“Prosperity cults” and “prosperity benefits” are two phenomena that need to be distinguished and understood. Both are wrong from many perspectives. But they infect modern religions just as they did Medieval and Ancient ones.
To begin with the extremes, John Oliver, a TV personality in the USA whose weekly show lambasts and sometimes lampoons popular movements and beliefs, recently highlighted Christian televangelists who fill the airwaves with promises of divine rewards to the faithful who send in money, which the TV preachers use to buy jet planes and mansions. Earlier in the year Al Jazeera jolted Thailand with an investigative documentary about similar shenanigans going on with certain monks and cults. A bit earlier, a Hindu cult in India so large it yields political clout was subjected to the same futile exposé. I say futile because exposure of the truth seems to have little impact on the way people hand over money to these operators.
What are the characteristics that show these are “cults” as I have called them? I propose 4:
1. There is a single person in authority with no apparent outside accountability and no transparency about how decisions are made or reviewed. The preacher or guru is not functioning in response to higher authority.
2. There is a direct link between donations and access to the “center” where blessings are most abundant. In one famous Thai cult seating in the vast circular hall is allocated according to the size of contributions. In other cults access to esoteric knowledge is reserved for the more faithful. If faithfulness is determined by monetary measures you may confidently assume the organization is a cult.
3. The main attractiveness of the cult is its reflection of a consumer/elite/power mentality. It is good because it is grand. It is grand because its promises are extravagant. Anyone can prosper beyond their present circumstances according to prosperity cults, but those with the most to invest will, “naturally”, prosper most.
4. It is a cult rather than a scam if the leader actually believes that prosperity accrues to those who invest, “plant seeds”, or contribute. It is, of course, impossible to know what is going on in the leader’s mind unless there happens to be some unguarded moment when the leader ridiculed the gullibility of contributors, or a major lapse of the expectations of the faithful (as when the leader is caught living a lie). If the leader believes there is really no link between a person’s donations and the person’s prosperity a scam is being operated.
Far more pervasive and detrimental to all religions I know of, is the expectation of benefits from religion. In fact, I can anticipate protests from some of my own religious friends and family when I say that valid religion makes no promise of benefits. None of the world religions do. Yet most people believe that the very purpose of religion is some sort of benefit. Here are just a few:
· Prayer brings results
· Religion builds better citizens
· Religion promotes peace of mind
· Religion connects one to a Higher Power
· Religious practice assures one of a better life after death
· Meditation results in a higher level of consciousness
· Religion promotes social order
If religion does not provide assurance of any of these benefits, what’s the use? Not a few of the lurches forward for institutional religions were propelled by just such promises of rewards. The “Great Awakening” of the 18th century in Christianity was built on the promise of deliverance from hell-fire and damnation. The Neo-Pentecostal movement and its daughter the charismatic movement promised healing, divine guidance, and solutions to issues of daily life large and small. Buddhists where I live expect their meritorious actions to bring results. Sometimes specific prescriptions are made for one to undertake particular exercises or rituals to bring some form of needed physical, economic or social prosperity. Still, in Buddhism as well as Christianity and Islam, people are sanguine about the possibility that the benefits might be delayed beyond this life. It is enough if life is rendered at least tolerable.
So, if these benefits are not why religion is practiced, what is religion all about? And why would we want to undergo its rigors?
In classical Buddhism the Lord Buddha discovered the way to extinguish one’s ego, and thereby end the repetitive cycle of birth, aging, dysfunction and death. Meanwhile, for those unprepared or still unqualified to achieve the breakthrough to enlightenment, a robust society can certainly help combat and mitigate the effects of sickness, war, famine and despotism. There are two basic narratives in classical Buddhism. One is of the Lord Buddha’s encouragement for individuals to achieve enlightenment, and the other is his instructions for forming religious communities in the midst of secular communities for mutual support. There is nothing in either of these narratives to encourage the notion that following the Lord Buddha’s teaching and example leads to prosperity. In fact, the theme is to forgo the lure of prosperity.
In classical Christianity, Jesus had a lot to say about prosperity, all of it critical. Longing for prosperity (e.g. “love of money”) is an impediment to one’s ability to follow Jesus. For a millennium martyrdom and asceticism were standards for Christian perfection. Protestantism softened these indicators while sharpening the insistence that Christ has already accomplished everything that is ultimately important. There is no further need to strive for salvation. But this life is perilous and there is evil loose which is beyond our power to oppose without help as we travel “life’s way” along an indistinct path. We need nurses, guides and all manner of fellow travelers who are willing to sacrifice some of their personal well-being to help stragglers and strugglers. Indeed, we take turns, sometimes being those who are in need and at other times being the ones who can provide assistance and consolation. Those who abandon their companions and divert their journey in order to concentrate on acquiring benefits or other forms of enhanced prosperity fail to understand both their integral involvement in humanity as a whole (for the vast majority of whom circumstances are dire) and also the urgent injunctions of Christ.
And that is where the prosperity gospel and prosperity cults are not simply benign mistakes but pernicious diversions. What the prosperity gospel loses is concern for others. The most generous thing that can be said is that for some engaged in the pursuit of prosperity their concern is also for their kinfolks and those with whom they feel kinship. The rest are severed into “others” and either left to fend for themselves or helped conditionally. A world so splintered is a world endangered. Life in such a world cannot be sustained indefinitely. Prospects are made bleaker for the majority of humanity when prosperity religion prospers.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.