In a free market in religion, everybody has to sell to survive; and everybody is getting better at it. ven the ast London Mosque now holds regular meetings to make converts to Islam. What is surprising is that the traditional methods of advertising are so ineffective. The success rate at Billy Graham rallies is a little under 2 per cent, and that is high for mass evangelism.
The real secret of evangelism is not to convert anyone, but to make the evangelists feel good. That is why American television preachers are known as "televangelists", although they repel everyone who does not already believe in them. Door-to-door salesmanship, as practised by the Jehovah's Witnesses, is famously unsuccessful.
Perhaps the most important evangelical development of the decade is the Alpha Course, which adapts the principles of the Tupperware party to selling evangelical Christianity. Participants are invited to a structured series of talks with communal meals afterwards. More than half of those present have already been converted. The rest seem to find the atmosphere irresistible. Originating at Holy Trinity Brompton, these have now spread to thousands of evangelical churches, irrespective of denomination.
Once the body was the temple of God; now the gym is our temple and the body is the worshipped image within. Today there are 2.1m people weight training - more than attend either Anglican or Roman Catholic churches - and 5.8m involved in keep fit and aerobics, which is more than all church- going denominations put together.
Improving pictures of women at prayer have been superseded by portraits of Diana at her health club. The devout, in their special vestments, take their religion out on to every pavement, jogging, cycling, and generally trying to mow down as many of the unsaved as possible.
Going for the burn was once something heretics were volunteered for: now we queue up for it. According to the Sports Council, 29m adults take part in some sport every month. Once, a good conscience was every man's right, and good health a bonus; now we believe that everyone is entitled to health, whereas a clear conscience is fugitive and not to be planned on.
Most of the furniture of hell has been transferred to health clubs. Fortunes are made selling repetitive, pointless labour, while personal trainers stand by and shout encouragement, pitchfork in hand. But it's all different now because we know it is doing good.
In an age of credulity, no authority can compare with that which promises to make you money. Management gurus can demand anything of their followers, starting with huge fees. The transition from the original, Indian meaning of a holy man to the modern meaning of an incomprehensible expert was easier than might seem, perhaps because the first Indian gurus to impinge on the West came trailing clouds of Rolls-Royces. Now the rest of the world has followed the surviving Beatles and reveres only its investment advisers.
The new priests of the higher gobbledygook share many characteristics with the old. The original guru passed down his arcane, but eternal, knowledge orally, to chosen disciples. The modern one sells his in airport bookstalls, so that every three years he has to reinvent the whole schtick, which explains why they are so keen on managing for change.
The old ones demanded that their devoted students dress, eat and live in certain ways, as well as using language special to the cult. One notable car industry guru today insists - in opaque management jargon - that all his subordinates switch their watches to their right wrists, that they drink only prescribed wines, and avoid certain foods. All this to make them realise that they are consecrated to the service of the company.
The laying on of hands, though easily misunderstood, particularly in litigious America, is one of the most important functions of modern religion. Healing is not restricted to curing people who are unwell. The wonderful thing about healing, as compared to miracles (qv) is that the process is quite independent of result. Healing, in the modern sense, is about making people feel better about feeling ill.
A belief in healing is also the nearest we can get to admitting there is anything wrong with us. Hence the popularity of the sort of healing which allows people to die happily.
Tomorrow: Islam, Jobs, Kit and Lottery.Reuse content