“There are two ways to make money in business: You can unbundle, or you can bundle.” – Jim Barksdale, cofounder of Netscape
Unbundling / (re)bundling is a powerful framework to rethink any topic or entity from first principles. It also helps us visualize what opportunities could be unlocked.
I have explored bundling / unbundling of human creation previously suggesting possible opportunities. In this essay, I will explore how unbundling / rebundling works in the context of religion.
As with opportunities some are more near-term / likely while some seem farfetched / long-term. That said, the idea here is not so much to come with a list of opportunities as much think out the topic via first principles.
The religion bundle
Religion = Faith + Rituals + Identity + Community + Precepts
- Faith = belief in a all-powerful / omniscient / eternal being
- Rituals = Prayers both daily and in different intervals including 1-2 annual prayers / ceremonies
- Identity = People are usually visibly proud to subscribe and see themselves as part of the religion (unless there is persecution)
- Community = Religion acts as a powerful bond of friendship, brotherhood / sisterhood
- Precepts = Daily guide to behaviour or thought, a general rule of action for life that is universal in nature addressing most life situations – it could be to do with certain foods or how you will behave with same-sex lovers etc.
What if you could unbundle these elements? Let us cycle through each of these elements.
Faith is the hardest to unbundle. Faith after all is at the core of religion. Belief in Krishna, or Jesus or Allah or a specific God (or Guru) is the foundation of the respective faiths. So how can that ever be ‘unbundled’?
Now, there are two primary reasons why religions have God(s), i.e., an all-knowing, all powerful, eternal being whose actions led to the creation of the world, and who has the power to regulate your afterlife.
- One is a fear of death, and the utter loss of consciousness (we do not know that we do not exist) that comes with death. It is so frightening that people want to believe in a God and an afterlife. There is no religion without an afterlife, or at least none that do not promise something after death.
- The second rationale for religion is to act as a check on absolutism. If there is no God, then what stops a despot from emerging and slaughtering anyone who doesn’t agree with him? If there was no God ever, we would have had a hundred Hitlers.
Now that the State is all powerful and can ensure that no dictator or madman can run riot, we don’t need really religion for the second rationale – a check on absolutism. That still leaves the first reason for religion – belief in an all powerful God as a way to stave off fear of death. For the sake of this essay, let us presume that we are hyper-rational beings, or atheists who are not worried about what happens after death. Perhaps we have made peace with it, or perhaps we do not care yet. If so, we can eliminate the need omniscient, omnipotent, eternal ‘God’ out of the picture, and thereby potentially unbundle faith out of the bundle.
Let us now address the other elements one by one.
Rituals in the context of religion are daily, frequent or occasional practices with a defined cadence enabling practice of actions or thought around the worship or acknowledgement of God. Typical examples include daily prayers, Sunday church visits, annual pilgrimage to Tirupati or Mecca etc. Certain rituals may not be overtly faith-linked (like say feasts) but all will have a basis in faith or worship or acknowledgement of God.
It is hard to unbundle rituals out of religion. They are overt demonstrations of faith and help reinforce it through regular actions and practices. In addition rituals reinforce community for many rituals are also group activities. Group or single, they all ask us to focus on, or acknowledge God, and are primarily built around worship. Without a God to anchor rituals, then we have to rethink the nature of rituals.
Well, rituals are also about mindfulness. As adherents of the religion get richer, the rituals are about calming, soothing the practitioner as much as about it being about focusing on god. Look at Anglican, Episcopalian or even Jewish rituals. Their prayer ceremonies are not loudly religious; they disconnect you from technology and make you focus on practices that increase your mindfulness or give you space to sit in silence. These are quasi-meditation practices. The job to to be done for rituals is both demonstration and reinforce of worship and faith, as well as to enable mindfulness.
Thus, in a Faith-less religion, the rituals could be built around meditation and silence, around enhancing mindfulness.
Identity is harder to unbundle, for identity is a manifestation of the rituals we practice, and the faith we bear. Our identity, Christian or Islamic or Hindu emerges from being part of a long culture, built around daily actions, reinforced by storytelling around the religion, practiced over hundreds and thousands of years. Identity is also a given, and hence is a harder bundle to shed. It is baked into the names we bear, the areas we stay, and the families we are part of. Shedding an identity is hard, for a lot of the identification is a reflection of how we are seen externally, e.g., a Muslim who becomes an atheist will still be seen as a Muslim given his or her name, the families they belong to, etc.
