Big things are happening in the religious marketplace. When I use the word marketplace, I don’t think I mean it metaphorically. Over the past several decades we’ve witnessed the dissolution of religious monopolies in large parts of the world. Maybe God was so saddened by the breakup of Mama Bell (or was it Standard Oil?) that He ended His own monopoly in an act of in-corporate solidarity. Or maybe He was just afraid of losing market share and wanted to jump on the mass customization or personalized marketing bandwagon. The world is so small that marketplaces–for commodities, religions, literary genres, what have you–can and must cater to every imaginable taste. People with every imaginable taste can, increasingly, find each other and form communities of the like-minded. Are we headed for a balkanized society where everyone huddles into ideological, religious or musical taste enclaves, jealously defending their shrinking turf from encroaching neighbors? Or is it more like how now you can enjoy a different kind of ethnic food every night of the month even if you live in a smallish city?
Monopoly in religion is over (in much of the world), but monopolistic ambitions are not. Even for those who see the impossibility of exclusive truth or religious certitude and see the necessity and opportunities for new offerings in the religion market, the drive is to produce the one thing that solves all our contemporary problems, that could, if people saw its wisdom, bring us all into a single, unified, transcendent tent. But that’s not going to happen, right? We wouldn’t even want it to happen. The end of religious monopoly is a good thing. It means that we can choose from amongst an endless supply of incomprehensible voice and data plans, trying to match them with some smart phone that fits our budget, personal style, what our friends have, our calling and browsing habits, and the ways these will inevitably change and grow.
I’ve discussed elsewhere how the rise of the “nones” has so heated up the religion market that we can’t open a newspaper without hearing about a new atheist megachurch or a new way to do old religion. The gold rush is on and here I am, about to add another player to the market, hopefully not to make things worse: a spiritual travel agency as the title suggests, or like one of those consultants who helps parents identify and get their kids into the perfect private school. I don’t know if this is the first time such an idea has been floated, and whether it is or not, I’m sure I’ll have no control over this idea as it spreads, which it inevitably will, but let me say right now, in all caps for emphasis, PLEASE DON’T PAY FOR THIS SERVICE!! Don’t charge for it, don’t pay for it. I am not trying to invent yet another way for entrepreneurs to exploit spiritual seekers. That said, let me offer a hint of how it might work, specifically in a little experiment I’ll be trying locally in Washington, DC in the next few months. Here’s the pitch:
Spiritual Exploration Discussion Group for the Religiously Unattached
Shopping for a religion, philosophy, spiritual practice, or some other kind of self-transformational support system? Sick of sales pitches from priests, rabbis, yoga instructors, therapists, born-again cousins, New Age hairdressers, atheist bartenders or anyone trying to convince you to take up their particular brand of enlightenment, salvation, self-improvement or cynicism? What if you could find a diverse group of knowledgeable, friendly people interested in helping you and exploring with you, but not trying to sell you anything?
If that sounds good, join a temporary gathering of others on a similar quest as we explore what’s out there, how it might and might not meet each participant’s unique needs, and how we can get past obstacles that have made it hard for us to engage in a fitting practice or community in the past. We are not trying to meet participants’ spiritual needs directly, but to help them connect with (or form) communities and practices that could work for them. We assume that one size will not fit all; each of us come to the big life questions with unique experiences and yearnings. We want there to be a place where people can explore these without assuming or promoting one particular answer.
I will write more about the implications and challenges raised by this experiment in future articles. I would love to hear about any similar ventures and to collaborate with anyone who sees promise in the approach to spiritual exploration and dialogue suggested here.