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Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society

Religion, Spirituality and Consumer Culture

This first network seminar explored relationships between religion, spirituality, late capitalism and contemporary consumer culture. The exponential rise in household expenditure on consumer goods since the Second World War, further fuelled by easier access to consumer credit during the 1980's, generated economic and cultural conditions in which new forms of consumption formed an increasingly important part of everyday life in the developed world. Whilst organised religions have been bound up with economic practices and commercially-produced goods in a wide range of social and historical contexts, the emergence of a globalized, late modern consumer culture has arguably created a new set of social conditions within which religion and spirituality are constructed and practised. The emergence of distinctive religious cultures of consumption in recent years, ranging from the marketing of the Christian contemporary music scene to the products and services associated with lifestyles of health and sustainability, has further stimulated academic interest in how religion is bound up with contemporary consumption. Such studies challenge dichotomous thinking which, for example, separates 'authentic' religion focused around formal doctrines, rituals or institutions from the everyday consumption of religious products and services which might be seen as peripheral to the heart of 'proper' religion.

This seminar explored the relationships between religion, spirituality and consumer culture in a number of different settings: the consumption and disposal of artifacts associated with good luck in Japan, Evangelical consumer culture in America, the range of spiritual consumer activities and services based at Glastonbury, meaning-making in the commercialised mainstream club scene in Britain, and practices of production and consumption amongst Satanists in Scandinavia. Theoretical papers also explored the ways in which late capitalism shapes religious and cultural imagination and generates forms of spirituality that reproduce the assumptions and structures of late capitalism.

The presentations, and group discussion, addressed a number of key issues:

  • Paying attention to the role of religious consumer products in some contexts fits an understanding of religions as action-systems, or spiritual technologies, through which participants seek to achieve particular effects (whether good luck, well-being, fertility or healing). Contemporary religious and spiritual action-systems can therefore be usefully understood in terms of processes of production, distribution and consumption. The specific practical uses of religious and spiritual products has implications for their production, marketing, the ways and spaces in which they are consumed, and the ways in which they are finally disposed of. The economic success of producers of such goods can, in some contexts, be interpreted as evidence of the efficacy of their products, and thus of the spiritual legitimacy of their producers. In some contexts, the roles of producers and consumers are not necessarily clearly differentiated, with producers also acting as spiritual consumers. Acts of consumption can involve judgments about the 'authenticity' of products, based both on judgments about their provenance and on the aesthetic qualities of the product itself, which raise questions about the contexts and processes through which such religious and spiritual taste is developed.
  • Physical spaces continue to play an important role as sites of production and consumption of religious and spiritual consumer goods. Whilst de-territorialized brands can be important for religious and spiritual consumption, such brands often maintain connections to particular spaces. For example commercialised club brands, such as Gatecrasher, have important associations with specific physical spaces - as was indicated by clubbers' responses to the destruction of the original Gatecrasher club site in Sheffield by fire. At Glastonbury, the layering of multiple religious and mythical narratives over the same space, the physical nature of the space, and the history of the local economy all represent important factors in shaping Glastonbury as a distinctive site of spiritual consumption. In Japan, the use and disposal of lucky artefacts in specific public and domestic spaces plays an important role in their imagined efficacy, and services can also be bought to manage particular spaces which are important for avoiding bad luck (e.g. tending the graves of ancestors which are far away from the family home). The significance of the internet as a site and tool for religious consumption also raises questions about the relationship between physical off-line spaces and virtual spaces, with, for example, virtual spaces playing an important role in how physical spaces are interpreted and experienced. The importance of the internet as a site of the distribution and consumption of religious products can also create spatial problems for religious practitioners. For example, some Evangelicals may feel that separate Christian distribution networks are necessary on the internet, so that Christian media and products are not sold 'next to' undesirable products such as pornography on mainstream distribution sites.
  • The production, distribution and consumption of niche consumer goods plays an integral role in the formation of contemporary religious sub-cultures, exemplified in the rise of Evangelical lifestyle and entertainment products in recent years. Whilst such consumer products may play important roles in helping people to maintain particular religious life-worlds, it is also important to be aware of the complex interactions between such religious sub-cultures, 'mainstream' culture, and other sites of coolness. The distinction between the sub-cultural and the mainstream is blurred, for example, as major media producers and distributors have bought up niche Christian producers (e.g. Word Entertainment is now a subsidiary of Warner) or develop media and products with niche religious markets in mind. Whilst religious forms of sub-cultural consumption may be valuable in the everyday construction of religious life-worlds, they also present their own challenges and anxieties. For example, how can one produce an Evangelical music video which successfully replicates the look and high production values of other popular music genres (e.g. R&B), but without making the dancing in the video look too sexy? Similarly participants in religious sub-cultures can demonstrate considerable reflexivity about the dangers of such sub-cultures becoming marginalised, inward-looking and focused on poor quality imitations of other cultural forms. Maintaining a sense of cultural cool, or of appropriate cultural taste, may therefore involve consumption of some sub-cultural religious products, whilst blending these with other cultural media and products from beyond that sub-culture - which in itself, raises interesting questions about the forms of taste, social capital and self-hood that make such blending possible.
  •  All of these issues about the intersection between religion, late capitalism and consumer culture can also be framed in a larger set of critical questions about the ways in which capitalism shapes religious and cultural imagination, and (often unconsciously and uncritically) binds us to structures and practices that are socially unjust, diminish our capacity for creative thought and freedom, and causes environmental damage. In what ways, then, does late capitalism and consumer culture generate diminished forms of religious imagination and practice? And to what extent is it possible to find ways of resisting, or 'messing with' these constraints? Following a longer tradition of social and cultural analysis, one view is that the uncritical engagement in religious and spiritual consumer practices (and concepts that underpin these, such as the value of the individual spiritual quest) replicates the harmful structures and assumptions of late capitalism. Similarly, as rapidly-evolving media and practices of religious consumption dis-embed religious symbols and artifacts from traditional communities of use, and make their meaning subject to new habits and forms of reception, so potential social, theological and ethical checks against the dangerous uses of such symbols provided within a traditional community of faith may be lost. An alternative view is that, despite the limitations and moral ambiguities of late capitalism, it is still possible to develop forms of consumption which provide meaning, a sense of belonging, experiences of 'authenticity', and opportunities to produce other forms of social critique and resistance. Participation in commodified scenes such as the mainstream club scene or contemporary popular cultural forms of Satanism might still therefore provide some potential space and resources for constructive or resistant ways of life. A critique of capitalism, from this alternative perspective, should not reject out of hand the possibilities for creative forms of identity politics through the production and consumption of particular consumer goods.

Podcast recordings are available of the presentations given at this seminar:

Inge Daniels (University of Oxford), '"Dolls are scary": troublesome things and everyday spirituality in contemporary Japanese homes'

Heather Hendershot (CUNY), 'Evangelicals and the meanings and uses of consumer culture'

Jeremy Carrette (University of Kent) '"Selling Spirituality": further reflections'

Vincent Miller (Georgetown University) 'Consumer culture and the transformation of religious symbols'

Karenza Moore (Lancaster University) 'Post-rave EDM cultures, "determined druggedness", and contemporary consumer culture: an unholy alliance'

Jesper Aagard Petersen (Norweigan University of Science and Technology, Trondheim ) 'Modern Satanism: strategic constructions of tradition, identity and community in the formation of contemporary religion'

 

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