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Where's Dante?

Tony Blair and the Hawking of Religion

by FARZANA VERSEY

Tony Blair has become a Catholic. Had it been seen as a personal decision, it would be fine. However, it already sounds like political canonization. According to a report, Blair, now a Middle East peace envoy, said he had prayed to God when deciding whether or not to send British troops into Iraq.

Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster, who led the service, said, "in another sense it’s a beginning, because when you become a Catholic, as so many people who have become Catholics have said to me, it’s like coming home."

What is worrying is this: A Vatican spokesman said such an "authoritative personality" choosing to join the Catholic Church "could only give rise to joy and respect".

It brings us to the dilemma religion has always faced ­ how does it sell itself? The moment god images are used in consumer advertising there is a hue and cry for abusing religious symbols. What about the marketing of whole belief systems?

Years ago, the Church of England decided to sell Christianity like "beans and the banks". Seven thousand pounds sterling were to be spent on 10 TV slots. One ad showed a suited smiling man holding the Bible in one hand while an angel ­ female ­ dangled on his other arm; the copy promised: "An hour this Sunday will leave you feeling good all week."

One is not sure whether the gods were amused or not, but can advertising make religion more palatable? According to one agency head, "The Church has to make itself a more interesting, relevant and even a more entertaining product."

Does all this bode well for our concept of religion? Is faith not a matter of personal belief? Or are we only fooling ourselves? After all, we believe because we have been brought up in a certain faith, or as in Blair’s case it seems to be a gift to his wife and children who are all Catholic, or because we have seen devotees throng to places of worship and, like with everything else, the herd mentality prevails: if everyone does it, then it must be right.

In that sense religion does not need advertising. It is advertising. It follows all the marketing rules. The brand comparisons regarding which religion scores over which other, whose product has greater appeal, which market can be captured.

In fact, many of our superficial concepts have been sold to us by constructed faith. Temptation, for example. Were it not for Eve, the serpent, the apple, and the Garden of Eden, we might have all succumbed to the worst and not been held sinners for our trespasses.

Monotheistic religions come with an inbuilt mechanism that is the super-ego. To those who often accuse outsiders of misinterpreting Islam, I think greater injustice is done to it by the so-called believers, who take every legend literally and use it as their Unique Selling Proposition (USP). Recently, the Islamic world celebrated Eid-al-adha to understand the greatness of sacrifice, of how you must be willing to give of your own. When Prophet Ibrahim willingly agreed to sacrifice his son, the goat was replaced by a holy injunction seeing the selflessness. It ought to be taken as symbolism.

Today, it is just another occasion for a feast, for I do not know what a Muslim can learn while watching an animal bleed to death. Does touching the knife to the neck gingerly teach about the virtue of readily parting with something personally precious?

No. Quite the contrary. It is an event that is reminiscent of early Islam. According to Alfred Guillaume, "Sacrifices, which were for the most part communal feasts, were popular; but at heart the Arab cared little for these things. He was, as he still is, fundamentally an individualist, and if a heathen god did not or could not help him to get what he wanted in life, so much the worse for the god."

Among the five Pillars of Islam – prayer, fasting, alms-giving, faith in Allah and the Prophet and pilgrimage – animal sacrifice figures nowhere except in certain cases when on Haj at Mina, where the ‘stoning of the devil’ ceremony takes place animal sacrifices are made, though not compulsory.

In this light it would be interesting to note that in the original ritual of kissing the black stone, pilgrims were required to be nude, but the Prophet ordered that two plain sheets be used instead.

This itself proves that religion must perforce be amenable to adaptation. The Quran, which is seen as an occurrence to meet the various crises/occasions in the Prophet’s life, was in its entirety perhaps apt in the 7th century AD, but was it destined to govern millions of lives so many centuries later? Guillaume gives one example to highlight the difficulty of following rules steadfastly, "How could a Muslim keep the fast of Ramadan from sunrise to sunset in the Arctic Circle where in the summer the sun never sets?"

In fact, many of the Quranic verses have been changed. Of special note is one which refers to those who accept a religion other than Islam as being the lost ones when Prophet Mohammed himself believed that uncorrupted Judaism and Christianity were early manifestations of Islam.

The problem is that devotion in contemporary society has become a means of displaying status; the fatter the goat, the more you can show off. Many of the early Muslims practised asceticism, contrary to the image of Islam as an indulgent religion. The Prophet himself belonged to an impoverished family, which is why it is said that "his subsequent success must be accounted the greater in that he converted his opponents without help which prestige and a high social position would have given him."

As the poet-philosopher Iqbal interpreted the story of the fall of Adam as "man’s rise from a primitive state of instinctive appetite to the conscious possession of a free self capable of doubt and disobedience and the emergence of a finite ego which has the power to choose."

The point then is why does religion need to sell itself when its task is to further sell other things? Is it only about making a leap of faith? How different would this be from converting people through missionaries and other old-fashioned avenues? Would not the same subtle forces be at work? Would not the hidden persuaders be upto the same dirty tricks trying to reach the innermost recesses of our consciousness to find areas of darkness deliberately in order to lead us unto light? Would the Church truly find its feet with so many lost souls that have drifted in perchance, like in a shopping mall where you end up buying things only because they are displayed so attractively and strategically?

The Church of England is falling prey to celebrity endorsement. Can you do so for selling a god whose omnipotence and omniscience you believe in?

These things did not worry the Reverend Robert Ellis years ago: "Our aim was to keep alive the rumour of god. It is not about bums on pews." This does not speak too well about god or his staunch advocates. If a rumour is all there is to it, then why not sell Satan, or fairytales and myths?

Religion already has us by the collar. What more does it need to sell? If advertising faith is to be a huge thing, then one must pose the query applied to marketing principles:

Would there be censorship code and how would it be operative? Can the advertising council accept complaints about people that have tried the ‘product’ but are unsatisfied and feel cheated by the hype? And what about issues like exploitation? In the advertisement mentioned earlier, a female angel is dangling from the arm of a devotee. Is this abuse of the female form? Why is the male not shown to be seeking salvation and getting it? And what about the copy: "An hour this Sunday will leave you feeling good all week?" How different is it from a quick-fix or an exercise regimen where you are urged to spend 30 minutes a day to knock off a few pounds?

Even if one stops nitpicking, the crucial query remains. How can the very home of god be sold as a product, which it is not? Can you sell the Almighty as the Complete Man? Or as Superman who drives away evil? These are not products but the sentiments they wish to convey.

Religion is well and truly on its way on the billboards, hoardings and shelves. There will be more brand wars and consumer surveys. The soul has no choice but to wait to play its role as the confused consumer.

FARZANA VERSEY is a Mumbai-based writer-columnist. She can be reached at kaaghaz.kalam@gmail.com