Selling Spirituality: the silent takeover of religion

Selling Spirituality: the silent takeover of religion
Jeremy Carrette and Richard King Routledge, 194pp, £12.99
ISBN 0415302099

Jesus was not the first to believe that God and money vie for people’s affections; the idea had been around for thousands of years. But when, in the early 20th century, Max Weber argued that Calvinism had powered the rise of capitalism, it became possible to serve both God and Mammon. Now, a century later, corporations have so colon-ised spiritual values that it is easy to forget that market forces and religion were once thought to conflict with each other.

According to Jeremy Carrette and Richard King, the separation of spirituality from religion came about in the 1960s, when spirituality was cut off from its roots and became individualised: something concerned with “my” quality of life, “my” prosperity, “my” authenticity, and so on. In the 1980s and 1990s, companies started tapping into this new spirituality, using it to enhance the image of brands.

Organised religion, meanwhile, came to be associated with oppressive dogma. As religious traditions served no obvious use in the global market place, they were increasingly dumped. However, doing away with organised religion also did away with the values underpinning many social goods – such as a belief in social justice and respect for the earth’s resources. This often had the paradoxical effect of eroding self-respect. As the authors point out: “Questions about government oil reserves, land rights, deforestation and poverty are as important to well-being and a sense of self as the feel-good factors of a psychological self promoted in glossy magazines.”

Churches, rather than resisting these developments, have mostly embraced them. The values of the religious right in the United States are virtually indistinguishable from those of the market place. Smallholder farmers in the South proclaim deregulation to be a Christian necessity, while allowing their jobs to be handed over to large corporations.

Strangely, the spread of spirituality has only increased suffering and delusion. Take the rise of Buddhism in the west. Yoga videos, meditation classes and New Age goods are sold as antidotes to the alienation and stress of modern life. However, the defining characteristic of Buddhism as practised by westerners is that it is strip-ped of its challenge to egotism. Without the requirement of self-renunciation, it merely reinforces the individualism it purports to confront. Similarly, religious systems such as Taoism and Confucianism, which originally aimed to eradicate desire, have been adopted to lend legitimacy to the desire that drives competition.

Selling Spirituality acknowledges that contemporary business ethics include a dimension of social responsibility. However, this mildly reformist agenda has little power seriously to challenge the status quo. Capitalism, according to the authors, is close to usurping all other sources of meaning. In effect, the market has become God. As Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said in his Richard Dimbleby Lecture in 2002: “The very survival of the public sphere, a realm of political argument about vision and education, is going to demand that we take religion a good deal more seriously.” Carrette and King show how true this is.

Mark Vernon’s Philosophy of Friendship will be published by Palgrave in July

This review first appeared in the New Statesman. For the latest in current and cultural affairs subscribe to the New Statesman print edition.

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New Statesman, UK
Jan. 10, 2005 edition Book Review
Mark Vernon

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