Hearts of Darkness 8 - Religious Marketing

A man died and went to heaven.  Upon arrival, St. Peter offered to take him on a tour, and he readily agreed.  They saw the Throne of God, the angel choir, the mansions of the great missionaries and apostles, and all the fantastic sights of Paradise.

Then they came around a corner and found an odd-looking structure.  It appeared to be an ordinary brick house - but it had no doors or windows of any kind.  There didn't seem to be any way in or out.  "What on earth is that?" he asked.

St. Peter replied, "Oh, that's where Rev. Smith lives.  He didn't believe there'd be anybody in heaven but himself, and we didn't want to disappoint him."

Unlike the lonely Rev. Smith, most religions have a strong desire to get more adherents.  This might be because you truly believe that people who don't believe as you will suffer eternally in the flames of Hell and you want to save them from that incendiary fate; or, it might be from the less noble cause of wanting to increase your own personal power and influence, as appears to be the case with Osama bin Laden.

Regardless of the motivation, the goal is the same, but the various religions differ profoundly in their marketing strategies.  We'll start by looking at the more unique ones, and move on from there.

Marketing Judaism

In a sense, the Jews have a negative marketing strategy - it's very difficult to become a Jew, you almost always have to be born a Jew by having a Jewish mother.  If a non-Jew falls in love with a tradition-minded Jew who won't marry a non-Jew, the Rabbis make it very difficult to convert to Judaism.  Conversion to Judaism is rare enough that it essentially doesn't happen.

Thus, Judaism spreads or maintains its numbers almost exclusively through reproduction.  The Jewish prophet Malachi stated that God's purpose in instituting marriage was so that His children would have more children who would grow up to serve Him (v 15).

This strategy of forbidding conversion would seem on its face to be a bit risky, but Jews have kept themselves together as a cohesive people for at least 2,500 years with no other marketing plan. Reproduction must work better than we'd think; Jews have survived innumerable pogroms and other attempts to wipe them from the face of the earth.

In comparison, the Shakers, who outlawed marriage and natural human reproduction entirely and "reproduced" only by proselytizing, lasted a scant few hundred years.  The only remaining Shakers today are a handful of single elderly ladies; when they die there will be no more Shakers.

On the other hand, devout Jews get pretty annoyed when anyone tries to convert a Jew away from Judaism.  While the state of Israel happily welcomes visiting Christians bearing tourist dollars, Christian missionaries find it difficult to get visas to live there without engaging in subterfuge and can be expelled for proselytizing.

It is interesting to note that Jews have survived as a cohesive people under appalling persecutions for millennia, but in the United States, where they've enjoyed a few hundred years of tolerance if not always complete liberty, a large majority of people who are Jewish by heritage are Jewish in no other visible way.  Not only that, Jews are marrying non-Jews in increasing numbers.  "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church", apparently for Jews as well as Christians.

Asian Religions

Like Judaism, Asian religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism regard anyone born into their religion as a member, but they're much more accommodating of converts than Jews are.  Asian ecclesiastics tend to welcome anyone seeking enlightenment and teach the novice as much as he or she is able to learn whether the novice declares loyalty to the religion or not.

I ran across a college classmate who had converted to Buddhism after a career in software development.  He was the head of a project to convert all the accumulated Buddhist writings to scanned images and then to searchable text files on CDs.

He wasn't approached; he became interested in Buddhism and sought out a Buddhist scholar.  After he learned enough that the scholar believed that he sincerely appreciated the sacred writings and would handle them with respect, his mentor told him about the data conversion project and asked him to lead it.  Asian religions are closer to their polytheistic past than Western religions; this naturally makes them more accommodating.

The problem with being that accommodating is that there isn't any real exclusivity to the religion.  Coke will sell you a bottle of Coke even if you normally drink Pepsi, but they make a lot more money by contracts with airlines and restaurants to serve nothing but Coke.  The same is true of religions: a Buddhist monk or priest has nothing remotely resembling the authority over an individual Buddhist that a Catholic priest or even a Protestant pastor has over his flock, so the ties to Buddhism aren't as strong as the ties to Western churches.

You could say that Buddhism is a mile wide and half an inch deep, but the costs of membership are low and Buddhism clearly has an effective marketing strategy; in recent years, Buddhism has had far greater success reaching new markets than any other major religion, admittedly starting from a low base outside Asia.

