01: In 2006, the Italian marketing expert Bruno Ballardini attracted a good deal of attention with his book Gesu’ lava più bianco (Jesus washes whiter), which argued that the Roman Catholic Church invented marketing.
Products like soap are commercialized through marketing campaigns and branding, and in the same way the Roman Catholic Church created a brand for its own ‘product’, which is faith. More recently, Ballardini has written a second volume, Gesù e i saldi di ﬁne stagione (Jesus and end-of-season sales), published by Piemme Edizioni. Even if the Roman Catholic Church invented marketing, now it has to face new problems: many young people are no longer attracted by religion, there is little trust in religious authorities and the brand needs an urgent rebranding.
Ballardini imagines being called in by the Vatican as a marketing expert to ﬁnd a solution for the church and he proposes a “SWOT” analysis of internal and external threats of the type used by marketers. Many new religious movements with better marketing skills are more attractive to people, e.g. Buddhism schools like the Soka Gakkai or Kofuku no Kagaku, Pagan traditions, and also atheism as non-religion. On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church is also internally threatened by the numerous schools and organizations that work inside the religion itself. One example is Opus Dei, a Catholic organization very active in recruiting young people and with a rigid and independent organizational structure. Those groups not only do not help the church to attract more people, but they also contribute to making the brand more fragmented and the message of faith less clear, according to Ballardini.
The solution he proposes is to return to the original church, which had a unique and clear message that is more appealing to believers and more likely to be used as an ‘advertisement’. From the point of view of marketing, one factor that inﬂuences the image of the church is its major ‘testimonial’, the Pope. The choice of John Paul II in 1978 was also surely an innovation from a marketing point of view: he was young and was from a Communist country, so he represented a Vatican political strategy aimed at Eastern European countries.
He developed marketing-oriented innovations, especially big mass events to attract young people, like the World Youth Day and the Jubilee, preceded and followed by big marketing campaigns and characterized by strong mediatization.However, Benedict XVI, who became Pope in 2005, was a less innovative choice, since his theological ideas were very similar to the ideas of his predecessor. He showed his conservatism with controversial decisions, like the attempt at the reintegration of Levebvre’s traditionalist supporters into the church, and continued the marketing strategy of John Paul II without signiﬁcant innovations.
Benedict XVI answers the needs of more conservative Christians and attracts young people in the World Youth Days he organizes, but because of his lack of innovation he is not able to compel non-believers to come back to the faith and have conﬁdence in the leadership of the church. In the pedophile priests scandal, for example, he tried to deny the scandal at the beginning, then failed to take a strong position condemning pedophiles, and then recognized the problem only at a very late stage; according to Ballardini, this sequence of errors can be compared to the failed attempts of the CEO of British Petroleum to save the situation after the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
— By Giulia Evolvi, a Brussels-based writer specializing in new religious movements and marketing.
02: The link between class and religion has been overshadowed in recent years with the attention given to the religious pluralism and mobility of Americans.
The new book Ranking Faiths (Rowman & Littleﬁeld, $49.95) by sociologists James Davidson and Ralph Pyle argues that while there has been a narrowing of religious stratiﬁcation (or class systems), these divisions persist in American society. They ﬁnd that the “overall religious group status ranking remains largely unchanged from the rankings of ﬁfty years ago. Jews and liberal Protestants remain at the top, Catholics and moderate Protestants continue to occupy the middle ranks of the socioeconomic hierarchy, and Black and conservative Protestants remain at the bottom.”
Recent ﬁndings on the high rate of religious switching among American Protestants would seem to contradict Davidson and Pyle’s claims, but they argue that other research ﬁnds more continuity than ﬂux in people’s religious aﬃliations. Even if mainline Protestantism has declined dramatically in membership in the last 50 years, they write that the mainline’s “power relative to Catholics and Jews has not declined very much.” At the same time, they acknowledge that the laws and codes enforcing the power of “elite” religions have declined, while new laws have been enforced limiting the use of religion to discriminate and allocate resources.
Davidson and Pyle conclude that when religious stratiﬁcation intensiﬁed, as it did during the 1930s–1950s, its negative eﬀects have been muted; when inequalities declined, from the 1960s to the present, “their destabilizing eﬀects have increased,” as seen, for instance, in cases of anti-religious prejudice directed at Catholics, Jews and Muslims.
03: The recent appearance of the Oxford Handbook of the Economics of Religion (Oxford University Press, $120), edited by Rachel McCleary, suggests the growing sophistication and diversity of this new ﬁeld.
The book’s contributors review key concepts and thinkers engaging in economic thinking about religion and present new research on a wide range of topics. The book covers religious economy theory, which explains religious change through economic concepts, as well as the historical and contemporary interaction between the marketplace and churches that takes place in areas with strong religious competition.
Examples include the growth of Protestantism; the fact that canonizations in Latin America have gone from a share of 0 percent of the total in the period 1900–1949 to 14 percent in the 2000s; a study of how the religious component of communes such as the Hutterites survives such problems as the brain drain and how these communes maintain themselves more successfully than secular ones like the Israeli kibbutzim; and an examination of former Protestant missionary countries and higher levels of gross domestic product and democracy.
04: Although there are countless books on Islamic identity, the new book Are Muslims Distinctive? (Oxford University Press, $22.40) takes a strongly “evidenced-based” look at Muslims around the world.
