Guy Redden: Economics and commerce

Commodification and marketisation

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 All action has an economic basis as it requires that resources necessary to act be available to actors, and this can only take place if those resources are distributed through socially organised circulation of goods and services. Even those such as hermits, nuns or monks who drop out from mainstream life to pursue the vita contemplativa may only do so because of economic affordances—such as living from previously accumulated resources or accepting gifted goods and labour from others. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of ‘traditional’ religion is that it is largely organised through gift economies that allow it to be a preserve of the sacred set apart from worldly concerns. Adherents who live a worldly life provide for those whose specialised role it is to preside over sacred matters. Such arrangements have taken place through tithing, taxation and donation and allowed for the emergence of functionally-specific modern religious bureaucracies of the kind recognised by church-sect typology.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 However, economies also change with society. The cover image of Steve Bruce’s book God is Dead (2002) captures what happens when even the accumulated wealth of religious organisations is insufficient to offset the decline in their underlying gift economies: churches get converted into carpet superstores. For Bruce, such developments articulate the onward march of secularisation: the shared meaning systems of religion that used to bind communities together are in apparently terminal decline. However, others stress that the economic basis of religion is changing, and new conceptions of religious activity have been generated with the rapid emergence of the disciplines of economics, business studies and marketing. The key insight of such work is that in the modern world religion is increasingly imbricated with activity that would normally be categorised as commercial, calling into question settled notions about the separation of the sacred and profane (Durkheim 2012, Eliade 1959).

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Before examining some of those perspectives, in order to take some first steps towards thinking about what difference commercialisation might make in the spiritual realm it is necessary to define commodification and marketisation because it is the shift towards them that is largely at stake. Commodities are virtually universal to human life. At the most general level they denote any exchange of goods and services. However, in most societies things accorded a ‘special aura’ such as sacred items are often considered the least exchangeable: saleability suggests commonness (Kopytoff 1986, 69). This is also to say that religions are rarely principally accessed through markets: which are the social relations through which commodity exchange is routinely organised, and which may vary widely, for instance, between different kinds of barter and money economies. Markets are themselves historically variable arrangements through which information flows, goods are circulated and people act in specific ways amenable to commercial transactions. The contemporary challenge is to grapple with the apparent oxymoron that religion now appears routinely to be ‘for sale’: whether this means literally for sale in the form of religious commodities exchanged between their producers and consumers for money, or in a more metaphorical sense that religion is often marketed and chosen like a commodity.

The spiritual marketplace

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 In one of the more influential accounts of recent religious change, Wade Clark Roof (1999) has emphasised (on the basis of extensive interviewing in the U.S.) the contemporary pursuit of self-realisation through the kind of religious questing that is “facilitated by the rise of an expanded spiritual marketplace” (10). According to Roof, in a religious market situation the “new spiritual suppliers” (inside and outside of religious establishments) “take religious pluralism for granted and play to themes of choice, individuality, and the desirability of a cultivated, spiritually sensitive self” (91). On the flipside people increasingly act as ‘seekers’ less interested in received traditional religious affiliations than exploration and discovery through choosing what is right for them from the range options.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 For Roof (1999), it is not the case that there is a single kind of response to such a pluralised scene—some may move from option to option frequently while others may commit to one in a fundamentalist fashion—but the inevitability of choice and its personal nature form the common element. Not only can the religious scene of the later twentieth century be characterised as a consumer marketplace, but crucially, in Roof’s argument, markets have certain qualities that influence religion. Above all, when free from coercive forces they give authority to individuals who become arbiters of their fortunes, while providers fashion religious messages to attract their attention. In other words, markets are consistent with individualisation and subjective preferences. In such a situation, diverse suppliers come to cater for niches representing seekers’ different needs and desires further embedding the pluralisation tendencies (Roof 1999,109).

