Behind the Mask: Consumerism is commodifying religion

By Zacharias Strohecker, Feb. 1, 2022

The pressure of markets is to always be new and compete for attention, a race to the bottom for the appeal to separate you from your dollar. The appeal being cultural values, reinforced by advertising, claiming this product will make you beautiful, this self-help book will make you confident, this movie will make you happy. In other words, they will improve you in some way. Religions uphold unique roles within their culture, and they shouldn’t lose sight of their identity.  

While consumerism reinvents itself at an incredible pace, religion historically remains static. It changes aesthetically, different decorum or rhetoric, but the function stays the same. The situation has changed. As power consolidates into the corporate sector, consumerism becomes culturally ubiquitous. American religions are concerned with their reach and audience. As demographics shift, irrelevancy looms large. To combat this, religious organizations adopt consumerist values to appeal to a younger audience that has become less interested in religion. I have been invited to church services targeting young adults boasting a rock band style stage with fog machines and displays with sizzler reels. Theatrics have always been integral to presentational religions, but these services seem more like a Tony Robbins seminar with a halftime show. 

What is wrong with this? Nothing, unless you believe a bestselling book genuinely gives away the secret to wealth. Then the only problem in the world would be eliminating illiteracy. These values of the American mall could be convicted on the basis of false advertising as they never deliver on the cover hook, but most people understand this; it is a service. Buyers get the experience of feeling like they are improving, a contact high, and it wears off and a new experience is sought. Consumerism is not a neurotic ethic, but it cannot be the only ethic. 

Eastern religions brought over to America have been cannibalized by consumerist culture often promising mystical power and healing. Examining religion from other cultures poses difficulties as the temptation to transmute their values into ours is rarely resisted. Often the aesthetic is adopted and the core abandoned and reexplained in terms of Western psychodynamics. The health craze in tandem with haphazard spirituality promotes highly stringent disciplines in the same light as a diet or gym fad. 

Mindfulness apps reinforce basic misconceptions that unbiased meditation would eliminate. The most hilarious examples are the adaptations of Hinduism into new age spirituality and health. Chakras get thrown around as if you buy one at Whole Foods. I read a top Google search article on Chakras which claimed the seventh Chakra could be accessed by exercising and running. In traditional Hindu texts, the seventh Chakra unlocks a state where the yogi experiences an oceanic consciousness, described as falling catatonic and, in the right circumstances, the body soon dies because the self disappears entirely. 

The services these consumerist adaptations offer are not necessarily negative and could be exactly what certain people need. However, religions shouldn’t abandon their traditional function to keep up with mass appeal and popular culture. 

What that function is I will not say because religions and religious practices do not inhabit the same space universally. I can say what values consumerism will never create. Take unconditional love. Now, love is a huge value of consumerism — love beauty, love health, love wealth, and conversely, reject anyone who brings you down. This manifests with self-serving relationships where people insulate themselves from difficult relational work, only keeping people who make them feel good about themselves. This is a statement of condition, and any conditional love stems from a self-gratifying place, not compassion. Consumerism cannot create compassion. 

Not to say, look toward religion and there will be compassion. Rather, these traditions contain opportunities for such values to arise. The New Testament (Matthew 6:3-4) contains the teaching, “But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be done in secret.” And quoting the Tao Te Ching (Lin Translation), “The man of superior virtue is not conscious of his virtue. Hence he is virtuous. The man of inferior virtue is intent on not losing virtue. Hence he is devoid of virtue. The man of superior virtue never acts, nor ever does so with an ulterior motive.”  

In my interpretation, these are the same teaching, and for those ready to hear, can create the space for compassion. Many other complex values remain in these religions but are lost when they are used to chase consumerist, mainstream appeal. Religions may never hold the same court they had in our culture in the past, but can still function to provide a compassionate society even though consumerism actively resists such values. 

Feature image courtesy of Lucas Favre.

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