The book examines the growing commercialization of “religion” in the form of the popular notion of “spirituality”, as it is found in education, health-care, counseling, business management theory and marketing (p. x). The argument of the book is that “the term ‘spirituality’ is in the process of being appropriated by business culture to serve the interests of corporate capitalism and worship at the altar of neoliberal
ideology. It reflects the takeover of ‘the religions’ by big business and has resulted in the utilization of the wholesome and life-affirming connotations of the term ‘spirituality’ as a means of promoting a market-oriented value system.” They do not take this to be a conspiracy but rather “as a loose network of business-oriented entrepreneurs exploiting a widespread cultural trend that is already in motion.” However to them this is a “wholesale infiltration by the sensibilities, language and agenda of corporate business, of the cultural spheres traditionally inhabited by the -religions” (p. 28). Spirituality is becoming “a new cultural addiction and a claimed panacea for the angst of modern living”.
The authors set out to clarify the vagueness of the concept that “represents on the one hand all that is banal and vague about New Age religiosity, while on the other signifying a transcendent quality, enhancing life and distilling all that is positive from the ‘ageing and outdated’ casks of traditional religious institutions” (p. 2). The authors however are critical also towards the attempt to define “spirituality” for any definition reflects a context. “Spirituality” as any other phenomenon is defined against history, economy and culture. In this sense religion and spirituality are not displaced from the living world. The authors thus eschew the question “what counts as ‘real’ spirituality”? They are more interested in how the concept is applied, used, commodified, marketed…”There are perhaps few words in the modern English language as vague and woolly as the notion of ‘spirituality’. In a consumer society it can mean anything you want, as long as it sells” (p. 30). Similarly Rowe (2001, p. 41) added that it has become a Humpty-Dumpty word “that means whatever the speaker wants it to mean”. The authors thus suggest it is much more important to understand its “use” rather than its “meaning”. Many authors struggle hard to define the term, and eventually have to settle for a very broad definition, or they resort to a differentiation of “spirituality” from “religion”. The English and French terms for spirituality emerged only in the early modern period. In this sense searching for an original meaning is quite problematic (p. 32). Principe (1983) identified four main phases in the development of the meaning of the term. According to Principe it is only from the 1950’s that we see the enormous increase in the use of the term spirituality in popular Western culture. The authors associate this with the rise of post-war modern consumerist life-styles.
In 1988 the UK’s education reform act included the word “spirituality”. Education was to promote “the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school” (HMSO, 1988, p.1). As a result “spirituality becomes for the first time the subject of national educational planning, with numerous studies and textbooks devoted to the idea and its application and significance for children’s minds.” (p. 45). The authors view the infiltration of spirituality to all aspects of life as a capitalist takeover and privatization of human meaning.
The second chapter of the book describes the crucial role that the development of psychology as science played in the privatization of “spirituality”. They call this process the “psychologization of religion”. The work of James in The Varieties of the Religious Experience identified the private domain of religion. Psychologist Gordon Allport published The Individual and His Religion (1950) in which he rejected traditional religion in favor of a subjective religious attitude. The authors find the greatest shift towards private spirituality in the work of Abraham Maslow, especially as it was picked by Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary. Spirituality, they suggest: “became a product, like a drug, to change consciousness
and lifestyle and provide happiness amidst the economic boom of North American life.” (p. 75). Maslow divorced the religious experience from tradition within “self-actualization”, “peak-experience”, “being-cognition”, and “transpersonal psychology”. “His language facilitated a clear break of ‘spirituality’ from its institutional moorings, and opened the space for spirituality to be seen as a ‘secular’ rather than an especially ‘religious’ phenomenon.” (p. 75). For Maslow in this interpretation, the individual is the authority of his own private religion. Yet the authors suggest that this is not a liberation from religious authority but rather a trading for another authority. “Spiritual self-actualization is a market actualization, clever for its very concealment. While ‘New Age’ followers dance the gospel of self-expression they service the financial agents and chain themselves to a spirituality of consumerism…The illusion of religious free expression in private spirituality is the prison of capitalism, because it fails to acknowledge the interdependence of self within community and the ethical necessity of countering the abuses of power within market societies. It restricts the individual to a unit of consumption rather than a dynamic of relation and creative expression.” (p. 78)
The third chapter analyzes specifically New Age’s appropriation of East-Asian traditions to very certain agendas. The authors analyze Taoism and the watershed of books known as “The Tao of….”. Many of these reflect narrow interpretations of Taoism that lend themselves to the New Age spirituality, which according to Heelas is a “self-spirituality” (1996). Buddhism was similarly construed by many. But the problem is that the Buddha’s claim was that our predicament is exactly “that we are all essentially practicing a ‘religion of the self’” (p. 101) as our default state of mind. Our mission is to be liberated from such “self”, and not to accentuate it by eclectic understandings of East-Asian thought that yield a culture of “self-consumption”. We are to grasp our interdependence and not to cultivate our autonomy in the sense of a ruling self. The authors thus constantly suggest that the lack of grounding in the tradition eventually creates a reified self. Similarly the authors review the reification of yoga that transforms the bodily aspects of practice into the central trait (Kimberley Lau 2000: 96, 112). Yoga, in its translation to the West has lost its traditional purpose of seeing true self. “Whatever their fundamental worldview, all forms of Hindu yoga reject the motivational structure upon which consumerism is predicated – namely identification with the embodied individual self and acting to further its own self-interest…These Asian traditions can be more easily read today as profound critiques of
consumerism and a ‘spirituality of self’ rather than as an endorsement of them. Much of the contemporary literature on ‘spirituality’, rather than picking up the richness and complexity of Asian wisdom traditions, privatizes them for a western society that is oriented towards the individual as consumer and society as market” (pp. 121-122).
Chapter four is an analysis of the business of spirituality. The authors analyze the examples of Deepak Chopra and Osho Rajneesh representing two examples of contemporary gurus (the latter deceased) that have both became extremely wealthy based on their teachings and the business operations that formed around them. The final chapter of the book brings a conclusion and reiterates the authors’ positive agenda as to the ways in which we need to see through the selling out of religion, and to reground ourselves in the sources of spirituality within wisdom traditions.
Heelas, P. (1996). The New Age Movement. Blackwells.
Lau, K. J. (2000). New Age Capitalism: Making Money East of Eden. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Principe, W. (1983). Toward Defining Spirituality. Sciences Religieuses/Studies in Religion 12, 127–41.
Rowe, D. (2001). What Do You Mean by Spiritual? in S. King-Spooner and C. Newnes (eds). Spirituality and Psychotherapy. PCCS.