Economics of Religion

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 This is also a key insight of what has become termed ‘the economics of religion’, which has been one of the most significant theoretical approaches to the study of religion in recent decades. Unlike Roof, however, proponents suggest all religious phenomena can be understood by modelling them as following patterns of economic exchange. Pioneers in the field such as Stark, Bainbridge, Finke and Iannaccone (see Stark and Bainbridge 1987, Stark and Finke 2000, Iannaccone 1998) have applied fundamental concepts of economics to explain the social and behavioural dynamics of religion.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 In this view, its forms are attributable to the balance between supply and demand. People are seen to desire religious goods, but, consistent with neoclassical economics, they are also considered to do so in line with subjective preferences. From this premise the most well-known prediction of the economic approach is that religion flourishes when a range of providers are permitted to meet the diverse forms that demand may take. The high levels of religious participation in the United States—often taken as a country closest to the ideal of a free religious market—is used as empirical evidence for this claim, which, in turn is the basis for a critique of secularisation theory. The apparent decline of religion in Europe is seen to result from the smothering of pluralism by state-backed religions that fail to cater to religious choice adequately. Thus the decline of religion in some places is thought to be a local supply failure caused by the quintessentially economic problem of market monopoly—and not an expression of an irreversible decline in the religiosity of populations.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 One assumption of such views is that underlying demand for religion is stable. In an influential essay that predates the formation of the economics approach from the 1980s onwards, Azzi and Ehrenberg (1975) propose that religion offers people three distinctive kinds of goods: spiritual goods (personal edification), social goods (secondary benefits of belonging to a religious community) and afterlife goods (metaphysical and ontological assurances). Religions are seen to offer specific combinations of them and followers seek access to the benefits they offer in ways that maximise personal utility (Iannaccone 1998, 1479). In other words, an individualistic economistic view of action, usually labelled ‘rational choice’, underlies the theory. People (both providers and followers) are seen as motivated by rewards and expected to bear only certain reasonable costs in pursuing them. Where the balance of rewards and costs makes sense to actors a rational choice is possible and an exchange between producers and consumers is likely to take place. Not only does religion supposedly flourish when people are free to make such calculations, different kinds of religious organisation can be thought of as specialising in different niches. Much work in the field highlights how different personal, social, and afterlife benefits on offer in doctrine and practice are linked to expectations around costs—such as time, money and in kind resources expected from followers. These cost-benefit equations can be said to explain the emergence of organisations that configure religion in different ways, from the sects that provide high levels of belonging in exchange for deep discipline and time commitment through to groups that allow lighter touch participation in expectation of monetary contribution and that may offer entertaining liturgy as part of the bargain.

A secularised marketplace?

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Critics suggest that advocates of rational choice read largely unsupported presuppositions of economic discourse onto religion while cherry picking weak data sets for empirical back up (Bruce 2014). The economics of religion can also be considered an example of the hegemony of neoliberalism through supposing that market models replace other ways of thinking that consider the range of historical, cultural and social factors that shape society (McKinnon 2013).

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 But advocates of secularisation theory have also used market models to construct arguments that are contrary to the economics of religion approach.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Instead they have suggested that increased resemblances between religion and consumer markets over recent decades indicate the dilution of belief and the collapse in authority of religion itself. Peter Berger (in his earlier work) argued that religion in general with the demise of religious monopolies, has increasingly come to follow market-style dynamics. The ability of people to choose affiliations cedes power to the religious consumer, and religious groups must thus engage in marketing in order to flourish (1973, 142–149). Berger’s sometime academic collaborator, Thomas Luckmann, also applies market metaphors in his concept of the ‘invisible religion’. In 1967 he made the contention that:

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 The social form of religion emerging in modern industrial societies is characterized by the direct accessibility of an assortment of religious representations to potential consumers. The sacred cosmos is mediated neither through a specialised domain of religious institutions nor through other primary public institutions. It is the direct accessibility of the sacred cosmos, more precisely, through an assortment of religious themes, which makes religion today essentially a phenomenon of the “private sphere.” (1967, 103).

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 For Luckman, religion is marked by ever-shrinking transcendences as the sacred becomes less about large metaphysical claims than commensurate with secular lifestyle options for self-development (1996). For Berger, rather than expressing the kinds of obligation that are required for societies to be led by religion, “religious institutions have accommodated themselves to the moral and therapeutic ‘needs’ of the individual” (Berger 1973, 150). In this view, in polar opposition to the economics approach, religion catering to private preferences of the individual is a sign of its effective demise as it merges with secular expectations.

