Religion as business

One of the most famous temples in Hong Kong is Wong Tai Sin Temple, a Taoist/Buddhist temple named after a loyal Chinese general. I have visited the temple on numerous occasions already, but only last week did I have the opportunity to sit down with the temple abbot to talk about the temple, the visitors that come to the temple, and the Taoist and Buddhist background of it.

The temple abbot described himself as a rather funny and different person, especially with regards to his views on the management of the temple, which are not only guided by religious beliefs, but also by a strong belief in the environment (therefore: no burning of huge joss sticks on temple grounds) and in business management models.

To attract more young visitors to the temple, the abbot knew he had to offer them something special. So in the beginning of this year, three statues were erected at the temple grounds, symbolizing Yue Lao, the machtmaker god in charge of marriages. Yue Lao is holding a book in which the names of all couples are written down. You can go to the statue of Yue Lao and tie a small red ribbon on the big string that connects Yue Lao with a statue of a husband and a statue of a wife. If you are looking for a husband, you tie the red string close to the statue of the husband; if you are looking for a wife, you tie it to the other side. This is not necessarily a Taoist religious ritual; it is more a traditional Chinese belief. But according to the abbot, it attracts many young people looking for a suitable marriage partner (especially young women: the amount of strings on the husband side is many times more than on the side of the female statue).

According to the abbot,

It may not be successful, but at least it will make your heart feel happy. This is the modern management of the temple, almost business management, aimed at attracting young people to come here.

In other words: Religious venues and rituals, dealed with in a business-like manner to attract more (young) people and to secure the survival of the venue. Combining religion with business. Creating supply (“aanbod”), especially when there is a demand (“vraag”).

At Wong Tai Sin Temple, one can see this. Here, all the goods (and the bads?) of a “religious economy” are put into practice:

A religious economy consists of all of the religious activity going on in any society: a “market” of current and potential adherents, a set of one or more organizations seeking to attract or maintain adherents, and the religious culture offered by the organization(s). (Stark and Finke 2000, p. 193)

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2 thoughts on “Religion as business

    • And how flexible can it be still be called that same religion? Where is the line between tradition and innovation when looking at the core? And how do the people themselves belief this? The only problem is that these questions are really too big for me to find out… 😥

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