Commodified selves and religions

Ever wondered what happened to our spiritual sense? Well, the Aberdeen University course of Religion and Culture (SO4058) does make you think about it quite a bit. I’m choosing not to change too much for this work because any strong alteration might alter the meaning and core idea within the explanation. The problem is whether religion became an item on supermarkets shelves. Meaning, do we genuinely consume religion? Did we somehow brand religion and refer to it as we do to Nike, Apple, or Vodafone? Do we choose to believe in some part of a religion because it matches with our values? But what about the people who shape their values on those of the religion they partake to? In a sense, we are now looking at a perfectly arranged chaos, that is our society, thus the following chapters will attempt to show one paradox of religion today.

Introduction

To begin with, because there is a fairly clear-cut between the social significance of religion, religion as such, the amount of people who take religion seriously, and how seriously everyone takes it (Bruce, 2002: 3), because religion is a sensitive subject and understood in various ways by various people/societies, an attempt to define it for this essay is required. Durkheim (2001: 25) calls it a system of ideas and practices. He argues (2001) that “the Gods also need man; without their offerings and sacrifices, they would die”. Therefore, religion “is the determination of human life by the feeling of a bond uniting the human mind to the mysterious mind…” (Reville, 1881: 34) and it aims to express not what is exceptional, but what is constant and regular (Durkheim, 2001: 30). Thus, religion is an indefinite (supernatural, mysterious, etc.) defining the lives of billions of people. Religion promoted the idea that someone/something is watching and eventually caring for you, but also requires people to behave in an exact standard. It is scheduling people’s lives by giving a course of doctrines and indoctrination of rituals. It also opens a door for misunderstandings when the different beliefs come in contact with each other and this can go to an extent of killing ‘in the name of God’. For example, in Hinduism there is no prohibition on killing, saying that “may be inevitable and necessary” (W. Menski, 2007: 5).

This essay does not intend to reveal the truth of religions, nor their exact history, as there might not even be one. But it is relevant to mention and motivate why this work is written from the perspective that religion is internally sourced (human-made). If we assume that religion is man-made, religious indoctrinations would be sourced within humanity, which only suggests a phenomenon of self-teaching. Although, if the negatives (the wars, the sacrifices at any level, the indoctrination and ignorance, etc.) are taken into consideration, morality is easily questioned. Therefore, religion as man-made is a sensitive topic and as much morality as is taught (to be human/humane), various arguments and violent acts happened because of the same teachings – the issue is the difference in practice and understanding/misunderstanding. If a one and only religion would govern the world, then it could be argued that there is a holy truth, but the multitude of beliefs and differences in ‘requirements’ highly suggests that societies themselves created these systems. If we assume that religion would not be man-made, then it means it is God-made/Gods-made, etc. How would so many Gods (the different religions and mystical ‘beings’) create a single world and if they did, why don’t we all believe in the same multitude, why do we split beliefs so much?

All in all, the following chapters intend to explain what the world we live in looks like, how ourselves as individuals evolved by the affect of consumerism and what is left from the traditional way of religious practices and beliefs.

 

Cultural hybridisation

 Harvey (1989: 240-154) argues that in postmodern societies, space was understood as concrete locations: for most individuals the risk because of war at that time was too high, thus people preferred to remain in their fixed locations. Moreover, until the 1850s, the movement of both goods and people was extremely slow, unreliable, and highly expensive, but with the afterwards rapid development of vessels (super-freighters), the exchange became affordable from all perspectives. Therefore, one could argue, globalisation was starting to show right after the mid-twentieth century. A modern nation-state system can also be dated around the 17th Century. That began the political aspect of globalisation. This is highly relevant because it lays the path for consumerism, for a world of trades of any kind (goods, services, and people). But taking a closer look at the societies today, it can be fairly argued that the world is by far homogenous or ruled by a singular standard. The world today is rather a hybridisation of businesses, politics, economies, and culture. The phenomenon that takes place is glocalisation. Roland Robertson (1997) claims that “[glocalisation] means the simultaneity – the co-presence – of both universalising and particularising tendencies”. This raised an interdependence between countries and challenges multiculturalism. Moreover, it spreads rationalisation, that is the process of organising life by instrumental considerations, is what Weber in quoting Schiller calls “the disenchantment of the world” (Bruce, 1996: 181).

