The religious corporation: Part 2
Yesterday, I argued the selective advantage of belief was too attractive for individuals in a community not to partake. But this advantage, as humans became more prosperous in the West, became increasingly marginal. In the 15th century, Europe began to experience newfound prosperity from the most unusual source: the aftermath of the Black Death.
Over a third of the population is estimated to have been killed, but at the beginning of the 1400s, it had tapered off. The wealth of those deceased went to surviving relatives, who suddenly found themselves with significantly more income. The population, now able to enjoy more than the daily toils of life, found solace and meaning in more than just religion. The strength of the Church was beginning to wane.
Like any modern corporation there was only one thing to do: change their marketing strategy. In order to afford to build lavish new monuments to the glory of God to impress the masses, the Church began to sell indulgences, which were tickets one had to purchase in order to pay their way our of current or future sins. They were the equivalent of ‘get out of jail’ cards for the soul. With the invention of the printing press in 1447 by Gutenberg, they were able to mass produce these, and as the economies of Europe flourished, so did the coffers of the Catholic Church. Although indulgences may seem to us to be useless pieces of paper, they were necessary devices for the Church to stay relevant, and more importantly, to give incentives for people to continue their belief. The Church, which had always frowned upon the idea of anything remotely amusing, saw its opportunity to grow from the rapidly rising bourgeoisie class. They establish for themselves a way of making money by satiating a desire they themselves had created. It’s no different from any modern corporation creating the image of success and desirability, while simultaneously offering a way to fulfill that image.
Take modern consumerism as an example. How many individuals are obsessed with the need to purchase expensive clothing? Where does this need come from? Obviously, the relative serviceability of clothing is fairly homogeneous; as long as they perform their intended function (to keep us warm), theoretically anything would suffice. But there is not much profit to be had if every article of clothing is priced similarly. As such, clothing has become a way of displaying one’s status within society, and is taken very seriously by many. This obsession, of course, can become quite costly, and since there are rival ways of displaying status, it’s in a company’s best interest to maintain our focus and attention on their product. They are lucky that society and the environment necessitates that we wear clothes, but certainly, that is not enough. They must create more of a demand if their profit margins are to remain healthy. As such, we are bombarded by advertising expressing the fact that to be beautiful, we must be beautifully clothed. Arbitrary rules of fashion are created to keep our attention focused on the matching of colors, fabrics, and designs rather than on more pressing matters. The clothing industry also utilizes our fears and insecurities about our attractiveness and acceptance as a tool against our better judgment. Should we spend money on improving our lives, or should we buy that pair of expensive shoes instead?
It would be unfair to single out the fashion industry as the only business to exploit our fears, desires, and most pressing concerns. Almost every industry does it. It’s such an effective tool, but it certainly is not a new one. The model for today’s most profitable corporations are taken directly out of the pages of religion. Consider how alike they are: both are a cooperative of like-minded individuals seeking to fulfill specific human needs and desires. Both function as tightly ordered hierarchies, with power being disseminated from the top leaders to the rank and file employees. Both utilize our fears, insecurities and desires to control the distribution of their products. A religious institution is no different from a large corporation; the difference isn’t so much the product they offer, but rather how long they’ve been doing it.