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Varjavand: Taking religion’s lessons to form ‘Religion of Humanity’

RezVarjavis associate professor economics finance Graham School Management St. Xavier University Chicago.

Reza Varjavand is associate professor of economics and finance at the Graham School of Management at St. Xavier University in Chicago.

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Updated: July 24, 2013 6:14AM



I recently read a book by Alain de Botton entitled “Religion for Atheists: A Nonbelievers Guide to the Use of Religion.” I found the book intriguing and pragmatic because it draws the reader’s attention to the reasons why religion has been so enduringly successful over the history of humankind.

This book discusses in detail the strategies and tactics utilized by religions to appeal to the masses and keep their adherents fixated on their rituals.

Religions teach us how to seek communal help and not just deal with our vices, sins, pains and problems alone. We human beings immensely benefit from living with other people because we are innately in need of belonging, charity, sharing, interacting, doing things together and aligning personal interests with the group’s interests.

Religions also instruct us to be humble; to respect other people, especially parents, elders and friends; to sacrifice for a cause; and to acknowledge personal shortcomings and be repentant to others (Judaism’s Day of Atonement is one example of this).

In addition, repetitively memorializing various occasions is the hallmark of any religion, and this enhances its helpfulness. Some occasions, among others, are weddings, the death of loved ones and rites of passage such as the Jewish bar mitzvah.

Religions have competently relied on building institutions to coalesce and strengthen their rituals. Merely writing books and scholarly papers, as atheists do, is not enough to popularize an ideology.

It seems religions today have successfully duplicated many promotional strategies used by modern business corporations. While business firms create and sell products, religions address our emotional needs and have used branding, shared visual vocabulary and slogans to bring about homogeny, thus intensifying the benefits of “mass production.”

Religions love uniformity and hate divisions and local variations because these are viewed as the enemies of uniformity. Religions, similar to giant business corporations, rely on consistency and acting in concert. They, for example, provide instruction manuals for believers to follow for nearly everything they do, such as worshiping, praying, dieting, clothing and friendship.

Regularity and harmony are essential to the success of businesses as well as religious institutions. Religion has effectively infiltrated every aspect of peoples’ lives by capitalizing on the trust that people have in a religion’s brand and reputation. Examples of this include food preparation, aesthetics, finance, attitudes, weddings, intimate life and even dealing with modern phenomena.

Repetition serves religion quite well as seen in the five times daily prayers in Islam, religious calendars, events and memorialization, resulting in replication that makes even the most nonsensical ideas seem like self-evident truths. It is the nature of human beings to absorb and be influenced by ideas and concepts if they are repeated enough times and delivered through a variety of media.

Religions understand this, and they, like big corporations, have the ability to commodify things. This involves transforming small and even trivial ideas into huge phenomena, such as transforming tap water into a multibillion-dollar bottled water business thanks to the genius of American entrepreneurs.

The author, de Botton, believes that atheists can take some of the lessons learned from religion and put them to good use. The key challenge to atheists, de Botton says, is not to utterly reject religion but to identify and discover the good aspects of it and put these to use by creating a new kind of religion.

That new form of religion is one that’s trusted, beneficial, modern and followed not because of any promise of hell or heaven or the bliss of eternal life but because it is practical today and leads humanity to a better collective life. I prefer to call this new religion the Religion of Humanity.

The focus of this book is that atheists are missing the boat by not learning from religion how to adapt their current message. I would add that atheists need to understand that people are more strongly drawn to believe in something rather than to believe in nothing.

Reza Varjavand is an associate professor of economics and finance at the Graham School of management at Saint Xavier University in Chicago. He is the author of a newly published memoir entitled “From Misery Alley to Missouri Valley.”



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