On the other hand, now that the Chinese are coming down hard on the Buddhists in Tibet, we may see a different approach to Buddhism emerge.  The Buddhist monks in Burma are reputedly becoming rather more militant as a response to the country's military dictatorship, which has slaughtered them by the hundreds.  This parallels the emergence of a number of extremely militant Buddhist monasteries during the Japanese feudal era.

Buddhism tends to be a religion of peace, but like most people, Buddhists respond to external threats with necessary force as long as circumstances demand it.

Christian Marketing

Most Christians don't assume that their children will automatically become Christians; particularly in Protestantism, each child must be expressly taught Christian beliefs and persuaded to choose to become a Christian.

In His last message to the Apostles, Jesus assigned them what is often called the "Great Commission," saying, "Go ye into all the world and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." Accordingly, Christians have been sending out missionaries since the Apostle Paul's first missionary trip in the early first century.

St. Paul laid down the basic rules of engagement, saying, "Knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade men."  Paul made it clear that even though Hell was a truly awful place and it would be very bad for anyone to die and face an angry God without accepting Christianity, people were to be converted to Christianity through persuasion and in no other way.

The Catholic church does recognize that children who grow up in Catholic homes are far more likely to remain Catholic than random outsiders are to become Catholic.  Forbidding Catholics to use birth control helps the Catholic Church follow the Jewish marketing strategy to supplement their missionary endeavors.  Catholicism is probably the second-most-numerous religion worldwide, so this combination is proving to be effective.

The Inquisition

Despite the Apostle Paul's teaching, the principle of non-violent marketing hasn't always been followed.

In 1213, Pope Gregory IX published a decree detailing severe punishment for heretics and created the Inquisition to enforce his decree.  A "heretic" was anyone who disagreed with the dogma of the Catholic church.

The property of anyone who was convicted of heresy was subject to confiscation, which opened the system to systematic abuse.  Over time, the Inquisition resorted to torture to exact confessions; people started to accuse one another of heresy as a means of exacting personal revenge much as modern Americans falsely accuse one another of child abuse.

Since the stated goal of the Holy Office was to "out" people who claimed to be church members but who really weren't in agreement with the Church, the Inquisition could be regarded as a form of marketing effort focusing on internal quality control.  The fact that property could be confiscated via a loaded system quite similar to modern civil forfeiture, however, leaves ground to be at least as suspicious of the motivational purity of most such investigations as we are suspicious of most Congressional investigations.

The concept of the Inquisition turned out to be so useful to secular governments that Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain started the Spanish Inquisition in 1492.  They had just defeated the Muslim forces and expelled all Muslims and Jews from Spain.  Rather than be expelled, a number of Jews and Muslims converted to Catholicism; the genuineness of this conversion, and hence the personal loyalty and patriotism of the converted, remained in doubt.  One of the stated reasons for the Inquisition was to purify the church of false believers.

The infamous tortures of the Spanish Inquisition, with its public burning of heretics and private horrors, became notorious throughout Europe.  The Spanish Inquisition received a particularly bad press in England where Henry VIII had banned the Catholic church, taken over all church property, and appointed himself head of the Church of England.  By the time his daughter Elizabeth assumed the throne, rebellious Catholics were a serious enough threat to her throne that she executed her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, fearing that Catholic dissidents would proclaim Mary queen in her place.

Philip II, successor to Ferdinand and Isabella, initially proposed marriage to Elizabeth, but she refused.  Spain was the greatest power in the world at the time and became increasingly hostile to England, particularly when English pirates such as Sir Francis Drake started seizing gold coming back from the Americas.

Though Spain attempted many plots to depose Elizabeth and substitute a Catholic ruler on the throne of England, their failures let to the more active measure of the Spanish Armada to bring about the desired regime change.  The disaster that befell the Armada, by a terrific storm and the bravery of the nascent British Royal Navy, are one of the great turning points of history.

During the 30 years between her refusal of Philip's marriage proposal and the attack of the Armada in 1588, Elizabeth's public relations staff worked hard to put a highly negative spin on all news coming from Spain.  They were particularly negative about the activities of the Inquisition, of course.

The more non-Catholic English citizens learned about the Inquisition, the reasoning went, the less eager they'd be for a Catholic takeover of England and the more likely they'd be to turn in suspicious strangers.  General Petraeus has used similar logic in persuading Sunni Muslims to turn in al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq: publicizing the barbarities of your opponents works just as well today as half a millennium ago.