The book, by University of California political scientist M. Steven Fish, is based on individual-level data (mostly from the World Values Surveys) and country-level data comparing Muslims to other believers and non-believers in terms of personal religiosity, social capital and tolerance, corruption and crime, terrorism, social inequality, and democracy. When dealing with country-level data, there is always the problem of controlling for factors that may be responsible for the results other than Islamic beliefs and identity. But Fish maintains that his results show that Muslims tend to be like other believers—only more so.
Muslims rate the importance of God in their lives more highly than non-Muslims. But they are not particularly more supportive of the idea that religious leaders should inﬂuence people’s political behavior, although they are unusual in their opposition to atheists holding public oﬃce. On a sociability index created by Fish, which measures the level of intra-group loyalty and activity (such as joining religious organizations), Muslims are found not to be signiﬁcantly more “sociable” than Christians.
Intolerance levels are not necessarily higher for Muslims than non-Muslims, although there is less acceptance of abortion and divorce and particular opposition to homosexuality. There is some inﬂuence of national contexts; for instance, living in a country with a signiﬁcant Christian population increases a Muslim’s tolerance for divorce (although far less for homosexuality). As for crime and corruption, Fish makes a signiﬁcant eﬀort to control for political and socioeconomic factors and ﬁnds that Muslims are not unusually prone to corruption and that at least on a national level, Muslim countries are low on the “anomie” that leads to high murder rates (a 2.1 percent murder rate in Muslim nations compared to a 11 percent rate in non-Muslim countries).
Fish ﬁnds that in places where Muslims predominate, “females tend to fare relatively poorly” in terms of income and political equality. The chapter on terrorism, the longest and most complex, ﬁnds that most acts of terrorism are committed in Muslim countries and that such acts are geographically concentrated in seven of them. Self-proclaimed Islamists have been responsible for three-ﬁfths of all such incidents and nearly seven-tenths of all terrorist-related deaths in the world.
05: A Convergence of Civilizations (Columbia University Press, $24.50) is a translation of the 2007 French book arguing that Muslim societies are converging with other nations in demographics and thus joining the rest of the “modern” and secular world.
The book, by demographers Youssef Courbage and Emmanuel Todd, challenges the long-held view that Islamic religious values inevitably lead to high fertility rates. The brief book (134 pages) does an interesting job of accounting for the diverse Muslim landscape and in what ways these patterns do and do not shape demographic trends. The varying rates of Muslim fertility range from about two children per woman (Morocco) to close to seven (Afghanistan and Yemen), reﬂecting diﬀerences between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, as well as minority and majority status in their societies.
For instance, minority Shiite areas in Pakistan have retained higher fertility rates as a defensive measure in the face of the Sunni majority. In other cases, Courbage and Todd are hard pressed to explain the patterns along Islamic lines, such as the stagnation of the fertility rate in Bangladesh. But they theorize that as the literacy rate hits a majority threshold among men, these societies enter a transitional periods that can be expressed in outbreaks of fundamentalist and other forms of “ideological revival;” the authors argue that Afghanistan has entered such a stage and counsel caution in dealing with the country.
Courbage and Todd conclude that Muslim societies are following other societies up the demographic ladder toward modernization as they gain higher rates of literacy, which tends to drive family size down. Just as the once-sharp fertility rate diﬀerences between Protestant and Catholic nations lost relevance during modernization in accounting for their economic and demographic divergence, the same process is underway both between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and among Muslim societies as a whole.
06: Innovation in Islam (University of California Press, $24.95) attempts to answer claims that Islam makes little room for and even in principle opposes the idea of religious change.
In the introduction, editor Mehran Kamrava cites historical examples of Muslim authorities condemning everything from coﬀee to television only to reverse these positions later and embrace such changes, showing that it is often the social and political context that determines whether an innovation will be condemned or suppressed. The book’s contributors focus on innovations both throughout history and in contemporary times, jumping from Suﬁ poetry and Islamic visual design to new methods of interpretation of basic beliefs.
Particularly noteworthy are the chapters on Muslim reformers in Iran and how they are innovating Islamic jurisprudence; American Muslims and the novel yet contested ways they relate to the government; and how the choice of wearing the head scarf for Muslim feminists is a notable innovation in itself. Also interesting is the chapter by John Voll arguing that the Muslim Brotherhood and even Al-Qaeda and its oﬀspring of “leaderless jihad” groups are clear institutional innovations in that they adopt more “post-modern” and decentralized electronic networks of activism.
07: Isma’ili Modern (University of North Carolina Press, $24.95), by Jonah Steinberg, presents the Isma’ilis, a sect of Shi’I Islam, as a case study of a religious movement adapting quite ﬂexibly to the processes of modernization and globalization.
The book is based on ethnographic work conducted by Steinberg in the Himalayan regions of Tajikistan and Pakistan, as well as among the religion’s diaspora in Europe. The religion is highly centralized under the leadership of the head imam, known as the Aga Khan, where followers participate in local social organizations (based on farming, small business and the development of local infrastructure) organized largely by the Afa Khan Development Network, creating a durable transnational network.
By participating in these social groups, Steinberg ﬁnds that the “borderland societies” in the Himalayas are becoming increasingly integrated into global networks and socialized to the values of liberal individualism and modernity in general. Through in-depth ethnography, the author adroitly ﬂeshes out how the scattered Isma’ilis in isolated locations who are marginalized in their own countries rely on these networks for support and even for providing them with a new kind of citizenship that exists alongside the nation state. Steinberg also shows how since 9/11, Isma’ilis have increasingly portrayed themselves as the “anti-fundamentalist” Muslims who aﬃrm modernity, democracy and capitalism.