Now to community. Community emerges from rituals or practices that bring together adherents, and then in the ritual-less encounters that result from the friendships and marriages between the adherents. Community in one sense is an event – that of the adherents coming together – but it is also an emotion – that of belonging. Community is of course a key glue that reinforces rituals and practice. You find it easier to do something when you are part of a group.
Still, unlike Identity and Rituals, Community doesn’t seem like a must. Imagine a West-African Christian migrant in UK who can practice his or her faith, partake in rituals and bears the Christian identity but may find it harder to be a member of the community. Another example is when you belong to a religion that is a minority, or isn’t present in large numbers in the city or place you are staying. In these contexts
Precepts are rules or principles guiding actions. Historically precepts, some of which are baked into the holy books of the religion (e.g., “you shall not commit adultery”) govern a wide variety and spread of actions, including who you marry, how you treat same-sex relationships, whether you can eat all meats etc. The trend in recent times has been for religious precepts to be seen as less universal and be narrowly constrained to religious rituals (and perhaps diet).
Hard to soft practices
To conclude, one could say that there is a continuum of hard to soft practice of religions. The harder the practice, the more strongly all of the five elements come into play. At the hardest end is the orthodox strand of the faith (Salafi Islam, Hasidic Jews) – all their precepts emerge from the book, their community is entirely one religion, their entire identity is built around religion and so on. At the softest end are those on who bear each of these elements lightly. They are essentially cultural Hindus or Christians etc., who belong nominally to that religion but would not be seen by the orthodox as authentic members or believers.
Bundle: Ritual + Identity + Community + Precepts – (minus) Faith
Now that we have reviewed the five elements of the bundle, let us imagine a bundle that includes ritual, identity, community and some precepts minus religious faith. What dies this ‘religion’ or practice look like?
Does anything like this exist? If so is it a religion?
Strictly speaking the closest practice I can see that fall into this of RICP-F (Ritual Identity Community Precept without Faith) would be diluted religions like Unitarian Universalism or life philosophies like Ethical Culture (aka Ethical Humanism) or Stoicism. There are more but these seem the most active –
- Unitarian Universalism started as an offshoot of the Christian faith, but it seems to be largely secular today. They have churches or meeting houses (including a Frank Lloyd Wright designed one!) where they meet every Sunday. About 800k self-identity as Unitarian Universalists.
- Ethical Culture – a now small ‘religion’ (they leave the definition of whether to consider it a religion to the member) was once very influential, and counted Eleanor Roosevelt as a practitioner, has ‘churches’ and Sunday congregation too. Today it is mostly found in the U.S. and largely in the New York City area
- Stoicism has its daily practices and strong (especially online) communities too. The Stoic subreddit has over 400k members, and they also have an annual conference called Stoicon. See this link on contemporary stoicism. It is amongst the most popular life philosophies in the startup community.
I have wondered about whether it is time to invent such a ‘religion’ or practice. Religion has several jobs to be done not the least of which is that the daily rituals enabling mindfulness, positivity / hope and the sense of community enables good mental health. How do you pick these and rebundle into a new ‘religion’?
Sajith Pai’s RICP-F bundle
Here is my take on it, and an attempt at constructing such a ‘religion’. Please note this is not final, and I am still thinking through this! The objective of this design is to enable a practice that leads me or the practitioner to belong to a group of like-minded people (and make friends, for it is never been harder to make new friends, especially if you are over 30 and married), to be able to discuss the big questions of life, have a set of guiding actions for life, as well as have rituals that help enable mindfulness and good mental hygiene.
With that in mind here are lego blocks of this religion (I havent thought completely through each of these as I shared earlier)
- Faith: There is no belief in any God or omnipotent, omniscient, eternal being. That said the broad philosophy would be Humanism, or some variant of it. There is no one definition of humanism, but broadly, Humanists do not believe in a God or supernatural being, and strive for ensuring the dignity and liberty of every human, while ensuring the safety of the planet. “Humanists believe that this is the only life of which we have certain knowledge and that we owe it to ourselves and others to make it the best life possible for ourselves and all with whom we share this fragile planet.”
- Rituals: Daily meditation or mindfulness practice, Weekly digital sabbath from saturday evening to sunday evening, a sunday congregation, and an annual silent retreat (similar to Vipassana; also see #17 of this). One way to get rituals is to steal one ritual from every religion – weekly sabbath fm Jewism, Vipassana from Buddhism and so on. The idea of rituals in suggested practice is to disconnect from technology, and connect with oneself and family.
