Spirituality: The New Opiate of the People (Pt. IIA)


In the first of this four-post series, collectively titled “Spirituality: The New Opiate of the People,” I wrote on the history of spirituality, focusing mainly on the usage of this vague term and discussing how, in our late modern society, such vagueness made ripe the capitalist usurpation of the “spiritual.” As stated in my plan of action, the second post in this series will consider how the discipline of psychology helped pave the way for modern spirituality and the politicization of the spiritual.

Again, as cited in the previous post, this (and the posts that follow) are based on Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion.

While the aforementioned authors delve into a lengthy discussion regarding the “psychologization of the western world,” I shall not proceed through each and every argument. Rather, while proceeding carefully, I will try my best to provide a summation of said discussion as relates to the primary topic of this series. And so as not to burden you, dear reader, with an overly lengthy post, I will compose this piece (which is treated as a whole) in two parts.


Tracing the birth of psychology to the late 19th century, Carrette and King state there “has been a slow process of ‘psychologzing’ human experience in the West” (58). Such disciplines would then “claim authority over previous models of being human” or the self, which, prior to the development of psychology, was “shaped by the philosophical imagination and (what we now call) ‘religious’ models of introspection. These allowed for more open-ended and fluid ideas about the self, due to the fact that identity was grounded in a divine reality or a social group” (58). Such implies that with the development of psychology, these “ideas of the self” are less fluid, less dynamic and, with the increasing privatization of experience, less open-ended, less grounded in a social group (let alone a divine reality). We are, so our culture tells us “self-made” men and women. Furthermore, one only need consider the DSM-V, the “bible” for mental health, that all which is deemed “abnormal” are proposed deviations from some established norm. For a norm to be established as such requires something of a sense of self/identity that is stable enough to a) be defined as the norm and b) the paradigm from which all else, these deviations, are judged.

In essence, the “psychological paradigm has become so naturalized–such a part of our everyday ‘common sense’–that it has established the basic conditions for thinking about modern subjectivity itself” (59).  So what does the modern western self look like?

“Western forms of the self constantly inscribe the language of private self and private possessions and actively subvert awareness of relational and social identity. Psychology carries this private and individualized self into its methods…It seeks to calculate and mark out a self for social ordering, production and consumption” (59).

In other words, the western conception of self not only pacifies us and keeps us warm in our personal cocoons, its very construction keeps us cogs in the great machine that is modern capitalist society.

Perhaps more disturbing, is that, according to the authors, “Psychology was eventually adopted as the central ideology of western institutions, particularly welfare, educational and medical systems, and became a naturalised framework alongside political and economic forces in shaping the contemporary western world (and by extension elsewhere” and “in their attempt to govern mass urban populations an effective system of ordering populations had to be established. The irony was that populations were ordered not through outward signs of mass crowd control but through more detailed analysis of the human being, a hidden form of mass control” (60).


The question then becomes whether or not “classifications of psychology are neutral rather than political or social creations” (61). Think just for a moment of normal and abnormal. Who defines what is normal and abnormal? And what criteria is employed to make such claims?

With all its science, all its quantifications, and calculations psychology has been utilized to, for lack of a better term, feed the beast: “According to capitalist ideology, if human beings can be measured and organized sufficiently then society will be transformed into an efficient mode of operation” (62). The language here is clear. Society as a well oiled machine and we the people, again, the cogs to make it work and it follows that “the efficient functioning of human beings would allow greater production and greater consumption and healthy ‘individuals’ would be manipulated to affirm their identity as a private, isolated self through the desire to consume” (62). How so? “Psychological knowledge provided the structure for an economic order based upon the creation and promotion of individual desires” (62).

Just watch any commercial closely. What/who are such ads appealing to? It goes deeper than just a certain population: white, African-American, twenty-somethings, etc. Advertisements play upon our very sense of identity, carefully constructed, carefully identified, and so subtly manipulated to the point that we may (and are probably not) even aware of the appeal to a sense of self, which is nothing but a construct.