Although it's tempting to attribute the Inquisition to the Catholic church and regard it as a marketing effort gone to excess, the political and economic circumstances of the time suggest that religion had little to do with it.  Though Philip gloried in his title of "Most Catholic Majesty" as if his religion was an extremely important attribute of his kingliness, he was not at all interested in letting the Church authorities in Rome have anything to do with his conduct of the Spanish Inquisition.  Thus, the definition of heresy, the list of who was to be accused, and the disposal of the property of the convicted were completely under Philip's secular control.

Similarly, although Elizabeth was nominally a Protestant, it seems that she didn't really mind Catholics practicing their religion so long as a) they didn't try to knock her off her throne and b) they paid their taxes.  It's hard to be sure at such a long remove, but Elizabeth seems to have been rather fond of her cousin Mary and regretted the necessity of beheading her to keep Catholic plotters from rallying around her.  Even after Mary was convicted of a treasonous plot to assassinate Elizabeth, Elizabeth still hesitated to sign the death warrant and it took extensive persuasion from Sir Francis Walsingham, her spy chief, to finally get the job done.

Thus, the Inquisition can be understood as mostly a tool for attacking Philip's political enemies and enriching his favorites; the fact that it was carried out in the name of religion didn't mean that it had much to do with the church.

Catholicism has come a long way from the Inquisition, and it's inconceivable that any modern Pope would react to a proposal to resume it with anything other than shock and horror.  Just as the American Protestants learned from the Puritans that forcing people into your church doesn't work well, Catholics have also found persuasion to be more effective, and Catholic churches are growing by leaps and bounds in the developing world - peacefully, without the thumbscrews or the rack.

Islamic Marketing

The Koran provides what might be the strongest religious motivation for proselytizing: not only are non-Muslims wrong, their very existence is intolerably offensive to Allah.  Instead of just wiping them out and cleansing the earth of their apostasy, however, Allah has showed mercy in offering unbelievers a chance to be converted to Islam by the efforts of His faithful.

This mercy has its limits, though: any unbelievers who churlishly refuse conversion are to be killed without further ado.  That command is found in their Book, the Koran.  Sura 9:5 says:

009.005 Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush.  But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free.  Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.

We often hear that the god of Islam is a merciful god; regularly, Muslims are cited as invoking the name of "Allah the Merciful."  It's enlightening to see what the Koran defines as Allah's mercy: giving unbelievers a chance to convert to Islam before killing the refuseniks rather than summarily killing them all on sight.  It's like the old Western attitude towards horse thieves - "We'll give 'em a fair trial and then we'll hang 'em."

Muslims are far more hostile to missionaries from other faiths than even the most traditional Jews.  Christian employees of firms based in Saudi Arabia have been arrested and deported for holding Bible studies in their homes.  Christian mission property is often destroyed and Christians murdered in many Islamic countries.

As a practical matter, most recent Islamic marketing is directed at Muslims who are thought to be insufficiently fervent, since wise non-Muslims generally try to keep out of range.

The Islamic terrorists believe that Allah, as Mohammed records his commands in the Koran, requires Muslims to kill all non-Muslims.  Since most Muslims don't believe that, or at least refuse to act as if they believed it, the Muslim fundamentalists have a problem - there aren't enough committed Muslims to mount a serious challenge to the various non-Muslim powers.

The goal of engaging in terrorism is to provoke retaliation against peaceful Muslims who live near where acts of terrorism are carried out.  If the authorities come down hard enough on enough Muslims, the fundamentalists will gain further recruits.

Yet even while al Qaeda terrorists are murdering non-Muslims and Muslims alike, they are following their own religious requirements by calling on them to convert.  The last tape released by terrorist kingpin Ayman al-Zawahiri repeats a call for Americans to convert to Islam and thereafter live in peace.

In a sense, they seem to actually believe in this - recent news reports concerning pop star Michael Jackson's conversion to Islam also discuss al Qaeda's welcoming response to Mr. Jackson:

Unconfirmed initial reports are already filtering through that Al-Qaeda deputy Ayman Zawahiri has been notified and has welcomed Michael Jackson into his faith as he 'would any sincere new adherent' and hopes that this high profile conversion will prove to be the turning point whereby millions of young Americans, already disillusioned by the economic crisis that is sapping Americas confidence will turn to the Koran for inspiration.  Pakistani news services also reported the open satisfaction of other senior figures regarding the pop star's conversion.  One Pakistani news source noted that 'Jackson's controversial past should not preclude him from sincere practice of Islam or acceptance by fellow Muslims as 'the ability to repent is a key belief'.

