Is Religion a Ponzi Scheme?

Way back in prehistory time some scheming cave dweller figured out a way to live off the productivity of his fellow hunters and gatherers and not have to personally expend energy in generating any renewable substance himself.  What this enterprising caveman dreamed up was a confidence dodge that played upon the longing that everyone had for a guaranteed comfortable future.  As in a Ponzi scheme the ambitious caveman installed himself as a focal  point for the doleful, and interacted with them directly conveying a sense of special wisdom that was unavailable to others which gave him an aura of authority.  All he needed to do was polish the illusion that he possessed in-depth knowledge on a high-yield program that required only donations of provisions placed in his care as their commitment of trust.

For this the promoter would perform theatrical rites imitating the material conditions that the community desired to acquire, and enthrall them with ceremonies of attraction, and perhaps sketch out some figures and doodles in the earth or on rocks or on cave walls as a presentation of strategy.  This could, in a way, be interpreted as an early contract-form of  “hedge futures trading.”  If the hunts or gathering was above the expected yield it was all profit for the promoter: if yields were less than expected he could in a sense buy back his contract by explaining that the people had not properly followed the mystical directions he had provided.

Basically things are not much different  today—everyone is susceptible to a promise of an abundant future; the most notable difference is that there are so many spiritual promoters around.  But over time and experiment the scheming has been smoothed out, the ceremonies made more elaborate, the surroundings more regimented, and the promoters now perform with electronic flash and blaze.  Still each promoter carves out his own niche and serves as the “hub” for seekers of material advantage and interacts with them more or less directly ala pulpit or televised relay.  This is also something like a multilevel scheme where those who recruit additional participants benefit directly (with personal blessings or prayers offered for them or even mention in a bulletin).  But most spiritual schemes survive simply by persuading existing partakers to reinvest their trust.

As in the typical Ponzi scheme, the spiritual hucksters are experts at verbal constructions that hum seductively but are essentially meaningless.  And of course it is stressed that spiritual blessings cannot be transferred if one switches to a different plan.  And like the so-called “bubble” schemes, the deal also relies on suspension of disbelief and keeping an expectation of an eventual big payoff.  In the market this angle of marketing is referred to as the “greater fool theory.”

A comparison of the typical church setup can be made to a typical Ponzi or pyramid scheme in that they always offer an abnormally high return for their short term investments.  There is also the fraudulent investment operation that “pays” returns to spiritual seekers (investors) from their own money (tithes, poor boxes, collection plates, etc.).  The thing that the promoters of all such scams have the most to worry about is the sudden or unexpected withdrawals, and they commonly insulate themselves against this through an association with tax free charities (which was also the secret of the success for the recent $65 billion Madoff investment operation).

We should remember the prehistory cave dwelling schemer’s insider information was “Let us prey.”

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