In mid 19th century, Nietzsche, a German philosopher, angrily and famously proclaimed that “God is dead”. Nietzsche spoke favourably of nihilism, a school of thought which essentially negates godliness with its attributes of ‘idealism’ and ‘perfection’, and went on to describe a Ubermensch (“beyond Man”) – a superhuman who posits his own values and creates a life which is his own personal work of art.
As astonishing as Nietzsche’s audacity was at that time, he was neither the first nor the last to take up the cudgels against the Supreme One. Voltaire, and if we rewind by 2,000 years, Anaxogoras, who brought philosophy to the great city of Athens, had expressed pessimism about the existence of Deus Populi. Darwin, Marx and Engel and luminaries of the post World War 2 era like Bertrand Russell, took up the secularization baton and confidently predicted the decline of religion with advancement in science and technology.
There is no evidence to suggest that such rumours reached the East, or even if they did, were taken seriously. Hinduism had already gone through a wave of cleansing more than a thousand years before Nietzsche, forced in part by the emergence of godless, naturalist philosophies such as Buddhism and Jainism, and the Purva Mimamsa tradition of Vedanta, which declared the non-existence of God ‘with a form’ and that there really was no need to postulate the existence of a Creator for this universe, a thought interestingly in consonance with the Parabrahman of the Rig Veda. After a brief burst of dominance, the Purva Mimamsa school faded into oblivion, unable to hold the appeal of masses more attuned to visual allegories, practical metaphors and pantheons of deities. In fact,India led a Reuters survey on the “many gods question” with 24 percent of Indians declaring their “openness to believing in many gods and in gods of not just their religion”. The Hindu tradition has been to co-opt, not compete. It has been to embrace rather than reject, perhaps one of the reasons it survived the onslaught of competition over time.
Is God alive in the 21st century?
As far as questions go, this is an odd one. Is God is still alive in the twenty-first century? Was belief in God only a solace in times of famine? Was He perhaps a last resort for Greeks to make sense of thunder and lightning? Do we need God? Is He still our “ultimate concern” Or have we, the human species, lost God somewhere in the woods of our self-centred rituals?
Despite the plethora of predictions for centuries by prominent scientists and intellectuals regarding the disappearance of belief in God, today it is evident that the secularization thesis has failed. Nietzche is gone. God is not. So much for Ubermensch and nihilism, although one could argue that some sort of passive nihilism was always an undercurrent of and continues to stay alive in Vedanta, Buddhism and Jainism, the great movements that arose in the East long before Nietzche learned his alphabets.
According to a Reuters poll, belief in a god, or a supreme being, and some sort of afterlife is strong around the globe. Well over fifty percent of people across 23 countries who took part in the survey said they were convinced there is an afterlife and a divine entity, while 18 percent said they don’t believe in a god and 17 percent weren’t sure.
According to a Pew report on religion in the United States, a staggering ninety two percent of people stated that they believed in God or a higher power. Even in Europe, that bastion of secularism and cradle of “western enlightenment”, over fifty percent of the population continues to express belief in the existence of God.
It is evident that rumours of God’s demise have been grossly exaggerated. The “big 5” religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism) continue to thrive, and the faithful continue to be strong in numbers.
Proponents of secularization incorrectly imagined that scientific advancement would render superstition unnecessary and would wean us away from god(s). The fallacy in this hypothesis is that humans are not, and have never really been interested in more information on quantum physics, selfish genes and angry birds. Instead, human angst is existential and wells from questions such as “who created me?”, “why am I here?” and “what happens to me when I die?” – enquiries that science and technology have not really come anywhere close to addressing convincingly or palatably.
“Nothing in Particular”
The numbers from the Pew report of the survey done in the US, the world’s melting pot and the most influential country in the world, tell a fascinating tale. For example, there are as many Buddhists as Muslims in the United States. Bet you wouldn’t have guessed that. What’s really mind blowing is that the largest single group in the US, next to Christians, is “unaffiliated”, at 16% of those surveyed in the Pew report. This group includes atheists (1.6%), agnostics (2.4%) and a category interestingly denominated “nothing in particular” which clocked an astounding 12 percent of those surveyed.
Now, think about that for a minute. Slightly more than 1 out of every 10 persons in the world’s most affluent country describes themselves as belonging to “nothing in particular”. They are not atheist. Not agnostic. Instead, they are “nothing in particular”. This category is the fastest growing religious demographic in the United States.
Secular movements and scientific progress have not wiped out religion. But, it appears that the organized religions of the world are simultaneously losing their grip, thanks in measure to their own brand of inadequacy in dealing with human existential angst. In short, this tale is far from being over, and might have a few twists left in it.
Questions in people’s lives, addressed by neither science nor mainstream religion, are being increasingly answered by articulate and sophisticated gurus like Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle, new age preachers like Oprah Winfrey and Tony Robbins, dynamic swamijis like Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravishankar and militant atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. We predict that this millennium will witness the implosion of the big five religions into a buffet of disaggregated modules, which in turn, will be packaged, re-branded and sold by enterprising entrepreneurs to niche markets. A blossoming of a thousand Arab springs in the world of organized religion, if you will.
To aspiring entrepreneurs looking to capitalize on this burgeoning market, we are excited to provide a guide to ideating, commercializing and scaling of your endeavour. Here are excerpts from our “A Dummy’s Guide to Starting a New Religion”, a Laughing Gas magnum opus, which is yet unwritten but slated to be available on Amazon before the end of next year.
