This article belongs to BUSINESS MONTH: How do they do it? theme.

The Religion Industry: How They Do It

Although religion is universal, it amounts to little more than entertainment: a prosperous and wealthy religion industry covers the globe. The poor and uneducated, lacking access to inexpensive entertainment, are religion's best customers. What is truly amazing is that religion has nothing to sell if not entertainment relying as it does on stagecraft much more than on content.

The vast church entertainment industry, over the centuries, learned to use audience participation as a drawing card.
In the United States, the federal government does not tax the religion business. Without tax records it is very difficult to know how much the industry earns or how they spend their earnings. The pastors, priests, bishops, and all the other church leaders generally earn very good salaries. Some become extremely wealthy. They often have free housing and food. Some religions do good work by feeding and helping the poor and homeless, but this is generally a relatively small part of their budgets.

Now, for a moment, imagine you are a poor peasant in the year 200 A.D. You have no education, no access to world news, no entertainment, and no medical services. Life is hard and short. Then, one day, a charismatic old guy comes to the village telling stories of miracles, life after death, and god-like figures. All he asks is for some food and perhaps a coin or two. His visit is possibly the biggest event in your short life. Having no education or critical thinking skills, you can't help but be impressed. You come to believe in his confabulations hoping that life, perhaps after death, will be much better.

On their part, the profits learn what draws people into a support group. Over the centuries, religious leaders learn to build elaborate structures that are much grander than the average home. Their churches, built by the labor of the faithful, seem to climb to the heavens. The leaders engage the best musicians, architects, and artists to create inspiring and dramatic images and sounds. Religion becomes entertainment of the highest order, and church leaders acquire so much power that they team with government to rule whole countries.

The vast church entertainment industry, over the centuries, learned to use audience participation as a drawing card. The church became a social center where people could join in the singing and social events. As good actors, the clergy developed elaborate costumes, symbols, and rituals. They used every device from holy water to incense to fake healings to entertain the people.

In time, church leaders gave up any other productive employment and developed an elaborate hierarchy or career ladder. They set up qualifications and standards to limit competition, standards that usually excluded women.

Recently I saw a picture of six or seven clerics of the Russian Orthodox Church. They were dressed in their expensive full regalia, and they looked like a line up of ornate birthday cakes. Clerics sometimes spend thousands of dollars (collected from the faithful) on their costumes. In the Russian church, of course, women do not become priests; their role is food preparation and cleaning.

The common people pay for the grandeur of the church because, for so many centuries, it was the only entertainment and source of information available. It's hard for us now to imagine a world without television, radio, computers, easy transportation, and instant worldwide communication. And yet religion as entertainment survives because it has learned to make use of all our modern technologies.

One of the most powerful and effective tools in the hands of religious leaders is childhood indoctrination.
One of the most powerful and effective tools in the hands of religious leaders is childhood indoctrination. Through church schools and lectures, children are taught a collection of ancient confabulations as if they were being taught facts. As adults some may come to realize that what they were taught as a child in church school is basically irrational, but always there is that trace of fear, that specter of punishment in hell for the non-believer, that seed planted so long ago that lingers in the back of the mind.

The tools of the religion industry include:

• Ancient confabulations and undocumented talk of miracles;
• Huge and impressive buildings;
• Art and Music;
• Audience participation;
• An exclusive and difficult to enter clerical hierarchy;
• Elaborate costumes and rituals;
• Inculcation of children;
• Special treatment by governments.

There are other tools of the industry, of course, but let's take a look at the day-to-day techniques of managing a congregation. David Hayward is the pastor of Vineyard Church in New Brunswick, Canada, and he is a creative and articulate Internet user; see, for example, Hayward says he was asked what he could do, if he felt free to do it, to increase attendance and contributions at his church. He admits to being cynical in his list of ten tips for increasing contributions, and I do not think these are his own priorities, but they seem to have the loud ring of truth.

Hayward suggests a sort of "pay to play" scheme that is almost like an animal training act. You can achieve notoriety in the church in proportion to your financial contributions. You will have special treatment if you come often to services and make large donations. The church leader should use personal freindship, recognitilon, and public praise to reward dedicated participants. The leader may also use guilt and fear as tools. He heightens the dramas, expectations, and tensions as much as possible; this is, after all, a kind of stage play. He can use incentives such as fund-raisers, pledge campaigns, bake-sales, and auctions. Always the leader must project an image of wealth and confidence. Failure to contribute to the church is pitched as failure to God. The basic message is that if you want to be an important lay member of the congregation, if you want to share the stage with the real actors, you give and give and give.

One of the most frequent complains of church goers is the long and boring sermon. Most clerics today opt for short moral lessons lasting ten or fifteen minuets. They don't let the message get in the way of the pagnetry and showmanship. So much for the "word of God," a mere footnote to the entertainment.

As I write this, the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, complete with his ornate hat and Popemobile, is in Africa where he told the adoring people that using condoms actually makes the AIDS epidemic worse. This is a cruel lie, of course. Condoms reduce the chances of sexually transmitted diseases. But the Church needs poor and badly educated people who make up the ranks of supporters. To prevent births among these groups is to eliminate future supporters. I guess getting a few pennies fron the poor, when there are millions and millions of poor, is a better gamble than getting money from educated millionaires.

Enjoy the show, folks, and don't forget to pick up some free popcorn in the lobby.

(Julian I. Taber, Ph.D. is author of Addictions Anonymous: Outgrowing Addiction with a Universal, Secular Program of Self-Development.
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