The appraisal is a familiar one by now. Contemporary spirituality has become a commodity, easily bought and sold—and the “spiritual but not religious” are not so much seekers as consumers.
The 2005 book Selling Spirituality, by Jeremy Carrette and Richard King, is a prime example of the tendency to reduce spirituality to a sellout. In a powerful critique of the “big business” of spirituality, the authors, both professors in religious studies, focus on the sociopolitical consequences of the “spiritual marketplace,” which they frame as the capitalist “takeover,” “commercialization,” and, maybe most significantly, the “replacement” of religion.
What’s most interesting to me about this is the way in which—although this is not their specific aim—the authors’ zero-sum opposition between the marketplace and religion amounts to an assessment of what counts as real religion: “What is being sold to us as radical, trendy, and transformative spirituality,” they state, “in fact produces little in the way of a significant change in one’s lifestyle or fundamental behavior patterns.” In a similar vein, Buddhist scholar David Webster has written in these pages (January 2013) about the risks in assuming an identity as “spiritual” while avoiding affiliation with a specific tradition. Practices that are categorized as spiritual, in this view, cannot also function as religious practice.
Along with Buddhist-influenced New Age practices, Carrette and King pick yoga as an especially apt example of capitalist society’s replacement of religion. By relying exclusively on physical practice instead of a “complete” lifestyle, they write, postural yoga ignores the selfless ethical agenda of ancient yoga: they claim that “yoga essentially became a form of exercise and stress-relief to be classified alongside the other health and ‘sports-related’ practices and fads of the late 20th century.”
I find it frustrating to repeatedly encounter this assumption— that we can’t have it both ways, that we can’t take “spiritual people” seriously as religious practitioners and simultaneously evaluate them as agents of contemporary consumer culture. Spirituality is described by these scholars as “banal and vague” and as representing a usurpation of religion by market forces. But it is far from banal; in fact, it is rich in religious substance.
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