Unfortunately for Osama bin Laden's market share, not all of his adherents have been so accommodating.  The "Sunni Awakening" in Iraq, in which many tribal Muslim leaders have joined forces with the Americans to defeat al Qaeda operatives, was motivated in large part by atrocities committed by the terrorists against their fellow Muslims.  If you offer someone the choice of conversion or death, he converts, and you kill him anyway, the next person to whom you offer that choice will be more likely to fight to the death instead of cutting a deal with you.

The Koran speaks negatively of "diversity," implying that non-Muslims must be subjugated or slaughtered in order to void offending Allah.  The Dutch are noted for almost making a religion out of tolerance; they welcomed Muslim immigrants and assumed that they would be smoothly integrated into Dutch society as earlier groups had become Dutch over time.  The International Herald Tribune reports, however, that the Dutch have become significantly less tolerant than they were.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, the Netherlands had lived through something akin to a populist revolt against accommodating Islamic immigrants led by Pim Fortuyn, who was later murdered; the assassination of the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, accused of blasphemy by a homegrown Muslim killer; and the bitter departure from the Netherlands of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali woman who became a member of Parliament before being marked for death for her criticism of radical Islam.

The Dutch have noticed that Muslims tend to respond to disagreement by murdering those who disagree with them and are finding it difficult to tolerate this approach to religious marketing.  The biggest Dutch left-wing political party has responded to Muslim behavior by issuing a position paper calling for the end of the failed model of Dutch "tolerance."

The position paper said that immigrants must "take responsibility for this country" and cherish and protect its Dutch essence.  They are, in effect, denying Muslims the right to market their ideas in the murderous manner which they prefer - and in so doing, preserving the rights of everyone else.

Ethnic Cleansing

Ethnic cleansing, wherein you kill or drive out anyone who has a different racial background, is a form of religious marketing because people of a different ethnicity generally worship a different god.  In the past, the usual custom was to kill all the men while keeping the women alive; having extra women around helped increase the future availability of fighting men.  Keeping captive women for purposes of procreation was so common that ancient Jewish law regulated the practice.

The earliest recorded incident of a religious massacre comes in Jewish History where Joshua massacred all of the inhabitants of Jericho except for the family of Rahab the harlot who had protected Joshua's spies.  Strictly speaking, this was not ethnic cleansing because the people who lived in the land were genetically related to the Jews - it was religious cleansing - but the difference didn't matter to the dead.

The reason that Jews felt that they had to keep themselves separate from other people was that they were descended from Abraham, whom God had chosen to be the father of His people.  The fact that the Jews were circumcised and the other people weren't made it easier to tell who was whom.

Jewish history is serious about the necessity of religious slaughter.  According to I Samuel 15:23 and 26, King Saul lost his kingdom because he didn't kill everybody in an enemy nation as God had commanded him via the Prophet Samuel.  According to the ancient Jewish writings, God eventually told the Jews to stop massacring people because He would take care of whatever punishment their enemies needed, even though they'd never really finished exterminating the people He'd told them to wipe out.

It is interesting that God as described in the Bible started out rather bloodthirsty and then became quite a bit more tolerant over time, leading up to New Testament times where Christians are flatly banned from any sort of physical abuse of others on religious grounds.  In stark contrast, the Koran depicts Allah as starting out tolerant when the Muslims were weak and becoming much less tolerant of non-Muslims as Mohammad and his followers became stronger.

Ethnic cleansing has come to be almost a synonym of genocide in modern news usage, but there is an important difference.  Genocide is the intentional extermination of a people - that is, killing them, as in Hitler and the Jews in the Holocaust.  Ethnic cleansing, though sometimes violent, does not necessarily involve murder.  There are many examples of non-genocidal ethnic cleaning throughout history, with some surprising results.

Jews were one of the targets of the Spanish Inquisition in the late Middle Ages.  As they have been in many places, the Spanish Jews were noted for their wealth from banking and trade, and also for their distinctive religion.

Under the influence of the infamous Torquemada, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella (yes, the same ones who sponsored Columbus, starting the tradition of investors expecting extremely high returns) signed the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews in 1492.  All Jews of whatever station had to leave the territory of Spain within four months, on pain of death.