Another factor into glocalisation is that communities lost structure through the ease of movement and thus mobility created the “anonymous world of the city” (Bruce, 1996: 182). The concept of Diasporas shall be introduced here as well, “[People] constitute a diaspora if they … come to share a common fate with their own people, wherever they happen to be” (Cohen and Kennedy, 2007: 55), referring to a group of people that ‘come together’ based on their nation, no matter where they moved in the world. This is, by Bauman’s three-steps of modern migration, the current and full flow of gathering, which raises issues within the ‘unbreakable’ bond between identity and nationality, the individual and his/her physical proximity and cultural identity (2011: 35-6). Although Sachs (1992: 102) claims that “[a] global monoculture spreads like an oil slick over the entire planet’”, these groups do not live self-sourcing, they integrate within the welcoming society and slowly become a part of it. “For the first time”, Bauman argues (2011: 36), “the ‘art of living together’ has become an everyday problem”. Thus, Rowe and Schelling’s hybridisation definition is accurate and includes the core of the phenomena: “the ways in which forms become separated from existing practices and recombine with new forms in new practices” (1991: 231).

This century is hosting a world of glocalised, hybrid cultures where individuals are free to choose the traditions they follow by either keeping their nationalities or adopting or mixing them. Because of the given freedom through laws and separations between the churches and states, the same liberty of hybridisation exists within religious beliefs.

The New Age for a hybrid world

 More and more people declare themselves Christian but, if asked, have beliefs such as the horoscope or Feng-shui. This gives a connection with the pick’n’mix approach within a spiritual supermarket (Lyon, 2000: 74). Consumerism (religious or otherwise) has become a cognitive and moral focus through systematic management (Lyon, 2000: 79). The constant interaction between individuals of different backgrounds (political views, religious beliefs, behaviour standard) combined with the mass consumption phenomenon that occurs and strengthens on a daily basis, makes possible the creation of hybrid societies. It creates new forms of behaviour standards, much more complex political perspectives and acts (a decision no longer affects that one country), and last but not least complex religious beliefs. Specifically, both the aforementioned anonymous city and rationalisation gave way to the emergence of new religion (Bruce, 1996: 182).

The individuals of today constantly “try on” new experiences (clothes, items, services, beliefs), trying to construct their selves distinct from others, yet seeking approval from the relevant lifestyle and symbolic membership (Lyon, 2000: 79). And that is what new religious movements are designed for. To ‘make us happy’, to support us in fulfilling our human potential, “a sense of well-being has become the end, rather than a by-product of striving after some superior communal end” (Rieff, 1973: 224). A lot of people claim some conventional religious position, but most of them add to it different other elements. For some people, it may be only an entertaining an idea, while for some it can escalate to a new sense of belief in a personalised religion (Bruce, 1996: 201). Therefore, as supposed earlier, beliefs today can be ‘picked up from a supermarket’. The New Age Beliefs and Practices are an important supply for this ‘supermarket’. Fewer and fewer people adopt traditional religions, i.e. fully Christian dogma, therefore most individuals, as argued, make use of the multitude of information and chose to believe what better suits them.

