ReligionSkepticism

IndieUhOh: Crowdfunding Exotic Vacations–err, Religious Missions?

Ah, the wisdom of crowds! Two heads are better than one, so hundreds of heads must be super friggin’ smart. As we know from experience, people getting together always results in really smart things being done. Er, most of the time. Sometimes. Once in a while?

Anyway, we’ve seen before that crowdfunding has the potential to do great stuff, like fund scientific research and awesome art, among other initatives. There are some excellent crowdfunded skeptical projects, ranging from Godless Comics (a witty alternative to Chick tracts) to a book telling atheists’ stories. And, of course, there’s A Skeptic’s Guide to Islam (by our own Heina!). But, like any platform, crowdfunding can be used for questionable purposes as well.

Two major fundraising platforms (Kickstarter and IndieGoGo) take different approaches when it comes to religion. According to its FAQ, “Kickstarter does not allow charity, cause, or ‘fund my life’ projects.” Instead, it’s more project-based, and projects must fit into one of the following categories: Art, Comics, Dance, Design, Fashion, Film, Food, Games, Music, Photography, Publishing, Technology, and Theater. This means that its religion-related projects tend toward the documentary rather than the missionary: a record of spiritual beliefs on Jeju Island, a photo book of voodou rituals in Haiti, and a documentary about the separation of church and state.

By contrast, IndieGoGo has a whole category for projects related to religion. Many of the best funded projects are about restoration and/or coming together: rebuilding a mosque that “mysteriously” burned down, funding training to end homophobia in the Christian church, restoring a historic church in Brooklyn, or sending deaf Muslims to Umrah. These are efforts with measurable outcomes–is the church restored? did these people get trained?–and so funding them this way kind of makes sense.

Missionary ReminiscencesBut a lot of the campaigns seem kinda like thinly (or not-at-all) veiled vacation/moving funds. You can pay for various people to relax, errr, preach in exotic locations such as Brazil, South Africa, or Laos. And while it’s not quite as exotic, you can also pony up for someone to spend a few months meditating in Oregon.

To quote one missionary, “We believe that God is our provider, but He joyfully partners with people to bring provision for all of our needs.” Or another: “We’re asking you to be part of the dream of God’s heart for our family.” But not your family. Oh, no–God’s heart only wants us to go to Brazil. He just wants you to pay for it. Heck, maybe we should be getting folks to pay for our breast cancer vacations as well?

I went on a religion-affiliated volunteer trip once myself, as a kiddo. I learned a whole lot from being immersed in another culture, even if religion was (unfortunately) involved, and I was super lucky my family was able to pay for it (those were the days before Kickstarter–can you imagine?). And I’m not saying that only those with good financial means should be allowed to volunteer or go on missions, if that’s what they really think will help the world. But I do think (1) the value of missions themselves can (and should) be questioned, and (2) those with means shouldn’t depend on others, especially those with lesser means, especially using religious pleas, for support in their religious missions.

There are a whole lot of ways to do good in the world. If you are religious and can afford to support your friend on a mission abroad, go for it. But don’t kid yourself that it’s actually the best use of your money. And ask yourself what the mission is really accomplishing. Missions are troubling, not just because they spread lies, not just because people could fix problems at home first, but largely because they typically involve a certain type of white knighting: that is, thinking you know more about what’s best for an entire people than they do. This is especially troubling in areas with long histories of colonial exploitation. I mean, Brazil probably got a little taste of the Christianity during a couple hundred years of colonization, don’t you think? Do the people there really need your valuable perspective on the faith that badly, even if you are super awesome at YouTube?

None of the IndieGoGo missionary campaigns make reference to the histories, perspectives, or needs of the people in the countries they’re going to, just their own. The campaigns offer all kinds of cute rewards to the supporters–everything from homemade granola to custom paintings and YouTube videos. But, uh, what exactly do they bring to the people they preach to? This is the kind of self-centered, uninquisitive perspective that we need to be fighting–through Kickstarter projects or whatever other means–not supporting. Whatever you (think you) believe, understanding the underlying context is key. And I’m not sure whether it’d be more disturbing if these mission campaigns are blissfully ignorant or calculatedly ignoring their target countries’ past.

Book image from Flickr user romana klee.

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Kerry is a longtime skeptic and technology enthusiast, currently in recovery from too many years spent working in enterprise software. She still believes in the power of technology to do good, when used judiciously. Find her on Twitter or Google+.

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One Comment

  1. I think you might be mistaking crowd funding for crowd sourcing in your first paragraph–crowd funding doesn’t rely on the wisdom of crowds, just the sum of their pooled money.

    I was researching different crowd funding platforms for work recently, and I was interested to learn what you’ve pointed out here: that while Kickstarter requires campaigns to be project-based and produce some kind of tangible result (and therefore has to approve proposed campaigns), IndieGoGo allows you to raise funds for pretty much anything, including personal needs. It’s not just vacations disguised as mission trips–you could just start a campaign to straight-up raise money for a vacation. If you can find people to contribute, bully to you.

    I definitely don’t support mission trips, crowd funded or otherwise, but no one is breaking any rules here or pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes. No more so than any other way of raising funds for a mission trip.

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