British writer Roland Howard went on a tour to meet people demonstrating the variety of religious experience in Britain at the end of the 20th century. Shopping for God, A Sceptics Search for Value in the Spiritual Marketplace is a travel narrative – he went, he saw, he listened, he wrote. In the telling of the story, he provides background, he discusses a few questions, he suggests he had an interesting inner monologue running during the journey. I haven’t found much information about him on the Web, but Amazon lists a couple of other books about religion.
He relates his encounters with the Peniel Pentecostal Church, Druids (the Loyal Arthurian Warband to be precise), Wiccans, Landmark Education, Insight Seminars and the Movement of Innner Spiritual Awareness, the Aetherius Society, the British Israelites, Falung Gong, Quakers, the Iona Community, and Transhumanists, chaos magicians with visits to Glastonbury and Barra, and observations of the Moonies, the Hare Krishnas, the Raelians and the Jesus Army.
In one chapter, he describes a visit to a New Age fair. He finds the goods and services for sale to be expensive, and of no particular value. His assessment is that New Age spirituality seems to be the most openly free market, consumerist spirituality in the market. It sound like spirituality has become a pretext for consumer taste.
A couple of chapters deal with the Internet. He visits a couple of online churches and some fringe web sites, suggesting that the web facilitates the inaccurate or incomplete communication of the full personal and social reality of religious movements. He gets into the use of chat rooms and instant messaging by the chaos magic set, which is interesting I get the sense that online gamers have started to devise religious rituals and challenges as a kind of role-playing game. To the extent that people seem to challenge each other to perform absurd, disgusting and self-harming acts, this part is a bit scary.
Howard has done his homework, and he knows that these groups profess or believe, and he knows which ones are on the cult watch lists. But he doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing beliefs. His approach invites people to think about how they might look and feel if they got involved with one of these groups.
He pays more attention to the way the people in these groups look and dress and act than to their belief systems. He pays attention to egotistical and demanding leaders. He looks that the kind of money they want for programs or courses or the kind of commitment they demand of their members. He writes from a common man perspective on the benefits of associating with these groups. The Druids drink a lot and their rites and festivals are big parties. The Wiccans are social and supportive. Falung Gong has a good exercise program. The Druids and the Iona Community come down on the same side of environmental and political issues. Many of the environmental, nature oriented groups camp out, beat drums and probably smoke a lot of weed. The Pentecostals are more intense and cultic. The Christian racists seem like nice harmless seniors until they start talking nonsense. The self-improvement weekends are annoying and expensive. The chaos magicians seem to lead rich fantasy lives, and don’t seem to see the light of day.
Many people involved with religion and spirituality seem to have been marginalized by age, illness or temperament. In the New Age and nature-loving groups, some people seem to be carrying on business, while hiding from the Welfare police. Many in some groups have plunged into beliefs that take them outside the routines of regular employment in the modern economy.
I wondered if some the professed followers of some these programs take their beliefs and rituals completely seriously. Some appear to deal with things metaphorically, as part of an attempt to live an artful or interesting life. Some appear to be dealing with life ironically. Many seem to to join up like joining a service club, to meet people and get a social life, but that doesn’t separate them from lukewarm true believers.
I thought that Howard was not looking at the fact that these people are obviously getting some kind of psychological reward for their involvement. It makes them feel better than any other thing they can think if doing with their time, energy and money. Most people get into these groups because they know someone, or meet someone, and trust the people they meet – which is the way most people learn about most things in life. At some point people see themselves as better, stronger people through involvement in these groups, which is a tribute to the ability of the human race to see things in a positive way.