Postmodern consumerism

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Yet not all outside the economics of religion camp suggest that religious pluralism and consumerism denote the declining social importance of religion. Another interpretation is that they demonstrate its adaptability to changing social contexts. David Lyon (2000) argues that the consuming of religion should not be mistaken for social insignificance. Instead the increase in ‘private’ chosen belief that leads to religious pluralism should be understood as consistent with the social centrality of both consumerism and pluralised media to postmodernity. In developing this position he agrees with much of what Berger argues about the religious marketplace, but denies it constitutes secularisation. Instead the idea that religion is socially significant only when it binds groups of people to a single orthodoxy through its hold over public institutions is seen as erroneous as it takes one form it may have in particular socio-historical formation as the standard for all religion. And this concern with the historical specificity of market-like religiosity is also what differentiates his argument from rational choice.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 The notion that consumption has superseded production as the central organising principle of capitalist economy plays a key role in theories of postmodern and post-industrial society (Slater 1997, 174–176). Economic growth is increasingly driven by the creation of new opportunities for consumption, rather than expanding capacity to produce existing products. Among the consequences of this shift have been changes in the symbolic dimension of capitalism, with the proliferation of promotional discourses that construct meanings for new and variant commodities on offer throughout contemporary media. Another has been the intrusion of commercial relations into an increasing number of aspects of social life that were previously organised through redistributive and gift economies (Keat et al. 1994, 5). In a consumer society, more and more things are brought to the marketplace including experiential services, leisure and aesthetic practices, and commodities become inscribed with cultural meaning in becoming part of people’s lifestyles and life narratives (McCracken 1986). Iconic of such transformation is perhaps that tourism—a practice in which places are invested with meaning and through which people add heightened life experiences to their personal biography—became the world’s largest international trade around the turn of the millennium.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 In short, it is widely accepted among theorists of consumer culture that “the search for self-identity is a key determinant of postmodern consumption” (Elliot and Wattanasuwan) in an environment where goods and services are symbolically imbued not only with functional utility, but with the imagined power to transform consumers lives towards idealised states. Advertising often plays upon how a product supposedly fits with idealised identifications of persons and their lifestyles—products are presented as vehicles of self-realisation. According to T. J. Jackson Lears (2000) the idea that they are means to therapeutic outcomes for the consumer first became pervasive in the marketing cultures of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It can therefore be said that consumer culture shares a broad affinity with religion: a focus on representations of the good life and claims that practices (consumerist or religious) provide the key to unlocking it.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 In this vein, several scholars have made arguments proposing that, due to their affinities, consumption and religion may converge in certain ways. After empirical work in the English town of Kendal, Heelas and Woodhead (2005) suggest that a range of services and products available on the high street offer consumers sacred experiences or higher wellbeing values associated with spirituality. This is arguably one constituent of a ‘spiritual revolution’ in which religiosity is expressed in unexpected ways inimical to hierarchal religious authority, but consistent with the finding that many people today identify as spiritual and not religious (Fuller 2001). For Rittenshouse (2013) consumerism itself follows psycho-social patterns of religion in the sense that it addresses people’s urge to find ultimate fulfilment by channelling it into consuming the ‘sign value’ of commodities. The work of Richard Belk and collaborators has been particularly influential in establishing the idea that nominally ‘secular’ consumer behaviour can become sacralised. Adapting Bellah’s (1967) civil religion thesis—which identifies religious elements in secular domains that express higher values, such as nationalism—Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry (1989) argue that the ‘sacred’ so defined (and distinct from substantive concerns with deities and the supernatural) is also consumed through popular culture, tourism, the secular cathedral of the department store, cars, collecting and any other consumption that offers the possibility of self-transcendence or heightened experience. This tendency to attribute personal life meaning to commodities extends also to the ways people may follow some brands they share ‘values’ with in ways that resemble how they might commit to religions.

Marketing Christianity

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 However, it would certainly be misleading to conflate consumerism and religion entirely. The latter takes many forms and has multiple dimensions, and not all consumer activity is identical. Any affinities between religion and commercial realms should be read as a provocative starting point for inquiry. Surely at some level relationships between them must affect the forms of religious practices and discourses on the ground, but also how we think about religion. But how so? Ultimately theoretical work only gets us so far without empirical and analytical research.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 One of the main themes in recent work has been the adoption of marketing communications by Christian religious groups, which raises questions about how religious discourse might be shaped by the need to promote it.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 In a 1963 paper, Berger uses market metaphors to describe the promotional strategies of Christian denominations that sought members from a suburban U.S. population “that is highly mobile, highly literate, and highly selective in its patterns of consumption” (79). Such people could not be expected to have denominational loyalties as a matter of course. Hence, in attempting to recruit worshippers, denominations faced challenges similar to “those faced by organisations marketing more secular commodities” (83). In the absence of state funding, the need to recruit (and therefore promote) was integral to the survival of these organisations. Berger describes how, under these circumstances, co-operation and rivalry between denominations followed market dynamics. On the one hand, there were advantages in interdenominational co-operation (to the extent that some ‘mergers’ took place) and in ecumenism, which defined an established group of denominations that would appeal to a mainstream suburban constituency. Yet, on the other, and partly as a consequence of the product standardisation effects of co-operation, there was a need for each denomination to establish a unique profile that could be identified by consumers from this range of options (i.e. marginal differentiation of products took place). Each church sought to market a unique “denominational image” through their publicity (89).