The What Ho! Guide to Starting Your Own Religion
Clear mission is key
As obvious as it seems, a clear mission is key. Remember that some day, you will have millions or even billions of followers. You should aim to convert as many of them as possible to willing and purposeful missionaries, who actually understand your mission. A mission statement should be easily translatable into 105 languages.
“Our mission is to assertively network economically sound methods of spiritual empowerment so that we may continually negotiate performance based outcomes in the hereafter”
“A stupa in every zip code”
Segment the market, find a profitable niche, and position yourself to differentiate
There was a time when only the fool and his money were parted. It now happens to everybody. Study the market and identify those most willing to part with their checks and craft a well designed story for them.
A little bit of Zen, a dash of karma, heavy doses of instant gratification and no talk of Hell, for example, is likely to do well in the lucrative sub-segments of aging Hollywood stars, high achieving entrepreneurs and corporate honchos.
The product definition checklist
Now that you have identified your customer, define your product to meet his deepest and darkest longings. Here’s a little checklist to help you get going.
First, decide if you will have a God, many Gods or no God. There are large sized markets for each.
Second, state your position on the Hereafter – is there one? Or does it go dark when the lights go out? Is there a velvety cool blackness or are you reborn as a North African dictator?
Hints: Happiness and heaven are in. Hell is out. Those looking into Western European markets should keep in mind that the survey says that 20 percent of Britons, who believe in life after death, can’t wait to speak to Lady Diana in the post bucket kicking phase.
Third, be intriguingly vague on creation. Statements like “In the beginning, there was this huge, monstrously big bang” have been known to resonate very well among the scientific types.
Fourth, decide if you want to keep things open or closed?
Should you “open source” your religion or should you keep it “closed and proprietary”. In other words, are the devout allowed to tinker with the ‘source code of conduct’, make stuff up and add as they go along? Or perhaps, you’d prefer to keep things “inside the house” and lock everything down?
Open sourcing is about freedom and flexibility, things which aids growth and survival over the long haul. Hinduism is a great example of an open source religion. There are two major problems with this, though. First – random folks will add random features that no one needs. Was there ever really a crying need for goat sacrifices? Second – open source systems tend to become so complex and confusing over time that a robust support infrastructure is required. Which means the glory (and the money) goes to the myriad swamijis, gurus and babas, who support the system by interpreting it, rather than the original founders. Keeping things locked down, on the other hand, has its benefits as you, and you alone, control the user experience.
This decision will have a bearing on your personal fortune and fame. Two men recently died within a week of each other. One championed proprietary, locked down systems and ruled that universe with an iron hand. This man, Steve Jobs, was eulogized by half the world and their pets within hours of his passing. The other invented the C programming language and helped write Unix, the precursor of open source systems. Bet you didn’t even know that his name was Dennis Ritchie. So, open source or proprietary? A lot depends on how big a dent you want to make on the universe.
Urgent and compelling call to action
Selling is a transaction that involves the completion of an exchange of (typically) money for something of value (a product or a service). The operative word in that sentence being “completion”. Sales is about ‘closing the deal’.
Nothing closes the deal better than an urgent and compelling “call to action”. Older religions have floundered not because of lack of salesmen, as is believed, but in reality because of lack of a compelling case for timely subscription.
For example, the pitch – “Get on the train NOW, or rot in Hell forever when the world ends 60 days from now” yielded amazing results for a certain Paul of Damascus around 33AD. In contrast, the pitch “Here’s a list of eight things you can do to be happy” didn’t exactly set things on fire for a certain Sakhyamuni in 600BC.
No such thing as bad publicity
As the adage goes, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Jigging things up to be jihadi and crusade friendly, making wild and inaccurate Doomsday predictions, carefully timed bouts of acid dropping and ashram hopping might attract controversial attention. But they will raise awareness levels, draw traffic to your website and garner you thousands of twitter followers.
A less understood strategy to stay in public consciousness has to do with the number of national holidays that your religion will require. Our take is that a real religion should require not less than 6 fixed national holidays and 3 floating ones. Whatever you do, do not err on the side of “too few”. The greater your number, the more popular you are likely to be in India, Spain and Brazil– all very populous countries.
On the importance of nomenclature
Most budding entrepreneurs don’t grasp the significance of naming things properly, and how the name really is, at the end of the day, the only thing that makes the difference between astonishing success and abysmal failure. Instead, they rely on advice of dead English dramatists. “What’s in a name?”, you may ask. That never stopped Sergie and Larry from naming their company after a fictitiously humongous number, which as it turned out, could be easily “verbized”. Don’t believe us? Google it and ye shall see. Naming after fruits is risky unless you’re an acid dropping, ashram hopping, unbreakable, air-bending, off-kilter genius with a sixth sense who can ‘see dead products’. Names starting with Z sound cool.
Last but not the least, figure out what you want to call those who don’t sign on to your school of thought. Calling them infidels, traitors or heretics and condemning them to eternal damnation might not be the best way of making friends and winning them over.
Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently. Here’s to you, our brave new cult leaders of a brave new millenium. Carpe diem. Seize the check. God bless.
Disclaimer: Lots of research went into this article. But, no priests, rabbis, gurus, lamas or militant atheists were harmed during its making.