Consumer Religion

The Aquarians and the Evangelicals: How left-wing hippies and right-wing fundamentalists created a libertarian America” is an extract from Brink Lindsey’s book The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture in Reason Online. Lindsey’s assessment of the social history of American through the second half of the 20th century seems to be well grounded. Lindsey’s review of the polarization of American society between New Age liberals and fundamentalist Christian conservatives, equally devoted to self-actualization, authenticity, and emotional experience, is astute and convincing.

Lindsey’s conclusion that the political middle ground for American society is libertarian is less convincing,. The proliferation of cultural and spiritual products relates, as Lindsey says, to the size and affluence of the market, but it does not validate libertarian values or prove that Aquarians and Evangelicals, as Lindsey calls them, agree about tolerance or choice. Each group tends to be self-contained, self-absorbed and self-righteous. Both dismiss people who don’t share their beliefs with condescending pity or outright hostility. Neither is entirely oblivious to the fact that people outside the charmed circle find their beliefs, rituals, and jargon to be ridiculous. Both groups respond by demeaning outsiders, being positive about their own values, and refining their message to maintain solidarity and recruit new believers.
Lindsey sees a kind of beauty and order in the dissolution of old religious institution and the rise of new cultural and religious systems, but libertarians and classical free market economists get misty-eyed about the creative destruction of capitalism, and the unseen hand.
What he describes is millions of affluent, uninformed, self-obsessed people in absurd relationships with co-believers, gurus and preachers. The gurus and preachers are careful analysts of need, and have found a myriad of ways of finding, reaching, capturing and holding every paying customer. The Catholic Church achieved results – observers called it The Ratzinger Effect – by making the right gestures to modern sensibilities. Bringing back the Latin Mass appeals to the modern taste for the authentic experience of a beautiful traditional rituals. Showcasing the Pope as a rustic, avuncular Bavarian appeals to the idea that the Church is is a community of traditional families.
The smallest societies, with the most rudimentary technologies and economies have always had rich cultures and religions, with imaginative shamans and artists producing, with some skill, ritual, art, music, narrative and theory. Shamans and artists have always been good at improving and redefining the product and analyzing the absurdity of all other views. Cultural and religious practices are associated with particular groups of people in particular places and particular times. The title of Nayan Chanda’s new book, Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers, and Warriors Shaped Globalisation (reviewed in the Economist) makes the point that trade, power and culture operate together.
America, through affluence and freedom, has created a rich market of social practices to help people to identify, imagine and express their ideas about themselves and their relationships with things and people. Religion, art, entertainment, ideology, psychology, therapy, counseling provide the same things to different people. These things are said to provide inspiration, meaning and fulfillment, which are simply labels for rewarding experiences. Culture and spirituality are produced by people interacting and exchanging time and resources. Consumers get social interaction, intellectual stimulation and emotional validation through ritual, art, music, narrative and theory. The service providers get personal, social and political power to influence people’s choice and decisions.
From an economic and social perspective, religious and therapeutic experiences, like artistic and cultural experiences, are part of the experiental economy.
Karl Marx, in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, wrote:

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.

Marx has been reviled by a few generations of priests and capitalists for suggesting that religion have been colluding with money and power to sedate and repress the happiness and fulfillment of the working class. This has obscured the force of his comment, which been an inspiration for the study of ideology and the sociology of religion. Marx was clearly wrong in thinking that the abolition of religion and private property would make people feel happier and more fulfilled. Anxiety, curiosity, and desire are the constant companies of human consciousness, regardless of social structures and distribution of resources. But Marx was clearly right in saying that humans find religion to be rewarding because it protects us from understanding that our attachment to our needs and desires is absurd.