It has been awhile since I have been able to sit down and have the time to return to my series of posts and, having woken up early enough on a Saturday morning, I shall proceed with where I left off last time when I had to cut part II of my series “Spirituality: The New Opiate of the People” in half.
In that post I discussed the movement toward the psychologization of religion engenders support of late capitalist ideologies. Continuing fro, coupled with psychology, m where I left off, the current post will concern the further privatization of religion and spirituality.
Psychology’s engagement with religion during the late 19th and 20th centuries followed the long trajectory in the privatization of religion and “the reconfiguration of the religion in terms of he private, psychological self” (Carrette and King 68). While “unwitting in some cases, intentional in others, this move would play “into the hands of a neoliberal ideology of religion. It has removed the social dimension of religion and created a spirituality of the self–the consuming self” (68). Furthermore, the location of religious experience in the private self set the private self over and above a relational self.
In detailing this development Carrette and King cite the work of William James with his Varieties of Religious Experience, the development of humanistic psychology, and Abraham Maslow’s “peak experience” as being of utmost influence and while I will not burden you, reader, with a systematic exploration of their arguments, I will proceed in short.
The authors define James as “the originator of modern conceptions of spirituality” who “openly acknowledged that he ignored the social dimensions of religion and gave priority to states of mind and inner feelings” (70). While not to be “held responsible for the utilization of his thinking, the approach he adopted was captured by later generations enjoying the benefits of free-market spirituality, which celebrated the individual” (70).
After James came the development of humanistic psychology in America which would have “the greatest impact in forging the modern, privatized sense of spirituality” (72) as the attraction toward humanistic psychology is “partially explained by its continuity with significant strands of individualism that have characterized American history” (Browning qtd. in Carrette and King 72). As an outgrowth of humanistic psychology, transpersonal psychology would then “complete the cycle of turning religion into a consumer product of the self shaping a spirituality for the market” whereby “spirituality is now a private, psychological event that refers to a whole range of experiences floating on the boundary of religious traditions” (72-3). The irony is that “while transpersonal psychology seeks to go ‘beyond ego’ it still reinforces the private state of consciousness and often uncritically reflects the values of individualism rather than the wider social domain”–beyond ego, that is (73). Such internalization precludes a challenge to social injustice, inequality, etc. In other words, it functions as an opiate that gives no room to the (formerly) revolutionary impact of religion and provides yet “another avenue for inventing the self in capitalist society” (73).
Last but not least there is Abraham Maslow and his “peak experiences” which “did more for ‘New Age’ spirituality and their
capitalization than most psychological theories” (75). While neither the time nor the place to go into what such experiences are, suffice it to say that he “created a new terminology for ‘religious experience,’ which effectively divorced it from ‘religious tradition:'” terms like “self-actualization,” “Being-cognition,” and “peak-experience” (75). His was a “feel-good” psychology in which he emphasized one should think of the most wonderful experiences, the happiest moments, moments of rapture. His personal growth psychology aimed at the “realization of love and self-esteem, but much of this echoed the privileges of a wealthy culture, and his famous ‘hierarchy of needs’ (see image to right) was more of a hierarchy of ‘capitalist want'” (76).
Here is Maslow himself: “From the point of view of the peak-experiencer, each person has his own private religion, which he develops out of his own private revelations in which are revealed to him his own private myths and symbols, rituals and ceremonials, which may be of the profoundest meaning to him personally and yet…of no meaning to anyone else…Each ‘peaker’ discovers, develops, and retains his own religion” (qtd. in Carrette and King 76-7). As such, Maslow “extrapolated the insights of religious traditions and reworked them into psychological ideas” and after him, “spirituality became the new addiction of the educated, white middle classes, something that showed a rejection of the abuses associated with religion but which celebrated freedom and individual expression” (77 emphasis added).
And that addiction then, which the authors term the “new cultural prozac” is aimed at bringing transitory feelings of well-being but never addresses the “underlying problem of social isolation and injustice” and in an “environment where many experience a lack of meaning in their lives, spirituality offers a cultural sedative providing individual rapture” (77). But as all addictions are masks for something, the addiction to this privatized religion is nothing short of a mask that serves to exacerbate “the problems of meaning associated with materialism and individualism” (77). In other words, many people feel a lack of meaning in their lives and this lack is, in part, due to the highlighting and emphasizing of the individual in modern society; as such, to feel better and maybe garner a sense of meaning, people may turn to spirituality, not recognizing that spirituality too, feeds off the very same notion of said private individual. And so the dog will continue to chase its tail.
Moving forward, this new religion of the self became effective in that corresponds nicely “to the free market of individual choice” (79) as our political and economic structures “allow private forms of spirituality to integrate with consumerism” (79).The media bombards us with images of private spirituality, thus promoting the notion that individual meaning can be both purchased and consumed, which in turn “reinforces the sense that spirituality is indeed private and individualistic” and thus the “alienated masses start to worship at the altar of capitalism” (79).
The system goes round, further alienating “people from each other and from moral responsibility for the collective good” (81). After all, if religion is private and all experience is ultimately private, then why should I give two shits about the other? To overcome the “alienating practices of psychologized spirituality, it is necessary to challenge the boundaries between self and other and to recognize the importance of interdependence” (81).
Call me a pessimist in these regards for I think we are screwed. Ours is a late capitalist society, a society as which operates
“upon the mechanisms of isolation.” Oftentimes people feel empty and alone. So what do we do? We buy shit we think will make us feel better, for consumerism promises to fill the very same vacuum it creates. But do the things we buy ultimately satisfy us? No and “in such a situation, salvation through the spirituality market covertly provides new resources for sustaining the materialistic culture that they are ostensibly to resist” and capitalist spirituality “only increases private consumer addiction” (83). As the title of this series suggests, “capitalist spirituality is the psychological sedative for a culture that is in the process of rejecting the values of community and social justice” (83).
So long as we buy into ideology, day by day we continue to feed the beast.
We emphasize the individual. Let us not forget that in the eyes of the law, corporations–those wealth generating machines–are defined as individuals. Much as we as a people continue to value the individual and pursue individual wealth community is devalued and we will continue to pursue wealth above social justice. As such, a “‘spirituality’ that is separate from questions of social justice is a sedative for coping with an oppressive and difficult world” (85).