Selling Spirituality – review

Have you ever stood in front of the ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ section in a bookshop and wondered what books on the Bible, business technique, bonsai trees, and beating low self-esteem could possibly have in common? Do you associate ‘yoga’ mainly with brightly-coloured spandex? Do you respond to shower gel adverts promising you inner peace by not knowing whether to laugh, cry, or go out and buy some?

Selling Spirituality might have something to say to you. Jeremy Carrette and Richard King (hereafter C/K) both work in the area of religious studies, and have produced an engaging self-styled ‘polemic’ that traces the ‘silent takeover of religion’ back to two recent and related changes in western culture: the privatisation of religion, followed by its commodification.

The privatisation of religion in the West was already well advanced by the early twentieth century – religion had become the concern of the individual and his or her family, as a set of private beliefs, hopes, doubts, and prayers that enjoyed a certain separation from whatever public religious activity – church attendance, for example –  a person might engage in.

The commodification of religion – the stripping of religious traditions for particular ideas, names, or practices that could be promoted or ‘sold’ in isolation – started to happen in earnest, say C/K, after the Second World War. Institutional religion was already losing influence, particularly in Europe, and the vacuum left by its decline began to be filled with philosophies that catered more clearly for the lives people were now leading – concerned with a growing sense of individual freedom and aspiration, perhaps affluence, and certainly the perennial human anxieties about illness, death, and meaning.

‘Well what’s wrong with that?’, you ask.

That’s precisely the question that C/K want you to consider: is there something wrong with this train of events, and if there is, why have we not noticed it before? Their answer draws on a powerful trend in modern critical thinking that can be summed up in a single phrase: the politics of knowledge. What this means is that any idea or set of ideas, no matter how seemingly innocuous or ‘common sense’, achieves its prominence in our thinking because of prevailing political/economic conditions. A popular example is the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, which gained for itself such power that its ideas about the world and about human nature became, to all intents and purposes, the ‘common sense’ view of things.

The Infinite Monkey Cage: Robin Ince and Brian Cox

From the nineteenth century, C/K would argue, the scientific outlook started to take over that position, and to an extent we’re still stuck with it. You and I are probably similarly impressed by phrases like ‘good science’ and ‘experiments under controlled conditions’ – or ‘the research overwhelmingly indicates…’. (Radio 4’s wonderful science programme The Infinite Monkey Cage has this ‘common sense’ assumption rumbling away in the background almost constantly.) The point that C/K and others make is that it is very difficult to step outside ‘common sense’ and begin to be critical, because the whole thing simply runs so deep.

French historian of ideas Michel Foucault, known for his work on the politics of knowledge - and for many in the English-speaking world the archetypal abstruse French intellectual

What does this have to do with spirituality? Well C/K argue that modern spirituality emerged out of the cocoon of institutional religion at a time when ‘common sense’ was largely being defined by science – including, crucially, psychology – together with capitalist economics. The result was that spirituality came to focus on ‘me’ as the centre of reality: meaning in the world was largely a matter of how I see things, of my day-to-day experience – and how I can tweak it. A key illustration of this offered by C/K is the repackaging, in M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled, of Buddhism’s First Noble Truth. Buddhist versions focus on the state of suffering that exists in the world in general. The Road Less Travelled turns this into the more individual, personal, and psychological form of ‘life is difficult’. The problems of the world – major questions of social justice – take a back seat, in favour of how things are with me, right now.

This kind of spirituality, say C/K, relies too heavily – and uncritically – on psychology. We tend to take psychology on trust, just as we do science – there might be bad psychologists, ‘quacks’, but psychology itself is basically sound, isn’t it? And yet isn’t much of psychology, and much of psychotherapy, in fact about helping us to accommodate ourselves to the status quo around us? Helping us to be good citizens? At a superficial level the status quo often doesn’t look that bad, so the idea of accommodation might seem pretty harmless – especially if the psychological ‘problem’ in question clearly seems to lie with us, perhaps with anxiety, for example. But the fact is, say C/K, that the foundations of psychology, and with it much of modern spirituality, are dubiously political, and have more to do with accommodation to the political and economic climate than any clear sense beyond that of what life and human beings are for.

Perhaps wary of coming across as moralizing, C/K don’t play too heavily on the fact that what many people want is to feel a little better, rather than to become embroiled in something that might take them over completely (that way, our common sense tells us very effectively, lies ‘extremism’ or ‘madness’). So accommodationism is in – and attractively-packaged accommodationism where possible. This is linked to one of the major assumptions of modern spirituality, which is that there is such a thing as ‘me’ to be tinkered with and made to feel better in the first place. Psychology and a capitalist economy rely, of course, upon there being this entity called ‘me’ – which can be catered for in all sorts of ways. Ironically, most of the religious traditions that modern spirituality draws on – with its particular penchant for ‘the East’ – stand in stark contrast to this understanding: Buddhism talks about a flowing stream of consciousness that gives rise to the impression – if we don’t look hard and honestly enough –  of a fixed point that is ‘me'; and a great many traditions within what we call Hinduism, along with contemplative Christianity, suggest that while there is some kind of essential ‘me’, it lies mostly obscured beneath all the temporary and fleeting thoughts, desires, fears, etc, that we tend to mistake for ‘me’.

Brad Warner's 'Sit Down and Shut Up' - well worth a look

As the excellent Brad Warner, a Zen Buddhist writer, puts it in Sit Down and Shut Up, we treat ourselves like a carrot that has rotten bits to it, and we want to get rid of those bits but keep the rest – not realizing, or not being prepared to face the fact, that the whole thing, the whole ‘carrot’, is problematic.

One final caution raised by C/K is the way that product branding has evolved to take advantage of what are often vaguely and awkwardly described as our ‘spiritual needs’. They draw heavily on an analysis of branding techniques by John Grant [The New Marketing Manifesto, 2000]. Grant posits three stages in the history of branding.

1-      Trademark (early 20th c; brands sought to represent quality, reliability and safety)

2-      Aspiration (1930s – 50s; brands sought to reflect the ideals and values of consumers)

3-      New Traditions (contemporary; brands seek to become a replacement for lost traditions, offering consumers ‘ideas to live by’)

The selective use of religious ideas, under the rubric of ‘spirituality’, has become key to this third stage of branding, enabling branders to tap into basic human needs. As Grant puts it, ‘The new marketing approach is to offer brand ideas as a way of negotiating with new life situations’. For C/K this represents the final stage of the process of privatisation and commodification of religion that they have been trying to describe. It also brings us back to the shower gel example that we began with.

C/K have no particular form of religion, spirituality, or indeed agnosticism/atheism that they are trying to peddle. Instead, they want us to look hard at what underlies the way modern spirituality is heading, and they want to suggest that a spirituality that is individual and cut adrift from social justice concerns is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Book details:

Jeremy Carrette and Richard King, Selling Spirituality: the Silent Takeover of Religion (Routledge, 2005)


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