The substitute religion that destroys

Having brought in a bountiful harvest, he leaned back satisfied; and yet he landed in heaven empty-handed. The story of the rich fool seems a bit old hat. But it is far from that. Let’s take a look at what this parable has to do with neurotheology and neuromarketing.

The advertising brochure of a clothing retailer has just fluttered into our home with a promising slogan: “Shop yourself happy.”

Slogans such as these are symptomatic for an age in which the world’s largest religion by far is called capitalism; a world in which individuals reward themselves with comfort shopping or pleasure shopping when feeling down and where guilt comes from debt and revenue spells salvation. And there are even Christian businesses whose balance sheet seems more important than their mission.

Modern idolatry

These observations are not controversies raised by unrealistic religious fanatics, but are long-standing insights of enlightened critical philosophers: “A religion may be discerned in capitalism,” Walter Benjamin, a secularised Jew, already stated in 1921. For “capitalism serves essentially to allay the same anxieties, torments, and disturbances to which the so-called religions offered answers”.

Some 50 or 60 years later, Erich Fromm, a social psychologist and religious critic, drove the point home: “As a collective and potent form of modern idolatry we find the worship of power, of success and of the authority of the market.”

Scientifically verifiable

These findings are more than ideological positions. They are now scientifically verified facts: neurotheology and neuromarketing are the names given to the sciences that lie at the intersection of “God-talk” or “sales education” in relation to brain research.

Since the 1980s and 2000s respectively, researchers in both disciplines have been using the classical tools of neurology to investigate what happens in the minds of believers and consumers: “What completely surprised me were the parallels between religion and strong brands,” the Danish author and marketing guru Martin Lindstrøm summarised the results he gathered from both disciplines.

What Jesus knew all along

This shows just how relevant the two-thousand-year-old parable of Jesus Christ in Luke 12 is today. All the more reason to take a closer look: what did the poor rich fool do wrong? The problem was not that he was successful and stockpiled his possessions, but that he believed that his wealth secured his peace of mind: “Soul, …take your ease.”

In Greek, “soul” is called psyche, and “rest” is called anapauo. The one refers to the inward life of a person, his personality and identity, the other is the same peace that Jesus promised the weary and heavy-laden on another occasion. “Take heed and beware of covetousness,” Christ warns in the run-up to the parable of the rich fool. And He is not talking about greed (philargya), the desire to hold on to what one has, but about pleonexia, the addiction to accumulate more and more.

This world is only the beginning

And in no time at all we are back in the midst of turbo capitalism with profit maximisation and expansive consumption way beyond the limits of growth which the Club of Rome—composed of scientists, economists, businessmen, etc.—already talked about in the 1970s. We are talking about the obsession with growth which has long been shown to be the cause of the destructive exploitation of natural and human resources. This then is what the market leader does. And what does the competition have to offer?

This has been the subject of research since the 1970s. According to these studies, people with a religious affiliation enjoy better health on average than those with no religious affiliation, receive more support in their social environment and more individualised health care in healthier families. A meta-study by the British government concludes that spirituality at least does no harm in 13 per cent of cases, but has a positive effect on mental health in 84 per cent of cases.

Such findings of course only apply to the here and now. No mention has yet been made of things that endure in the hereafter. But then these are not quite so easy to grasp scientifically. Only faith can help.

Photo: ArtBackground -

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Andreas Rother