Is 'Spirituality' a Distinctly Capitalist Phenomenon? - RSA

Is 'Spirituality' a Distinctly Capitalist Phenomenon?


  • Social brain
  • Spirituality

"With the emergence of capitalist spirituality we are seeing an attempted takeover of the cultural space traditionally inhabited by "the religions" by a specific economic agenda"


This could be an exam question, but is in fact a line from 'Spirituality and the re-branding of religion' by Jeremy Carrette and Richard King, which features in Religion, Media and Culture: A Reader.

I have been reading various articles of this nature recently as part of our nascent attempts to think about how to make the language of the spiritual less apologetic, and more edifying.

Carrette and King begin by sharing their widely shared frustration at the use of the term:

"The concept represents on the one hand all that is banal and vague about 'new age' religiosity, whilst on the other signifying a transcendent quality, enhancing life and distilling all that is positive from the 'ageing and outdated' casks of traditional religious institutions."

They go on to argue that 'the religious' has been subject to a "silent takeover" by contemporary capitalist ideologies, mostly through the language of 'spirituality'. It is suggested that this concept smuggles in social and economic policies geared towards "the neoliberal ideals of privatization and corporatization applied increasingly to all spheres of human life."

Rather than look for some kind of essence of spirituality, or to define it, dare I say it, definitively, the author s ask "Who benefits from particular constructions of spirituality?"....and, like William James, to pay attention to "The fruits, not the roots" of the term.

In this case, it is argued that by decoupling spirituality from the institutions and social conventions of religion and making it more about individual personal development, often linked to lifestyle and wellbeing products, spirituality becomes a kind of sticking plaster for the neoliberal agenda. If your problems are 'spiritual' and not economic and political, so much better for those with political and economic power, because you are more likely to be a compliant citizen and reliable consumer.

If your problems are 'spiritual' and not economic and political, so much better for those with political and economic power, because you are more likely to be a compliant citizen and reliable consumer.

But is that the whole story? Part of me takes the point that 'spirituality' is not sui-generis, and always has spatial and temporal coordinates. I also think it is generally more productive to think about what a concept does, rather than what it is.

However, while I like to 'problematize' as much as the next thinking person, there is a danger of such discussions becoming little more than a dance of discourses....Much of academic sociology seems to take the form: "There are these discourses on subject X. We need to problematize them. Here is another discourse that draws attention to the unstated assumptions, neglected features and inadequate theory of the other discourse. The picture I/we have presented is fuller and richer and poses deeper questions that need further reflection"

Forgive the caricature, but on reading such papers I feel two things:

1) How long (not long- MLK)) before the problematization of the problematization gets published?

2) Now what do we do?

It's not that I don't see the need to be aware of how concepts are shaped by historical circumstances, but I do want to avoid drowning in evanescent discourses. I want to hold fast to the idea that however we conceive of 'the spiritual' we are speaking about perennial questions and not merely about modern or post-modern questions.

What appears constant is the hunger for meaning, belonging, transcendence and a way of living that makes sense. The interpretations of such things certainly change over time, but if we focus too much on the interpretation we forget that some phenomena, including, I think some such basic spiritual needs, are universal, timeless and deep.

As the Buddha might put it in 21st century language: Will somebody remove this bloody arrow from my stomach, get me a doctor, and tell these people who keep asking me about which country the arrow was made in, and who paid for it, to bugger off?



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