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 In Selling God (1994), Moore stresses that “Religion in Western societies has always had commercial aspects” (255). Indeed, Luther was responding in part to the selling of indulgences which offered recipients remission from sin without the need for severe penance. However, this was a use of commerce to shore up monopoly power, something different from the commercialised contemporary US religious scene in which the first amendment ensures competition. It is this milieu that attracts much attention among scholars. While there are examples of collaborative promotion among mainstream groups such as the Alpha course (Hunt), much attention is now given to ‘branding’ different kinds of Christianity, that is defining what is unique about their ‘offer’ in a cluttered marketplace (Twitchell 2007, Einstein 2008).

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Choices can clearly be influenced by other parties, including providers. Indeed, this is the function of marketing. However, the very fact that consumers can make choices, however constrained, encourages those who promote commodities to acknowledge consumer agency, and attempt to ‘mobilise’ it by appealing to the criteria through which people may choose. In the world of marketing, this is done by forming symbolic connections between people’s hopes, interests and anxieties, however quotidian, and the putative features of products (Miller and Rose 1997, 30–31). Promotional discourses are often conversational and advisory, constructing the consumer as an individual who responds positively to a product’s convenience, applicability and usability in terms of their life, rather than someone who is commanded to accept something on terms other than those that are apparently their own (Fairclough 1994, 253–261).

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 This is particularly well borne out in the phenomenon on Christian megachurches that can be said to embed the gospel in a broader service that aims to persuade and satisfy on multiple levels. An ideal of contemporary marketing communications is that they are both omnipresent and seamless, i.e. they are active in any discourses where there is potential to mobilise consumers, but they are integrated with everyday life without marking themselves out. ‘Below-the-line’ techniques such as product placement, store design and relationship marketing seek to take promotion beyond the more obvious genres of advertising that clutter much media space. It is along these lines that megachurches build an integrated all-encompassing consumer experience. Stewart M. Hoover describes the efforts of U.S. Protestant megachurches to attract seekers through ‘pull’ marketing strategies, not only in the attempt to address “hungers and needs” not catered for by other religious providers (150), but also in adding the infrastructure of consumer convenience: good onsite parking, childcare, shops, coffee bars and other recreational facilities (152).

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 In his autoethnographic encounter with Southland Christian Church in Kentucky Battista (2010) identifies the subtle promotional hooks at every turn. Initially he is invited to an “after-tax dinner” that falls just after the deadline for IRS tax returns and is “designed to help you forget your IRS woes” (84). This is a much more savvy way to inform people than just describing religious content on offer. It turns out that it perfectly inserts the Southland brand into the lifeworlds of its target consumers. Hard-working, middle-class family members are offered a kind of therapy, laced with knowing humour, that makes them feel good about themselves as Christians and citizens who do their duty (paying to Caesar what is Caesar’s) while at another level ‘preferring’ to take the opportunity serve God offered by the Church. From this entry point Battista finds a chain of interrelated texts and experiences that constitute not just a series of persuasive messages but a deeper symbolic world. The traditional imagery of crosses and bibles is deemed inappropriate on the basis of market research, and the out-of-town site contrasts with the hemmed-in urban setting of mainline churches. Inside the church is a theatre for cultural amplification that generates numinous experiences, while the landscaped grounds create a bucolic sanctuary contrasted with urban degradation (a sanctuary that is literally out of reach to the working classes as no public transport serves the area). Ultimately, for Battista, the church is branded as a kind of religious country club that sacralises the escapist cultural fantasy of the literary pastoral and links it to the lifestyle aspirations of the congregation.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 For Einstein (2008), megachurches combine the evangelical impulse with the market imperative to grow the enterprise. Indeed, the largest US examples such as Lakewood and Willow Creek have congregations of twenty to thirty thousand. They are usually led by charismatic figures whose celebrity persona becomes part of the brand, enabling the creation of a range of products, from the educational courses to media channels and Christian entertainment products that all bear the entrepreneur’s imprimatur while further spreading the brand in a virtuous cycle of publicity. Hillsong probably best exemplifies the market potential of megachurches. Starting out as a small church in the Australian suburb of Baulkham Hills it overcame the limits of its original location, initially by creating services across Sydney. However, it has now become a global organisation driven by a scrupulous attention to user experience and networking combined with Christian rock, television and digital media produced by leading professionals at the highest production standards and to brand-conforming specifications. Economically the buzz of participation is buttressed by a best of both worlds approach to funding. Church goers are expected to tithe a portion of their income to the Church but are also encouraged to express their piety through purchase of Hillsong products.

