PrayPal: Automated Indulgences for an Online Age

P.B. Wombat

Issue 37 * Spring 2016

When Jeff Bezos announced that he would begin testing drones to deliver packages for Amazon, the world (finally) took notice. Automation has moved resolutely out of the factories and back offices that most of us ignore and into the consumer realities most of us live. It was inevitable, then, that the next step should be taken: the automation of holy petition.

Enter PrayPal, the founder of which, Opie Pius, created in order to "ease the burden of worship for today's families on the move." Along with fundamentalist hipsterism and biker-gang religiosity, PrayPal is part of a movement toward tradition as postmodern pastiche. Like a collage or a "hip-hop song," PrayPal incorporates a very traditional, even medieval, practice of indulgences with a postmodern vehicle, in this case, an online payment system, in order to meet a basic religious end: the worship of one's deity through prayer.

Beginning with Christianity, in which indulgences were once a common part of church practice prior to the Reformation, PrayPal has established a system of automatically delivering prayer through a variety of systems. Most frequently used is the automated voice system, delivering prayer to a subscriber's preferred house of worship either as an MP3 file set up to play through the church's public address system or through a greeting delivered by UPS or FedEx to be opened up by church members during an actual worship service. The latter is considered a "premium" package and is generally used for special occasions or situations of dire holy need: to pray for the success of upcoming nuptials or good outcome for an emerging illness, for example.

The least expensive forms of prayer purchasable at PrayPal include prayer by email or text, which are sent either to clergy or to online fora specializing in particular denominations and further subdivided into conference, synod, presbytery, and so forth, and further subdivided into individual congregations.

Payment packages range from one-off prayers to recurring prayers set up to "go off" on selected, routine bases: Christmas and Easter only, for the only mildly religious; weekly, for the socially faithful; and up to twice a day, for the truly devout. Payment methods are divided accordingly, with the more frequent delivery less expensive per-unit-prayer in order to incentivize service use and, presumably, reduce time in purgatory and/or improve overall chances of heavenly aspiration.

Tithing packages are in progress, with Pius currently negotiating deals with each of the major faith groups and credit card companies. The tithing initiatives are expected to cover Christianity first, but, controversially, expand to Islam, and, from there, prayer packages will be offered for Muslims as well. According to Pius, "The market potential for serving customers duty-bound to pray five times a day is enormous." Although he has not said this directly, one assumes that the risk of upsetting PrayPal's fundamentalist Christian clientele is worth the payout, and beta-testing would indicate that he is right, though rebranding for the Muslim world may be in order.

There is no doubt that our contemporary lifestyles leave little time for worship. The temporal constraints of religious services ought not to condemn believers to eternal damnation: if a trip to Whole Foods in order to feed the family for the week can only take place on a Sunday morning, there is no earthly nor Heavenly reason that unfortunate situation should cost the family forced to make such choices cosmological distress. Free market values insist on this kind of cost-benefit analysis as part of rational action, but they frequently fail to account for theological costs. If those costs can be addressed for $39.95 a month (the price of a basic, once-a-week "Family Values" package in the US), it simply makes sense to go that route.

In this way, PrayPal also represents a viable, market-based solution to moral decline that contrasts with the tax-based schemes of Western Europe where, as we have seen, government-subsidized religion has only hastened the race toward a churchless society. Collectivist and statist approaches, as always, fail to reinforce the sense of investment on the part of the taxpayer. With PrayPal, the faith-based consumer knows what he is getting and why; he can account for the price of his salvation in real dollars and not as a mere abstraction seen only in the continuing existence of a church hierarchy and the continuing upkeep of some seldom-used cathedrals.

In other words, for its millions of subscribers, PrayPal makes faith real.

Work Cited

Pius, Opie. Personal interview. 7 October 2015.