Monday, November 23, 2009

Religious Competition

Last Friday evening I spoke at a Reform synagogue in Calgary, Canada. Four hundred people turned out matching numbers only seen on Yom Kippur.

I was there to speak about love, but not two minutes into my talk I somehow triggered a woman in the crowed to suddenly cry out against the notion that religions are in competition with one another. I had said something to that effect, likening religious competition to that of other brand wars such as Coke vs. Pepsi. She didn’t like her faith being demoted to a brand.

Clearly I had touched a nerve, and whenever I do so I cannot help but touch it again. And again, and yet again until I have either killed the nerve or at least left the person raw and in pain. We learn best through suffering I tell myself.

Do you ever wonder, I said, why theologians from any given religion always end up proving the truths of their religion? Why is it that no Catholic theologian ever discovers that Islam is true? The answer to this is the same as the answer to the question why taste tests sponsored by Pepsi never reveal that people prefer Coke.

We Jews call ourselves God’s Chosen People for the same reason Coke calls itself the Real Thing. Who would stay loyal to a brand that called itself God’s Rejected People, or the Fake Thing? Catholics claim there is no salvation outside the Church even though the Jewishly brand loyal Jesus said that salvation comes from the Jews. But what else could they say?

Brands compete; religions are brands; ergo, religions compete. People who say they shouldn’t don’t understand the nature of religion.

I think competition is good. Nonviolent competition, that is. Sending brand loyalists on crusades and jihads is bad for business, and I wouldn’t recommend it. But other kinds of competition is good.

I suggest religions sponsor person-on-the-street surveys asking people which of the following views of heaven most appeals to them: Endless Bible study with God (the Jewish view); endless singing of the same song (the Christian view); or endless sex and feasting (the Muslim view)? While all of them sound like hell to me after a millennium or two, it would be fun to find out which one people prefer.

We could also ask English speaking people whether they preferred their religious services in Hebrew, Arabic, or English? We could also ask people which kind religion they preferred: one that allowed them to eat pork, one that outlawed pork but allowed cheeseburgers, or one that outlawed pork and cheeseburgers but allowed the eating of a cow’s tongue?

People make lots of money doing brand surveys, so maybe I will go into the religion brand survey business. I will need more examples of possible surveys, so think about this for a minute and share your survey ideas with me in the comments section of this blog, If any one hires me to do your survey I will let you know.


Raksha said...

Great post, Rabbi Rami! I'm so glad I decided to add your blog to my reading list. It looks like I get to make the first comment on this post too, although someone who writes faster than I do will probably beat me to it by the time I actually get this thing posted.

Re "I think competition is good. Nonviolent competition, that is. Sending brand loyalists on crusades and jihads is bad for business, and I wouldn’t recommend it. But other kinds of competition is good."

A couple of considerations here: First of all, religious competition tends to be violent more often than not, especially with the so-called "religions of the Book," the Abrahamic religions. Under the best of circumstances the violence is purely verbal, as in the famous "disputations" between Jews and Christians in the Middle Ages, or the arguments I get into constantly on the various interfaith boards I frequent. My most recent blog post is a spin-off on a flame war I got into with a couple of Christian fundamentalists, one of whom is a so-called "Christian Zionist" who may or may not be affiliated with Hagee's group. I know he doesn't have the guts to tell me if he is. But as history has shown over and over again, physical violence in these brand wars is more than rule than the exception, and it can get very, very bloody indeed.

Second, I'm not convinced crusades and jihads are bad for business, at least not in the short term. In the long term they are disastrous, of course. The company develops a reputation for unfair competition that can be very hard to shake. People start to question their brand loyalty after a while; they begin asking the CEOs a lot of embarrassing questions like, "If you have a direct line to the Truth, how come you can't earn your profits the old-fashioned way? Why do you have to keep shoving your kool-aid down everybody's throat?"

But in the short term jihads and crusades bring in a lot of new customers in a fairly short period of time. The Alhambra Decree aka the Edict of Expulsion is a case in point. Would you call that an example of a hostile takeover, or an attempted hostile takeover anyway?

So what if many of those new customers still retained their old brand loyalty, but just had to become more sneaky and furtive about their preference? There's a very good chance that several generations down the line, their descendants will forget why they have a family tradition of lighting candles on Friday nights...but then again, they may not. Of course when and if they finally learn why nobody in the family can remember why they have these strange customs, the company stands a good chance of losing a bunch of new and old customers forever.

So I guess it all boils down to whether they are interested in long-term or short-term profits...good grief, was that a pun? I hate it when I make unintentional puns, and that wasn't even a very good one!

Linda aka Raksha

Rabbi Rami said...

Thanks, Linda. Insightful comments as always. What's your beef with the Hagee people?

Raksha said...

Rabbi Rami: What's my beef with the Hagee people? Here's one story out of many:

Claire said...

Linda, I take issue with the idea that the "Abrahamic faiths" are more likely to be violent over religion than other religions. When I lived in Japan, I dealt with fundamentalist Buddhists that were just as intolerant as any fundamentalist Christian. And the "Pacific War" was in part, fought in the name of Shinto, for heaven's sake. And there's certainly enough violence by Hindus against Muslims that can't be ignored. Idealizing the Other doesn't get us very far - I think violent intolerance is one of those things that can lurk in anyone.

rachel_eliza said...

shall we film some on the street interviews about choice of heaven experience for holy rascals?