As early as 2004, cnet news posted an article on Spam „getting religious“. Their diagnosis pointed out spam mails which brought along a religious message, so to speak an updated version of early missionary mails, e.g. the Pauline epistles (my comparison, not theirs).
Up to now, I can’t remember receiving any spam trying to convince me of the righteous faith or the like. But with my own e-mail inboxes in mind, I lately got the feeling of an increase in the number of religious narratives in everyday spam mails – for the time being a not very scientific trigger, but it led me to some at least roughly religious-studies-related considerations. Also, it made me read my spam mails quite thoroughly and collect those with religious references for some weeks.
All of them follow the same main plot: Surprisingly, Mr or Mrs X contacted me of all people, without knowing me at all, begging me to accept and distribute a huge amount of money as they are about to decease or unable to do it themselves because of other unfavorable constellations. Sometimes I would be allowed to keep a certain share of the money, sometimes I have to donate all of it – this whole idea is very familiar to you as the archetype of „419“ or „Nigeria scam“, which exists since the stone age of e-mail-correspondence.
These stories are not necessarily related to religion or including religious references, but, as it shows, it seems to be a welcome supplement. To begin with, I will just present some quotes1 of my favorite examples:
„Subject: GOD BE WITH YOU
[…] Greetings in the name of the LORD Almighty the giver of every good thing. [Surprise, here comes a proposal: I am old, and ill, and now I want to donate my money] and I needed a very honest and God fearing person who [will hand over my money to charity].
I found your email address from the internet after honest prayers to the LORD to bring me HONEST PERSON I CAN CONFIDE ON, and I decided to contact you [and I really need you for this task, and it’s not illegal, and please respond quickly].
Mrs. Gretchen Mishra“
What references to religion appear? First, we find some typical Christian salutations. Second, religiosity is brought up as a specific personal quality, indicating that „God fearing people“ are those one can confidently hand over a large amount of money. Last but not least, a third religious reference serves also as legitimating narrative why I of all persons receive this mail: Because the Lord told her so after praying for a trustworthy Christian person.
I received a very similar mail from Mrs Teresa Collins, with one additional detail worth mentioning:
„With warm hearts I offer my friendship, and my greetings to you in the name of our lord God, and I hope this letter meets you in good time, I propose with my free mind and as a person of integrity from God, I know that this message will appear as a surprise to you that we barely know but the grace of God directed me to you and I wish you read this message and be blessed in name of the Lord. [I will die soon from a brain tumor, but before, I want to donate my money to the poor, and I do not have any relatives. I want you] to establish a charitable foundation in my memory so that the grace of God be with me until my last home so I can receive an honorable place with the Lord our father. […]“
Here, besides the already mentioned three references – Christian greetings, an epiphany as criteria for selecting the mail receiver, and religiosity as indicator for trustworthiness – another element is also the self-description of Mrs. Teresa Collins as religious person. Last but far from least, Mrs Esther John tries hard and tops it:
„Beloved in Christ,
I am Mrs. Esther John from South Africa [I am rich, my husband and daughter are dead]. Before my husband’s early death, both me and my husband were reborn Christians. [Now I am very ill too, therefore I want to donate my money according to my late husband’s wishes] to a Christian organization (church) […]. I want to spend the money on Christian purposes like orphanages, Christian schools and churches, for spreading the word of God and trying to preserve the Lord’s house.
The Bible lets us know that “blessed is the hand which will give.” I made this decision because I have no children, and my husband’s relatives are no Christians, and I don’t want infidels to utilize my husband’s endeavors. I do not want a situation where this money is used in an ungodly manner.
That is why, with this decision, I am not afraid of death, because I know where I go, I know I will be in the bosom of the Lord. Exodus 14:14 says that “The Lord shall fight for me, and I shall hold my peace.” With God, everything is possible [technical description of money transfer from her to me]. I want you and church to pray for me, because the Lord is my shepherd. […]
Mrs. Esther John“
Again, besides the up to now four mentioned references to (Christian) religious traditions, including a quite elaborated self-description as reborn Christian, Mrs Esther John additionally names a Christian purpose of donation. Moreover, she quotes the Bible several times, thereby drawing on an acknowledged authoritative source (see e.g. Heidi Campbell’s description of 4 layers of religious authority) to strengthen her request.
Going beyond this very basic systematization of religious references within my inbox, some first conclusions and further questions seem reasonable. First, how can this be related to any broader topics within religious studies? Spam mails want to achieve the unlikely: that I respond, and in the end even invest some money in expectation of a huge gift in return, be it financial, or, in this case maybe also in terms of blessing. To achieve this, they do not have a lot of means to increase their chances. Their crucial task is to build up trust within an e-mail, one of the most anonymous media of communication one can imagine. Therefore, they sign with a name, often tell lengthy stories about their lives, and heartbreaking stories about their recent diseases. But it seems not too far-fetched, that religion does not occur by chance in those mails. Establishing a relationship and even trusting people one does not know and never has seen before is an old hat for religious people. What Benedict Anderson described with his concept of “imagined community” can be related to religious communities for centuries – the global community of Catholics or the ummah are imagined communities with supposedly shared values, norms and aims. More concrete relationships build on more or less abstract trust in brothers and sisters in faith can be found in the networks of Jewish Merchants or the translocal networks of religious communities within migration processes, where one provides resources to unknown members of the same faith.
Therefore, the narrative strategies might either be related to theories of religious communities, and underline the idea that translocality and not knowing each other face to face are features of community which come up as recent diagnoses within the social sciences of the last decades, but are well-known and usual patterns in the field of religion. Or they could be linked to theories of religious capital, where social capital from within a religious group may go along with the accumulation of financial capital, drawing from the trustworthiness which strengthens formally weak ties into those strong enough to invest time or money.
Also, while we will probably never now whether these references really talked somebody into answering Mrs Teresa Collins or Esther John, the sheer existence of those references and narrations allow the assumption that their authors believe these reference to have an impact – which tells us at least a bit about the people behind these e-mails, and, from our perspective more interesting, the spread of the view that religious references may enhance the trustworthiness even of a spam mail. Or have you ever received a spam mail drawing specifically on your trustworthiness as a football player, agnostic or pigeon fancier?
Second, I am quite curious if spam mails of such kind overcome the euro- and christocentrism inevitably perpetuated here: Are there similar spam mails with reference to other religious traditions? What might be differences in those mails – may they even point back to specific characteristics of these traditions, e. g. in the kinds of authorities they quote, in the purposes of donation they mention, or maybe in a wholly different narration? So what about your inbox – ever received mails with Muslim, Hindu or whatever references?
Looking forward to hearing from you quickly,
- I translated the German ones; square brackets contain my own summary.