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The Future of the Religion Business Part1
Tsvi Bisk   Dec 10, 2012   Ethical Technology  

Even though there are no statistics on the economics of religion, we might reasonably assume that if we 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, DVDs, Internet, social media etc.

Religion has reinvented itself countless 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 allows 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 an individual can walk into any MacDonald's anywhere in the world today 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 for centuries been able to enter any Catholic Church in the world with the same expectations. When this policy of missionizing and building universally recognizable 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 that 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

Before continuing the discussion on the business aspects of religion, we must first look at some of the forces currently acting on religion and religious practices in the post-modern era.   
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 non-dogmatic religiosity. It is inevitable that the impact of feminism 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 Cambrai, glass-makers from Dieppe and Le Havre. Steel-makers from Liège 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 yet 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 passed sentence but the State was expected to carry it out. 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. Likewise, 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 either 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 the fanatic Wahhabi theocracy and crumble back into the desert sands.

Constitutionalization, not democratization, is another relevant key issue. 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 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 the late 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...

(check back tomorrow for the rest of this two part article...)

Tsvi Bisk (site) is director of the Center for Strategic Futurist Thinking and author of The Optimistic Jew: A Positive Vision for the Jewish People in the 21st Century (Maxanna Press, 2007). He also is Contributing Editor for Strategic Thinking for The Futurist magazine , the official publication of the World Future Society, and he has published over a hundred articles and essays in Hebrew and in English.


Wonderful! Can’t wait for the rest. Thanks, Tsvi.

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