The New Age

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 While megachurch participants consume allied Christian goods to express piety to a religion that still has membership-like dynamics, the New Age is often thought of as the quintessence of a contemporary spiritual marketplace. It presents a smorgasbord of spiritual belief and practice options derived from a wide range of cultural and religious traditions. According to Moore, New Age providers sell many practical techniques for self-improvement in “a market of intense product differentiation” (Moore 1994, 258). Distinctively, commodification is not an adjunct to traditional church or sect like religious activities. Rather participation is largely through literal purchase of goods and services (such as media, workshops and therapies) on a fee-for-access basis. This leads Bainbridge and Stark (1980) to suggest it comprises a patchwork of ‘audience cults’ and ‘client cults’ through which consumers interact with teachers by privately consuming their media and to therapists through buying services individually or in group settings such as workshops.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 New Age goods and services often blur the boundaries between sacred and secular. Metaphysical and supernatural claims concerning the holistic nature of the cosmos and the potential to reveal divine powers within the person are often linked to claims that tapping such powers allows one to improve outcomes in practical areas of one’s life, from health and better careers to achieving sacred sex. Authors, entrepreneurs, publishing houses, seminar and workshop convenors, therapists, editors and designers, innovate products designed to appeal to consumer markets in a range of areas of everyday life. As Kimberly Lau notes, with regard to aromatherapy, “The proliferation of spin-off fragrance therapies exemplifies the capitalist necessity to divide the product line as well as the body and mind and spirit into as many parts as possible to ensure a continually growing market and consumer base” (35).

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 If as Belk suggests, some consumer behaviour is now marked by pursuit of higher values and experiences to enrich the self, the New Age would seem to cater directly to such impulses. The personalist modes of evidence employed in New Age discourse—especially the use of personal testimonies and vignettes about transformed lives—serve to illustrate the potential use value of the kind of knowledge on offer, in terms of enhanced personal experience. In other words, it reproduces the common optimistic trope of commodity promotion: “Buy this product and change your life” (Rosen 1988, 270). Often allied with the promise of better outcomes in specific aspects of one’s life is the promise that such specific outcomes further enhance one’s ability to be a freely self-fashioning being. Hence, New Age discourse respects not only the agency of the participant, but also offers to help increase it. As Johannson (1994) puts it, “Reading New Age books, magazines and adverts is like wandering through a hall of mirrors where all the images of the true self compete in telling you that you are absolutely wonderful and omnipotent” (222).

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Such claims to be able to transform the self here and now also indicate transformed relations of religious authority. The ‘epistemological individualism’ of New Ageism has been widely noted as a core feature (). It is held that in their spiritual quest a person should have freedom to choose the tools, practices and beliefs that they believe will facilitate their own spiritual development. This is highly compatible with the contemporary ethos of promotion that Keat et. al. (1994) have named the ‘authority of the consumer’. This is a cultural stress on the rights of consumers to determine value. It arises because the relations of free market economy require that goods and services should satisfy consumers’ preferences, “be responsive to their demands” (2). Roy Wallis has shown that religious groups that rely upon commodification tend to appeal to a wide array of interests because of a shift in power towards consumers (1974, 306). The New Age consumer of ideas is in a literal position of having to select ‘what is right for them’ from a range of marketed alternatives. As Bruce puts it, “In the market for ideas, the individual New Ager maximises his or her returns by exercising free choice and synthesising his or her best orientation of preferences” (2000, 231). Self-spirituality (Heelas), the New Age discourse of subjective authority corresponds with the actual authority of participants to choose which goods and services they will buy on the basis of their personal preferences. The subjectivist value-relativism expressed by New Agers is one dimension of the discourse that is congruous with its marketisation (Hamilton 2000, 191). As Bruce puts it, “eclecticism requires an appropriate epistemology” (2000, 228).