Now all of this is not to say that psychological theories of the self remain ultimately the same. Rather, they mirror the overall political climate. Cognitive psychology, for example, “mirrors the growing importance of information technology and the uniformity of global finance-based capitalism” as the “desire to know and control the human being results in ever-new ways of mapping the interior sense of the self for social and political utility” (65).

As a brief aside, the cultural mythologist in me wants to segue into this notion of control. James Hillman, father of archetypal psychology, understands the term “control” (from contra rollus, against the roll) in relation to Dionysus, who is defined by another scholar within the tradition of depth psychology, Christine Downing, as the zoe, the life force. Control, as it were, is that which goes against this life-force. Hillman understands modern society to be primarily Apollonian. In the great Dionysus-Apollo dialectic, it is Dionysus who obliterates boundaries; it is Apollo who makes them.


Returning to the topic then, we can understand the discipline of modern psychology as discussed by Carrette and King as primarily Apollonian, for such a framework is necessary for the measurement and classification necessary for the “mapping…of the self for social and political utility” (65). Such framework allow, then, for political and capitalist agenda makers to zero-in on a targeted audience.

Before breaking away and coming to a close, it should be no surprise that “psychology…ventured into the territory of religion as it sought to psychologize all aspects of life (and death)” (65). Such has provided the avenue by which the “spirit of capitalism” has found inroads into religious discourses, the key to which “can be found in the construction of the modern idea of spirituality” (65).

With the privatization of religion (as introduced in the first post) the ground was set for capitalist appropriation with the aid of psychology: “psychological knowledge appropriated religious ideas for the services of the social-political institutions” and “established a form of thought-control by turning religious discourse into private and individualized constructions, which pacified the social, and potentially revolutionary, aspects of religion” (66).

So yes, we might say Marx was right, in a sense: religion is an opiate of the people. But religion need not function primarily as such. One only need look at Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed, Hindu renouncers, Lao-Tzu to see, quite clearly, the revolutionary component of religion. Marx was correct in saying that religion was used by those in power to pacify those at the bottom. Religion today rarely engenders a revolutionary spirit.


“Under the terms set by political liberalism, religion could exist in the modern secular state so long as it was pushed safely into the private sphere” (66-7, emphasis added). I add the emphasis because in pushing religion (and hence, the spiritual) into the private sphere, the revolutionary qualities of religion have no place. After all, how could it if religion is inherently a private, and thus not social, matter? The authors continue: “One way to achieve this is by containing it (religion) within psychological registers of meaning that would thereby limit the possibilities of its threats to ruling elites” (67).


“Psychology distilled the social revolutionary aspects of religion to form a privatized religion rendered amenable to the demands of neoliberal ideology” (67). Psychology’s coup d’etat on religion, nicely repackaged as the spiritual, has done so “on behalf of its political and economic partners”  (68).

To end, I quote at length, for what follows offers much food for thought. So take the time to chew on it if you care to do so and I will continue this discussion in a future post.

“The tragic side of this process is that those who uphold the virtues of a private spirituality believe that it represents the salvaging of an ethical and transcendent dimension in a materialist and rationalist culture gone mad. In reality, however, such privatized spiritualities operate as a form of thought-control that supports the ideology of late capitalism. ‘Spirituality’ is the conceptual space that suggests the promotion of wholesome ethical values, but only by perpetuating a form of ethical myopia that turns our attention away from social injustice. It does this by turning the social ethic of religion into a private reality for self-comfort and self-consumption” (68).

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

4 thoughts on “Spirituality: The New Opiate of the People (Pt. IIA)

  1. Enjoyed this. I haven’t read you previous posts on this yet. Self based, private spirituality, or modern day Gnosticism – it’s infiltrated all ‘religions’ – undermining all ‘rules and regulations’ – the great human ego used to supposedly speak ‘truth’ (but only as each individual ‘knows’ it)

    Maybe this is part of the Age of Aquarius…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Perhaps you are right, though as far as I understand, there is no overall agreement when this Age begins, or if it already began. Tricky thing astrology. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment Avalina (don’t get too many of such on these kinds of posts) 🙂


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