You might think this a terrible act of injustice, and of course it was, but it's far better than simply murdering them.  A great many of the Jews were gladly welcomed by other countries.  Some scholars date the rise of England and fall of Spain as great powers to this forced movement of highly-skilled and educated Jews.  The Turkish Sultan, another recipient of refugees, chortled, "How can you call Ferdinand of Aragon a wise king, the same Ferdinand who impoverished his own land and enriched ours?"

The Jews of Spain had served their homeland loyally and done nothing to deserve such harsh treatment; over the centuries, Spain paid a great price for its king's rashness in expelling so many high-bracket taxpayers and their descendants.  This practice continues today.  The Economist of 4 Dec 2008 reported that the parents of Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google, left Russia for better opportunities when Mr. Brin was 6 years old.

His father, Michael, wanted to be an astronomer, but Russia's Communists barred Jews from the physics and astronomy departments at universities.  So Michael Brin became a mathematician, as his father had been.  This too was difficult for Jews, who had to take special, more difficult entrance exams.

It is not clear what Mr. Brin would have been permitted to accomplish had his parents stayed in Russia but we know how his ideas contributed to our economic growth.  Russia's loss is our great gain because Google probably would not have happened without Mr. Brin.  The social costs of ethnic cleansing, whether motivated by religious differences of by jealousy of economic success, are immense.

On the other hand, there are situations where a little ethnic cleansing might be no bad thing.  Can anyone doubt that separating the Jews from the Palestinians would lead to reduced levels of violence?  The partial separation of the so-called "apartheid wall" built by Israel to block off Palestinians from Jewish areas has, in fact, had this salutary effect.

The Kurds of Iraq have a much lower level of conflict with Iraqis of other ethnicities now that they run their own semi-independent territory.  The bloodbath that was Yugoslavia has resolved itself into mostly unitary states, each with a vast majority of one creed.  The boundaries between mutually incompatible groups are now clearly marked, widely recognized, and rationally defended international borders.  Violence ought to diminish now that the turf wars have been more or less resolved.

Where Islam mixes with other religions in the same physical place, everywhere in the world, a battle results.  From Yugoslavia (Muslims, Christians, and Orthodox) to the Holy Land (Muslims and Jews) to Lebanon (Muslims and Christians of various sorts) to India (Muslims and Hindus) to the Sudan (Muslims, other Muslims, Christians, and animists), there is no example of Muslims being a large but peaceable minority in modern times.  They are either a vanishingly small, powerless, and mostly invisible minority as in the United States; the overwhelming and all-powerful majority as in most of the Middle East; or... you have no peace.

Many countries in Europe appear to be crossing this boundary as the number of Muslims increases; France, Germany, England, the Netherlands, and others have seen increasing civil strife, street fighting, and "no-go" areas for the police as Muslim percentages cross into the double digits.  These nations have seen ethnic un-cleansing, or to use the politically correct term, an increase in diversity.  Are they better off for having permitted diversity to increase?

This series started out by observing that most of the Western leadership elite is profoundly ignorant of religion.  Irreligiosity has been a workable career path in Western society which is becoming more and more secular, but is a distinct liability in dealing with the religiously-motivated terrorists from the Middle East.

American inability to deal with terrorists is exacerbated by the fact that we can't decide what to call the conflict - war on terror, war on Islam, or what?  Based on the facts of comparative religion, how the various religious beliefs can be observed to operate, and facts on the ground, the last article of this series offers our definition.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
The Koran is slightly more tolerant of 'Faiths of the Book' ie Judaism and Christianity. Still mandating the conquest of areas under Jewish or Christian control but allowing Jews and Christians to practice, but not attempt to convert people to, their religion. Historically this tolerance was a huge boon to them, as many Christians in the Byzantine Empire welcomed the Muslims has liberators, since they were finally free of the iconoclastic rulers.

Unfortunately for Christians and Jews today fundamentalist Muslims seem to not notice this fact.
January 23, 2009 9:44 AM

Clarification: apostasy is the abandonment of a religion. Islam views apostates as far worse than non-believers. If a Muslim were to convert to the New Message from God, for instance-- http://newmessage.org --that would be considered by many to be a heinous religious crime. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, it's a capital offense.

May 26, 2011 3:30 PM
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