The New Age became popular within the 1980s. It is focused on ‘self-discovery’, ‘spiritual growth’, and ‘enlightenment’, the latter having the meaning of ‘reaching light’ and not the scientific beginning. Its roots are in Buddhism and Hinduism which have recently been Westernised; new agers vocabulary include ‘God’ and ‘Universe’, but ‘cosmic consciousness’ and ‘cosmic mind’ mostly, because when they state ‘God’ they refer to ‘Force’, ‘Energy’, and do not use the biblical sense. The new age exists via media such as newspapers, magazines, CDs (cassettes), and ‘lectures’. Considering, spirituality abandoned the idea of a main Holy Book (such as The Bible, The Koran, or others) and spreads itself around various sources. New-age-spirituality.com (2015) quotes “New Age Spirituality steps in to fulfil the need of something … that the material world alone cannot offer”, but it is sociologically interesting how it survives through beliefs in mostly the supernatural in an era of scientific research and proof. It has become popular in the West even if its roots are in eastern religions because, as the western popularity reached modernity, it commenced to search for ‘ultimate answers about life’. Because the material world looked discouraging after two world wars and the atomic bomb, people looked for faith in the spiritual realm. Moreover, due to the same reason and because the church was rigid, individuals looked for freedom, freedom which was given through the idea that the soul lives more lives, that the spirit is what matters, that there are a thousand possibilities, and no one can be wrong. But this is not the sole ‘attraction’ for the pick’n’mix practitioners, simple living with people of different cultures, thus different beliefs have an impact on an individual’s behaviour. Becoming co-workers of friends with people of various background, individuals come in contact with different perspectives on the world as well and involuntarily think about and perhaps adopt some points of view.

In this times of the 21st Century, it is impossible to argue that ‘doing something’ would be wrong, the society adopted the New Age’s idea of ‘I have my truth you have yours and we can both be right’, but that has a limit when put under analysis. Being so eager to express themselves in such a high consumerist society with so many options, it can be argued that people adopt false pretences and practices.

 The self

 Aforementioned interactions and attention to how one behaves within a multicultural place make people put a great emphasis on symbolism. Symbolism is all that our consumerist culture is reduced to. What car, is it cheap or expensive, is it sports car or family built? What smartphones one owns? Why that brand of smartphones? The clothes that people wear tell part of their personality as we dress to express (and impress, but impress by expressing ourselves most of the times), etc. All that our society interacts with is a symbol of and for something. It is highly relevant to mention that these symbols are tools to show what an individual is supposed to be within a specific environment. This need and requirement of expression are why symbols in the 21st Century are the core of existence. Brands are creating their identity which then the consumer adopts by purchasing into it. When one wears a brand or drives specific cars, some values are shown, those of the brand. Buying into Volvo (advertised as the safest car) gives a sense of responsibility, a precautious individual. Buying into Innocent (UK juice company) shows health-oriented thinking, an individual who values the natural, fair-trade and the organic production.

Trying so hard to choose the ‘right’ value to express in a certain situation, or being asked to show a certain value in a situation, people become the actors of their own life. Symbols are shaping societies and actions rather than individuals making symbols out of and for a specific action. People constantly check in and out of situations, verifying their behaviour and regulating their actual way of being in order to satisfy the community they are in. This is the complexity of selves and made up minds which will be explained in the following paragraph. The connection between this constructed self and religion as a commodity in the 21st Century are intense.

Individuals have, as Goffman (1959) argued, multiple selves on the stage of the society and within his/her own existence. He talks about a backstage of lives, where individuals are considering, building, and analysing themselves, and different social situations (stages) where they act themselves. Moreover, the social circumstances and reactions help the backstage process of analysis and construction of one’s self, what today marketers call reference groups (e.g. rockers refer to rockers’ groups). The individual is a “shadowy chooser” (Douglas, 1977: 63) who runs through situations and ‘tries on’ self-presentations from a variety of complex roles. Individuals commonly know they cannot just decide what to be (Douglas, 1977: 65), but that they have to be in constant check with the reactions they receive and re-choose themselves on a constant basis. People have to accommodate their selves to multiple realities where they have to act different roles.

