Spirituality: The New Opiate of the People (Part I)

Wait wait wait, he said what?

Isn’t that supposed to read “religion is the opiate of the people?” After all that is what Marx said, right?

No, no it isn’t. Marx never wrote “religion is the opiate of the people.”

Here instead is the full quote from which Marx’s famous dictum has come to us moderns in its bastardized form:


“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.” (Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the Right)

So one can see Marx never wrote what he is attributed to have written. To note, something more accurate would be “Religion…is the opium of the people,” but when so often quoted by those who stick to the phrase as if it were a bumper sticker, those ellipses (which suggest something has been edited away) are rarely, if ever, present as is demonstrated in the image to the right. As a matter of fact, just google Marx and opium and look at the images yourself. None of the images referring to the quote use the ellipses. Such misrepresents Marx. The culprits are likely to be those who are against religion.

Marx was not necessarily against religion per se–he sees it as an illusion created by the rich to pacify the poor. Marx’s biggest issue is with economics and is, as such, a criticism of society–a society which he defines as heartless and spiritless. And he is, of course, talking about capitalism.

And yes, I meant what I wrote: spirituality is the new opiate of the masses and, as I will explore in this and future posts, has become another means by which elites pacify not only the poor and the oppressed, but the masses who feel alienated in this, our late modern society and, as such, serves to perpetuate the status quo–that which is maintained by neoliberal economic principles driving the desire to consume.

One hell of a cliche www.think-downloads.com
One hell of a cliche

Have you ever heard someone say (or perhaps you yourself have said), “I’m spiritual not religious”? I know I have and I have definitely saidit myself. Not for years have I considered myself either not because I am anti-religious or anti-spiritual, or anything of the sort. My distancing from such began when, having heard this from so many people and talking to them about it, I began to perceive a certain (and often unconscious) arrogance and pride behind the statement, as if being “religious” was somehow below those who are “spiritual.” I could almost see them scoff at the idea of the latter. And I am by no means innocent of such.

But the most significant development in my distancing from such, or letting go of such means of personal identity, came when I understood that “I’m spiritual not religious” is just another dualism. It’s just another social construction that, as such, his little bearing on reality. “Spiritual” is just another label.

And much like other kinds of labels, that which is “spiritual” comes with a hefty price tag.

Yes, “spirituality” has a shadow side, a looming shadow side , which must be acknowledge and what we might find, in exposing this shadow, is that the things we look for in our spiritualities and the things we think spirituality might give us might be found not in “being spiritual” but in letting go of it. By this I don’t mean some Buddhist type of non-attachment. Rather, as will be discussed in this series of posts, spirituality has become another tool to keep us alienated, to keep us feeling empty, that life is meaningless, and in order to fill ourselves and discover meaning, spirituality has been subject to a hostile takeover so that we may continue to isolate ourselves in our private consumptions.

Plan of Action

This series will progress by a number of steps. In the remainder of this post I will briefly consider the history of spirituality. This will be followed by future posts concerning a) how the psychologization of the Western self paved the way for modern spirituality, and b) the politics of spirituality. The next post will focus on the usurpation of non-Western religious traditions. Last but not least, I will discuss the economic interests underlying spirituality.

Now just to be transparent, most of this series is my assessment of a book titled Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion by Jeremy Carrette and Richard King. That being said, I have no personal stake or interest in this book. It is, I feel, a very important book that should be read as it is a poignant indictment of the Big Business takeover of things religious/spiritual and thus explores how “being spiritual,” despite maybe our best intentions, serves to perpetuate such.

That being said, a disclaimer before I proceed. This and the following series of posts is not intended as a criticism of those who consider themselves “spiritual” nor those who engage in “spiritual” practices. As Marx understood religion to be the “sigh of the oppressed,” spirituality here is understood as a such a sigh. The trouble is, we who sigh will continue to sigh and continue to sigh as long as the corporate world (that which sells us our spirituality) continues to manipulate us with its invisible hands.


A Brief History of Spirituality

How can a history of spirituality be brief?

The answer to the question is nested in a different question: What do we mean by “spirituality?”

The trouble with that question is that there is no answer. “Spirituality” means many things to many people. It is an amorphous word, a vagueness which, as I will discuss in future posts, makes it ripe for capitalist exploitation for its very shapelessness is precisely what market interests in the term rely upon, as, being “able to carry multiple meanings without any precision…it can operate across different social and interest groups and in capitalist terms, functions to establish a market niche” (31).