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Along these lines, New Age commodity promotion could not be more different from attempts to ‘convert’ people to accept a single creedal orthodoxy, the absolute sovereignty of a religious figure, or universal moral standards dictating their way of life. Instead it more closely resembles the ‘mobilisation of the consumer’. New Age producers incorporate the authority of the user-consumer into their promotional language. They seek to persuade participants that they may personally benefit from the knowledge and practices that they offer as commodities, which cannot entail the same degree of reciprocal obligation as gifts, even if a certain level of ‘brand loyalty’ is sustained.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 This also ensures there is no singular or stable New Age ideology beyond the lingua franca of holism and sacralisation of the self that connects New Age options. For example, the ‘Gaian’ rhetorical strain is one of many that crosscut the milieu. In analysing the uptake of chaos theory metaphors in the movement, Nigel Thrift (1999) determines that “the New Age circuit depends upon a constant throughflow of ideas” (48). Even the star inspirational teachers of the movement, such as Louise Hay and Deepak Chopra, constantly reiterate their central messages of healing and awakening with ever-new slants, releasing branded clusters of books and tapes to tie in with their latest tours.

Making sense of religious markets

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 The diffuse character of the New Age means it appears far from what is traditionally considered religion. There is no obligation to follow any creedal orthodoxy or external authority. Instead one may combine elements from a range of traditions as one sees fit. This novel form has led some to see it as paradigmatic of favoured theories. For Bruce (2000) it is an enormous cafeteria of cultural products that illustrates how religiosity has been reduced to consumerism as a result of secularisation. For Possamai (2003) and Urban (2000) it is quintessentially postmodern religion that denotes the breakdown of tradition and the pursuit of personal gratification above capital T truth.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Such perspectives serve to remind us that once market or consumer dimensions are attributed to religions, questions of value are inevitably raised. Not only has the sacred previously been seen as a realm of higher transcendent value inimical to secular concerns including the economic, consumption in particular is often seen as something frivolous, as, in the words of Don Slater (1987), contrary to “all that is of lasting value in culture” (65). With regard to religion, the consumption-as-trivialising line of thought has influenced contemporary versions of the secularisation thesis. According to Wilson, commodification reduces the significance of religion to that of “pushpin, poetry, [and] popcorn” (qtd in Heelas 1994, 103).

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 Mackian (2012) gives an overview of ‘spiritual supermarket’ critiques that tend to suggest that commerce overrides authentic religious values, stressing hedonism, quick fix solutions and participants who are apparently manipulated by those seeking to make a buck. Carrette and King (2005) view spiritual commerce as a quiescence to the political status quo of mainstream neoliberal capitalism through sacralising its consumer roles and thus also as inimical to progressive religion that seeks social change. Heidi Marie Rimke (2000) argues that the particular style of guidance being offered presupposes “free” self-determining subjects putatively able to govern themselves. She argues that such models of personal responsibility ultimately “reproduce the social subject of liberal governance” (63) as they privilege liberal truths of choice, autonomy and freedom (62). Above all, they encourage the individual to take personal responsibility for creating a “productive self in private concerns” (72). Craig Martin has more recently extended such arguments to suggest the spiritual marketplace reproduces and sacralises a largely fictitious neoliberal message about the benefits of choice, enterprise and self-empowerment that was promoted by the likes of Ronald Reagan (to the actual benefit not of ordinary people but of economic elites who make the profits in capitalism). For Martin, commodified spirituality is the new opiate of the masses, who would actually be better off with government welfare than unrealistic myths of self-realisation.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 However, Makian’s interviews with contemporary spiritual seekers lead her to question whether commercial elements really override philosophical or sacred aspects that might underpin spiritual engagement. She finds that participants in the contemporary spirituality scene seek profound relationships with spirit that belie generalised assumptions that commerce dumbs religion down. Aupers and Houtman (2006) similarly argue that the New Age should not be reduced to it commercial dynamics, finding on the basis of interviews with teachers that seekers express profound holistic connection to others in search of universal wisdom inherent in the world’s spiritual traditions. As Douglas Ezzy (2001) points out in his study of the commodification of witchcraft, not all aspects of commodified religious activity are subordinated to a marketing rationale (41). Yet, on the other hand, surely the market is “not a neutral influence on contemporary religious practices” (43).