Following with the consumerist society, it becomes easier and easier to play different roles as there are many more tools available, but in the same time, within this globalised hybrid world, the roles become more and more complex as well. The multiplicity of one’s self has become unavoidable and socially required (e.g. business behaviour, family behaviour, types of friendships behaviour, etc.), with more and more rules for actions and rules of thinking. Issues such as racism, sexism, discrimination, etc. are heavily fought against and deeply asked of people to think in specific ways towards them. Opinions, to some extent, are ready-made and sent to individuals to adopt. The self in the 21st Century is complex, continuously tempered with, and never fully accomplished. Today there is a need for multiple plays and constant checking to what is newly asked in terms of behaviour. The ‘easy’ existence in one form is long passed. Societies today are made by multiple various selves that are built up, used, changed, and abandoned (‘make-over’ is a state where someone drastically changes in behaviour and thinking and ‘becomes a new person’).

One could argue there is a spread of plastic selves for the exact reason that individuals are taking on so many roles and are adapting them so fast that they (the individuals) get lost between multiple personalities (no reference to the disorder). Even if one claims that his/her true self is, for example, with their close family, say, husband/wife, it can be argued that it is still a play, a deeper and longer living role, yes, but a role. These plastic selves do not mean ‘fake’ in the sense of untrue or not believed in, they mean, just as dolls, movable and changeable commodities. This play of selves is active at an emotional and spiritual level as well. One cannot argue contrary to the fact that one’s self is emotive and of spirit, thus an easy transfer to another spiritual realm is quite fast. That said, religion is emotive (subjective, sensitive, emotional) and of spirit as well, shaping and being shaped by one’s personality. Yet we did establish that the personality of one’s self is unrealistic, as there are multiple versions of one’s self.

A short conclusion to all that is mentioned in the last chapters is quite required. The idea at this point through the work is that religion is man-made (the perspective of the essay) and individuals have multiple selves (roles) which implies multiple ways of thinking, thus religion itself is adaptable to the multiple selves, which is showed and helped out by the New Age Movements.

 Commodified selves and religions

To some extent, because of the extreme practices of consumerism, people are taught to buy, sell, express themselves via possessions, any that would be, and through other people, that is friends, partners, and groups. Aforementioned are the reasons and outcomes concerning gadgets representing ourselves and clothes showing ‘who one is’, which, if taken as seem through societies, do result into the fact that the selves themselves are commodities, changeable when needed or wished. The relevance of all to religion should have now taken shape.

Individuals create themselves to fit into different boxes that they are supposed to or want to fit, and while the level of freedom is lifted, religion has indeed become a voluntary box. It became one reference group, a choice coming from identification with the beliefs. Individuals are free to roam around the Religious Supermarket and walk away with any item. That is, just as with the self, a commodity.

Because of its commodification, religion became more than beliefs and practices. It offers a gate for political advantage. Although set in stone that the state and religious entities are separated, interferences are still happening, mostly in Eastern Europe. Not necessarily direct political parties that take part in religious-related events, but by the declaration of belief, thus gaining the trust of religious voters. In Romania, for example, this is a certainty, as that society is more religious than others. Statistically, Romania seems secular and the rise of atheism is extremely high, but the surveys do not reach everyone, not older people who live in the country-side by the rules there were decades ago (traditional doctrine-like lives, the Church still being the centre of the village, the pastor the most ‘respected’ person, schools near the church, etc. Therefore, politically, it is highly important to relate to these traditionalist living villages, the pope is who advises people on politics, etc. Adding that most Eastern European countries have high rates of corruption, the equation simplifies. In countries like UK, Germany, France, or Switzerland, religion is far from political spheres, therefore a conclusion such as religion in the traditional sense is still alive would not satisfy due to the rapport. Nonetheless, there are various sayings, as a clarification on these matters cannot be easily made, not in a short informational essay, concerning the rise in terrorism-related to religious matters. These, some would argue, are politically fired and only clothed into religious movements for ‘protection’. As far stretched as it seems, arguments have been made and conspiracy theories are flooding the world, but no actual conclusion has been made, thus the idea of religion as a simple clothing item for politics stays just that, an idea. But again, an interference between the ‘sacred’ of Durkheim and politics today does exist in some settings.

