by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

(note: this is part 4 in this week's 5-part series on the brandification of our lives) 

Lots of people shop for religion, and some even get their salvation custom-designed. It didn't used to be this way. 

Religion was something you were born with, like eye-color, and its practice was a given. Societies enforced it, even if you as much as entertained the possibility of switching allegiances. So did the religions themselves; eternal damnation was a stiff penalty for canceling your account.

In fact, choice couldn't be a factor when the USP of your designated brand was Absolute Truth

The channels through which this benefit was communicated -- rituals, symbols, dietary prohibitions -- weren't designed to make said truth any easier or fun to comprehend, necessarily. Sometimes they made it downright uncomfortable, both on an individual level (limits to personal behavior), and from a group identity perspective (think of how many times somebody has been beat up, or worse, because their faith dictated their clothing choices).

Belief was never intended to be easy, and compliance required real work and sacrifice. And since it meant getting born into a lifelong commitment, lots of people learned not only to endure it, but to find great meaning and reward.

Not so much anymore.

Religion is now often a choice made more than once, at least in America. You can pretty much find versions of every "great" world religion crafted to your specific needs: telegenic sermons, simplified "you're ok" theology, a bit of liturgy borrowed from someplace else, congregations contrived among endless permutations of age, gender, proclivity, or affliction. 

Religions -- or, more precisely, the institutions that offer them (churches, mosques, synagogues, etc.) -- have learned to compete for customers, and their tools have become the very channels that used to emerge naturally, if not authoritatively, from the USP at the core of each faith.

Now, we pick a brand of religion, based in large part on the experience of its products and services.

Some thinkers, like James B. Twitchell in his book Shopping for God, suggest that this is why religious fervor, especially among evangelicals, is thriving in the U.S. compared to the decline in many of Europe's state religions. The problem is that without competition for souls, there's no incentive to improve the way the offering is packaged. Hence, fewer buyers.

Perhaps this is why militant Islam has made such inroads into particular segments of consumers: it has adapted in order to be relevant to a target audience, and offers a powerful mix of extreme sacrifice in exchange for very clearly articulated brand benefits. Compared to the alternatives, it offers more value for the faithful. 

But does effective branding get at the ultimate truth of religion?

Oddly enough, religions are all pretty much the same, at a broad, core level, aren't they?

  • The monotheistic faiths claim that there's an Ultimate Authority responsible for creating existence, and requires that we follow simple precepts of good behavior and kindness
  • The polytheistic religions insert that same Authority into every thing, and expect the same response from us
  • The product differences really are in the messaging details.   

So choosing the brand that works best for you becomes a very relevant quality of religious experience; it's now something we decide to do, vs. something we have to do. And keeping track of souls saved has become the ultimate metric for measuring the success of religion.

But is it a measure of Truth?

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