- Identity: This ofcourse depends on the branding of the ‘religion’ or ‘practice’ but given that it is a humanistic practice, the identity would be linked to that.
- Community: This depends on who the practice is able to attract, but given the philosophy, it would attract urban educated largely, especially those of the rationalist bent. The weekly meetups would foster a sense of belonging and create friendships.
- Precepts: Again, the philosophy of humanism implies actions that reflect kindness, tolerance and working towards the dignity of every human. We could also steal precepts from other faiths or philosophies – like Dichotomy of Control from Stoicism – dividing events or outcomes into those we can control or not, and not worrying about the latter.
Thus far I don’t think there has been a startup that tried to create a religion, but I wonder if it is worth exploring the creation of religion, or at least a practice that tries to act as a proxy for religion enabling better mental health and belonging. There are about ~500m atheists (7% of global population) worldwide, and this could be a low-hanging constituency that the startup could target. One thought would be for an app that doesn’t have a specific (invented) religion but acts as a digital guide to any faith or life philosophy the person wants to explore.
Let us a take a break from the RICP-F bundle and examine another bundle, RIC-PF.
Bundle: Ritual + Identity + Community – (minus) Faith – (minus) Precepts
What does a ‘religion’ sans Faith and Precepts, and comprising just Rituals, Identity and Community look like?
If you are an Arsenal fan, or Man U or any fervent fan of a football club, then you have rituals (they aren’t about mindfulness though they can cause you to lose all sense of time). For example, if you are lucky then you will travel to the match, or at the very least you will keep your Saturdays or match days free to watch the match. You also have an identity that you hold on to (I have seen tattoos on rabid fans) and finally there is a community that you can be part of.
Much like football, I remember a joke about crypto as a ‘religion’ – a missing prophet, a pamphlet left behind, rituals and practices and a strong sense of community. If so, it is perhaps the fastest growing faithless religion!
It is time perhaps to explore faithless religions, or practices / life philosophies that mimic the elements of religion that confer benefits like belonging, mindfulness, positivity etc., without necessarily having to adopt the ‘God’ or faith element. There are about ~500m atheists as well as many religious-lite who will benefit from the ability to adopt such a practice.
We are beginning to see tech startups enter this space, albeit by focusing on serving the members of existing religions such as Glorify and Hallow in USA, and Apps for Bharat and OMI for India. I think there is as much of an opportunity to enable the atheist or agnostics to adopt an entirely new practice or faithless religion.
Feel free to write back at firstname.lastname@example.org – happy to hear your thoughts!
March 10, 2022 @ 6:49 am
It will be interesting to see how regulations come to play as these startups take shape…also who will be at the fringes of this bundle …and whether there will be a certain specific profile of consumer willing to explore this territory ( like gen Z / alpha). How will web3 shape this community in times to come? Who is to say some of these atheists will not change into more conventional believers of one religion or other? How will the changing geo-political situation across west impact this domain?
June 3, 2022 @ 11:25 am
I really enjoyed your essay and more importantly the unbundling part. I am a problem solver and unbundling or unpacking or ‘peeling the onion’ is something that i enjoy.
I deeply think about religion and how it must have all come together from our days of being hunter-gatherers where we operated in small groups, to communities in small villages and now in cities.
All the elements that you unpacked about religion make sense.
I feel that the way religion has emerged into our current setup, I feel religion is equal to power than it is about culture, rituals, and traditions.
And guess what, religion is one of the primary contributors to greenhouse emissions (https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2020/10/15/religion-influences-relationship-environment/#:~:text=Our%20findings%20indicate%20that%20religious,better%20prepared%20for%20environmental%20challenges.)
It is therefore time to take it seriously and look at alternatives. (for the record, i was born in a hindu family but do not follow any religion).
i agree to your point on how God was created as a support mechanism from our fear of the unknown.
its a very interesting path that you have set on – creating an alternative religion (or something similar). However my argument is do we need the world religion at all ?
Why cant we only have ‘Culture’. If the real reason of having religion was to have communities, support and culture or the way of life, then that is what it should essentially be.
The App idea seems interesting, however an app like that will only work on ‘network effect’ and that is one of the challenges of having a network effect without a commercial pathway. More later. Cheers Pritesh