 Conclusion

The commodification of religion, then, is still left under a question mark, yes, religion is a choice and it can be self-constructed. The self is a commodity, then what can something made by a commodity be? I would argue, religion is an item waiting on shelves in the hope someone may ‘buy’ it, but in the same time, the traditional settings of religion happen to still exist (South Africa, India, Japan and China, Eastern Europe). ‘The self’ in discussion in the previous paragraphs is a commodity under the same circumstances, namely developed countries. In undeveloped or underdeveloped countries, the self, paradoxically, is still a commodity, but because individuals do not give it that much attention as their primary activity is to survive, then it can be claimed that the self, there, is traditional and understood as ‘given’, ‘pre-set’, ‘unchangeable’ etc. Therefore, religion itself would be commodified in the West and slightly evolved but traditional in the Eastern World.

This issue of commodification is highly philosophical; this essay cannot come up with a clear-cut conclusion. As any other philosophical matter, there is actually no conclusion. There are ideas, weaker or stronger arguments, but the core of these writings are debates left open for the understanding of each individual. Thus, I find it fit to leave my understanding as the final point. Religion is an internal process and what is shown of it (events, sacred buildings, clothes, public practices, etc) is a commodity. Like the self, the backstage and the various shown roles; the backstage is as close to being ‘deeply real’, while the roles are checked over and over again, changed, adapted, etc. Religion, the internal belief, not matter if is a mix taken off the supermarket of religions or the traditional Catholic, Orthodox, Buddhist, etc, is close to ‘deeply real’, while the public practices are a commodity, as they suppose individuals adopting the role of being religious.

 

 Bibliography

 Bauman, Z. (2011) Culture in a Liquid Modernity, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

  1. Bruce, S. (1996) Religion in the Modern World: from cathedrals to cults, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
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  9. Menski, W. (2007) ‘Hinduism’ in Morgan, P. and Lawton, C. A (2007) Problemy etyczne w tradycjach sześciu religii. Hinduizm, buddyzm, sikhizm, judaizm, chrześcijaństwo, islam (Polish translation of the first edition of Ethical issues in six religious traditions),Warsaw: Instytut Wydawniczy Pax, pp. 27-98.
  10. New Age Spirituality: About. Available at: http://new-age-spirituality.com/wordpress/about. (Accessed: 22nd 2016).
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  13. Rowe W., and Schelling, V. (1991) Memory and Modernity: popular culture in Latin America. London, UK: Verso.
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  15. Sachs, W. (1992) ‘One Wold’ The Development Dictionary, London, UK: Zed Books. p. 102-115.

 

 

About alexandra-bucur

My religious, political, and any other belief are ‘sociology’, meaning that, as the person I’ve taught myself to be, critical thinking is in my nature. I am highly keen to leave people with this feeling about me, that I don’t own a certain belief be it about anything, as it is harder to believe but as true as it gets. Since a child, I never believed something, but always asked and tried to find out different versions of a fact, therefore I got to the point when I relised that everything can be true for certain people, and everything else for others, but yet the both cannot be true in the same time as generalities, therefore beliefs are social constructs. And there is when my sociological studies actually started. I have also seen around many indoctrinated by advertising people, so I pay much attention to marketing as well. Moreover, my tiny psychological knowledge is enough to get me to understand that the mind indeed prouces facts for itself if needed and it also created facts by itself at the impuses of various others. Therefore, I do see how marketing works very well and I can see its effects on masses but also individuals. [Note] To make sense of all, these articles are written from a social perspective and as any other sociological paper, they do not analyse by ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and they do not claim anything to be an absolute truth. The articles are as general as they can statistically be and affirm the exceptions if the case provides.As less subjectivity of the writer is left throughout the work, yet if the subject in topic allows, personal opinion of the righter might matter to the final conclusion. [/Note]
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