can go in to a country under the pretence of helping out and use the opportunity to spread your message and quietly piss on the competition like the Hubardinians have been doing. This tactic is why the very conservative Christian denominations, having pushed too many moderates out of church in their own countries to retain the kind of influence they would like (a process that is just now underway in America but further advanced in Europe and the wealthier former colonies, minus Australia), are finding that the war ravaged, illiterate and under fed are an easier sell. Bishop John Shelby Spong explains why this is not the good news that evangelists claim it is. It should be noted that once people have heard the "Good News" and the rest of the scriptures as literally interpreted by the missionaries, they often start up their own churches which have no organizational attachments to the originating denomination. While Islam was able to maintain a fairly unified belief system in a free-market independent model, they had the benefit of being mostly of one ethnic and linguistic group. Africa is a stew of colonial and indigenous languages and beneath the nation state system they still have many rural areas where kinship connection and tribal kingdoms mean that Africa is a very diverse cultural landscape. The chances of these independent churches maintaining their 17th century European character are pretty low - and that is assuming that modern education, Internet access, cell phones (Africa's market for cell phones is on fire) and globalization do not bring strange new beliefs and ideas from Scientology to secular humanism to their door. Also, Unlike Europeans Christians, Jews and Moslems, who frown on doctrinal dilution of "reveled truth", most places in the world have a history of mixing, matching and picking religious beliefs. Modern Hinduism and Buddhism were highly influenced by long philosophical debates between their scholars and with people of other religions. Independent churches also are only accountable to the local justice systems who may not want to touch a hot potato like religion until it becomes too corrupt to be ignored. The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God loves to attract new followers in the third world but given that they are selling miracles on a "no money back if you lacked faith" bases, I doubt that they are highly concerned about their flock, let alone the future of Christianity. Another way to get high recruitment is to go after a group that has already proven receptive to recruitment like an Air Force Academy. Once you have them in a position where they are isolated from their friends and family and in an environment where challenging authority is... frowned upon, you can start bombarding them with your marketing campaign day and night. [See DFACs not for religion - scroll down to third item].

The idea of converting people to your beliefs is an old idea. The Buddhists believed in teaching any who were interested and even sending teachers into other lands but since they believed in reincarnation there was not the frantic desire to "save" people from the consequences of disbelief. If they did not get it now they might come around in a thousand years. The Romans converted themselves to the Greek religion and then sought to convince everyone they came across that their Gods and stories were actually Roman Gods that they had been mispronouncing - a surprisingly effective mode of unification which only required the adoption of some new holidays.

Unfortunately one of the few and most successful versions of monotheism came with the commandment "You shall have no other Gods but me." He did not say "I am the only God. Just saying is all. Don't go killing anyone about it this is just to clear things up." What he said was "I am a jealous God" and spent a significant amount of time telling his chosen people that by mixing with people who do not worship only him they are a dirty slut (See Ezekiel). This, along with the rapid success of the break away religions of Christianity and Islam set the stage for a dream that has haunted every religious follower and instigator (that goes for secular know-it-alls too - Marx, Hitler, Mao, Stalin - I'm looking in your direction!) ever since. The dream of having your idea on everyone's mind. Converting the whole world to a new idea so that everyone will be more identical.

But in the frenzy to achieve the dream, like the holy grail of myth, it vanishes when you try to reach it. The Islamic extremists have resorted to violent world wide uprising because they have looked out on the world and have seen that it is too large and diverse and complicated (modern) to convert peaceably. In this and this alone they may know something the more moderate Muslims do not. Or it could be that they both understand it but the extremists are unwilling to let go of the dream of worldwide adherence so they have pursued the line of thinking to its conclusion.

Christian extremists, being more image conscious had decided to go for a middle road. They can not reason the world to conversion and they are unwilling to repeat the violence of past conversion efforts so they rely on constant pressure. Show the unbelievers the ten commandments when they go to court. Make them pray in school. Pray with them in the work place. Sing gospel in the mess tent. Open city counsel meetings with evangelical prayers (none of this "Dear God" crap that Jews and Muslims can get behind but "Praise Jesus our only savior for today's municipal agenda" - you know - stuff like that). Tell their kids that their parents are going to Hell - you are just expressing your beliefs after all.

Everyone who reaches for the Grail fails to notice is that the very act of reaching causes the dream to vanish. New Zealand may be evidence of the Christian world's dream of theological unity fading as the conservatives grasp ever harder at it. The blogosphere is evidence of the vanishing of the extreme Islamic hope for the same. For while it is easy to find anti-Semitic conspiracy-spewing Islamic extremists on the net, you can also find growing numbers of moderate and democratic (sometimes even secular and pluralistic) Middle Easterners who do not share the dream of converting the world by what ever means necessary. It is nice that we have a medium to hear from them. Now if we can just get those hacker people to make web traffic unblockable in countries like Iran. Get to it you geeks!

It is not just the military which has low recruitment and high turn over. As long as religions care more about the number of bums in seats or on mats than about what the attached heads think of them, the unity they seek will, thankfully elude them.

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