Today, “spirituality” is most typically defined in general terms and is often, as expressed above, used to juxtapose “religion,” an equally vague term. On the modern, white-washed usages of the term, Wade Clarke Roof and Lyn Gesch, authors of “Boomers and the Culture of Choice” from Work, Family and Religion in Contemporary America (Routledge 1995) write:

To be religious conveys an institutional connotation, prescribed rituals, and established ways of believing; to be spiritual is more personal, experiential, and has to do with the deepest motivations of life for meaning and wholeness. The first is “official” religion, standardized, and handed down by religious authorities; the second is “unofficial”, highly individualistic, religion “a la carte” (qtd in Carrette and King 31-32).

“Spirituality” is cool. It is in vogue.  Yet another trend, yet another fad–the “‘brand-label’ for the search for meaning, values, transcendence, hope and connectedness in ‘advanced capitalist’ societies” (32).

Of course “spirit” has a long history within religious domain. The word comes from the Latin spiritualitas, which is itself derived from the noun spiritus, meaning “the breath of life.” Within the Western traditions, one finds similar terms in the Greek pneuma and the Hebew ruah, both of which meant “breath” and “air” in addition to spirit. When it comes to meaning, meaning that was once defined as “spiritual” (as in spiritual meaning) referred to “the timeless realm of the Holy Spirit” (35). Today spiritual meaning has become “instead ‘the inner personal meaning’ for the individual, and ‘spirituality’ becomes associated with an ‘inner personal self'” (35).

How? How did the spiritual move from the realm of the Holy Spirit, that is, God, to this inner personal self (whatever that means)?

We find the answer closer to our modern times. Specifically, the English “spirituality” is derived from the French spiritualite, a word that emerged in the 17th century when it “signified the devout or contemplative life in general” (37). The timing of the emergence of the term is of course significant in that its coming into usage post-Reformation “with its emphasis upon the individual’s unmediated relationship to God and the importance of an interior faith” (37). This move in turn “allowed the first steps toward the privatization of religion to occur” (37). Seventetth century France, in turn, saw a “new sensibility began to emerge which specifically associated spiritualite with the interior life of the individual soul” (37).


Such trends toward the interior would  play a critical part in the late 19th century emergence of psychology as a discipline, thus opening the “way for locating ‘spirituality’ within the individual self” (39).  This cultural shift toward interiorization and privatization is, in part, contingent upon the Western conception of personhood as redefined by Enlightenment thinking: the individual.

 The modern emphasis on the autonomous individual and the definition of society as an amalgamation of distinct (and separate) individuals is to the detriment of the social dimensions of life and their attendant political realities. The interior toward which spirituality is directed–the spirituality with which one hopes to achieve meaning, connectedness, values, etc–has “itself contributed to a new cultural malaise–the loneliness and isolation of contemporary individualism” (42). That’s one hell of a Catch-22. In other the lonely, alienated individual might turn toward spirituality to find meaning and in doing so perpetuate the very experience he/she seeks to overcome.


Carrette and King locate the next “phase” in this development of spirituality in the 1980s market deregulations and the rise of neoliberalism which allowed for the commodification of  cultural forms. When it comes to the religious/spiritual domain, eastern traditions, namely Hindu and Buddhist had already become popular in the West. With the shift in global economics, the market “was able to dictate the cultural and political agenda and take over the processes of socialization” that had been “traditionally carried out by religious and state institutions” (44-5). What had been a “consumer-led” spirituality, “which emphasized the individual’s freedom to choose his or her own pathway in life (the bedrock of modern liberalism)” shifted toward a “‘corporate-led’ consumerism that subordinates the interests of the individual to consumerist ideology and the demands of the business world (neoliberalism)” (45 emphasis added).

As such “‘spirituality’ is not only a new form of socialisation but also becomes a new means of thought-control, carried into ever-wider spheres of life for a new generation of innocent consumers” (45)  to the point that (and here I will end the current post and let the text speak for itself):

In this context consumerism is no longer presented as a challenge to traditional religious sensibilities, because you can now buy it wholesale and ignore the corporate links to poverty and social injustice. As long as you feel good and are able to embrace your own private spiritual world you are assured of a place in the nirvana or heaven of corporate capitalism. You can buy your way to happiness with your very own spirituality, cut off from all the suffering and ills of the world…Spirituality has arrived in the corporate marketplace and all that is required is a desire to consume.” (53)

Read On: Spirituality: The New Opiate of the People (Part IIA)

5 thoughts on “Spirituality: The New Opiate of the People (Part I)

  1. James Hillman said, “Do you see the complete harmony between central dictatorship, fascism, political callousness, and the self-centeredness of the spiritual point of view?”
    This movement towards “spirituality,” is nothing more than another manifestation of the Protestantism that has heavily influenced cultures, particularly Western cultures for centuries. Max Weber wrote about this as well. I know I am speaking in broad generalities, I just dont want to reiterate what you have written in different words. Nice post thanks.


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