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 For those not already committed to strong theories that explain all marketisation in advance, such ambivalence is key. It suggests that patient empirical inquiry into the range of ways that religions may have commercial and economic aspects is needed to ground interpretations of their significance. Religions formations will always be complex and multidimensional, and new religious discourses will always combine elements that reject, accommodate and affirm aspects of the contemporary social milieux in which they arise (Dawson 2011: 312). For instance, neo-fundamentalisms, whether Hindu, Christian, Muslim or other certainly do not embrace religious pluralism. Far from it, they are often seen as part of ‘new visibility or religion’ in public spheres around the world whereby religion is linked to politics and social issues in ways that have little to do with ‘consumerism’. However, ironically, such religions of certainty may still be seen as “a growth area in the religious marketplace” precisely because their ‘offer’ is to solve pluralism and relativity in highly uncertain times (Hunt 129). Likewise religions that embrace aspects of consumerism may do so in quite selective ways. Neo-Pentecostalism may share discourses of evangelism and a focus on experience with mainstream megachurches, but its ‘prosperity theology’ is much more directed at the global poor than the comfortable middle classes (). And the significant contemporary field of Muslim marketing articulates specific questions about the relationship between Islam, the secular and modernity ().

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 Relationships between religion and commerce are studied in ever greater detail. This is to be welcomed, and scholars should ask a range of questions in the face of diverse, palpable expressions of their interconnection. How might commerce influence the ethics of religion? Does the profit motive displace other rationalities or help to advance them by expanding markets? If participants behave, at least in some respects, like consumers and religious organisations operate like or as businesses, how are a diversity of preferences catered for?

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 Where does the imperative to convert become the imperative to persuade along lines of marketing communications, or how are religious practices structured around expectations of ‘consumer satisfaction’? When and how might symbolic worlds conjoured up by religions operate like brands? While most work so far in the field has taken place within the sociology of religion, increasingly scholars in commercial disciplines such as marketing are examining such questions (see Rinallo et al 2013 and Usunier and Stolz 2014). If nothing else this suggests religious markets have arrived—in the sense that they are recognised by specialists in both religious and market activity. Given that their disciplines have formed around the sacred and worldly spheres respectively, increased border traffic between them in coming years will no doubt lead to interesting new terrain.


39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 Aupers, Stef, and Dick Houtman. 2006. “Beyond the spiritual supermarket: The social and public significance of new age spirituality.” Journal of contemporary religion. 21(2): 201–222.

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 Azzi, Corry, and Ronald Ehrenberg. 1975. “Household allocation of time and church attendance.” Journal of Political Economy 83(1): 27–56.

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 Bainbridge, William Sims, and Rodney Stark. 1980. “Client and audience cults in America.” Sociology of Religion 41(3): 199–214.

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 Battista, Andrew. 2010. “After the Garden is Gone: Megachurches, Pastoral, and Theologies of Consumption.” disClosure: A Journal of Social Theory 19(1): 83–96.

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 Belk, Russell W., Melanie Wallendorf, and John F. Sherry. 1989. “The sacred and the profane in consumer behavior: Theodicy on the odyssey.” Journal of consumer research 16(1): 1–38.

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 Bellah, Robert N. 1967. “Civil religion in America.” Daedalus 96(1): 1–21.

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 Berger, Peter L. 1963. “A Market Model for the Analysis of Ecumenity.” Social Research 30(2): 75–90.

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 Berger, Peter L. 1973. The Social Reality of Religion. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 Bruce, Steve. 2002. God Is Dead: Secularization in the West. Oxford: Blackwell.

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 Bruce, Steve. 2000. “The New Age and Secularisation.” In Beyond New Age: Exploring Alternative Spirituality, edited by Steven Sutcliffe and Marion Bowman, 220–236. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 Bruce, Steve. 2014. “Authority and freedom: Economics and secularization.” In Religions as brands: New perspectives on the marketization of religion and spirituality, edited by Jean-Claude Usunier and Jörg Stolz, 191–204. Aldershot: Ashgate.

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 Carrette, Jeremy R., and Richard King. 2005. Selling spirituality: The silent takeover of religion. New York: Psychology Press,.

51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 Dawson, Andrew. 2011. “Consuming the self: New spirituality as mystified consumption.” Social Compass, 58(3): 309–315.

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