The Decline of Religious Institutions, The Ascent of Spiritual Marketplace Goods

There was an article published in 2012 on the religiously unaffiliated, and, at the time, on another now-dead blog, I pulled an excerpt, with a brief comment. It is more deserving of your attention than this post. I offer it here as something of an afterthought to an earlier post on R. Hütter on the loss of the Church as a distinct public, and even a Thanksgiving-Day conversation that I had with one of my cousins, which was about the media of perpetuating cultural distinctives and anchors and what things we hold up as valuable mirrors for self-understanding, whether individually and communally.

The history of American spirituality reveals that our commonplace understanding of spirituality—as the individual, experiential dimension of human encounter with the sacred—arose from the clash of American Protestantism with the forces of modern life in the nineteenth century. While religious conservatives fought to stem the tide, giving rise to fundamentalism, religious liberals adapted their faith to modernity, often by discarding orthodoxies in favor of Darwinism, psychology, and comparative religions.

The majority of today’s religious “nones”—those who claim no religion but still embrace spirituality—are engaged in the same task of renovating their faith for a new historical moment. And typically, they draw from this same liberal religious toolkit. Today’s unaffiliated, like the liberals of previous generations, typically shun dogma and creed in favor of a faith that is practical, psychologically attuned, ecumenical—even cosmopolitan—and ethically oriented.

This liberal spirituality, as it has evolved over time, has been deeply entwined with media-oriented consumerism. Of course Americans of all religious varieties have been deeply influenced by consumerism, but media and markets have particularly shaped the religious lives of those without formal institutional or community ties. The religiously unaffiliated might not attend services, but they “do” their religion in many other ways: they watch religion on TV and listen to it on the radio; find inspiration on the web; attend retreats, seminars, workshops, and classes; buy candles and statues, bumper stickers and yoga pants; take spiritually motivated trips; and, perhaps most significantly, buy and read books.

Liberal Protestantism won the cultural battle as the sacred anchor for the public culture, and evacuated itself as a distinct public in the process, vomiting its ethos and its members into the larger national consumer group — and industries (publishers, online social networking tools, workshops, &c.) took over the role of supplying both the continuities and the reformulating replacements for the older (post-Reformation Mainline Protestant) order. As the article says near its conclusion: “Even as religious affiliations decline, religious books sales continue to rise, as they have steadily for more than a half century.” Perhaps nothing signals the truth of this more than the annual industry of Jesus material at Christmas, whose consumers, I would guess into a vacuum, do not clearly overlap with any Church-going populations.


7 thoughts on “The Decline of Religious Institutions, The Ascent of Spiritual Marketplace Goods

  1. One way that people who are in the habit of going to church, but not in the habit of believing in anything in particular, satisfy their spiritual itch is to join a noncreedal church such as the Unitarian Universalist Association. They have a place to go on Sunday morning, typically with pretty good music and a homiletic update on a topic that will make them the toast of the party circuit, and a coffee hour afterward with influential neighbors. Then again, California has come up with a different answer, in which it is deeply indebted to Jamaica:


    • Both of these options are rather rare, first because the commodification of the components of spirituality are attractive, in part, because they modularize many of the former elements of the spiritual life of what were socially embedded institutions in yesteryear (and still are, in varying degrees in various places), and put the consumer in control of his or her engagement with these elements. In that context, going to any place of worship is a tacit commitment, for starters, and consumers have habits, not commitments. If I had to shop only at Trader Joe’s…

      As for the other option you cite in the link, one reason why a Rastafarian option would be rarely made in an environment of commodified spirituality, aside from the reason mentioned above, is that most people who smoke marijuana have no transcendent interests in mind — it is entirely a worldly pursuit for them. They want to relax, they want to forget about things, they want something about themselves or their world to change, if only in appearance and feeling, if only for a bit. I don’t have hard sociological data on this, but my suspicion is that most people who smoke do so for secular reasons, not spiritual ones.

      What do you think about this?


      • I think that is quite true. Marijuana might confer the illusion of insight, but it is probably just that, an illusion.
        I am curious about the blog’s notification procedures. I am seeing your reply a bit more than two months after you wrote it apparently. The electrons must have frozen in the Winter and have begun their normal circulation with the warmer weather. I have a very short story to tell you which or (or not) be germane to the discussion of varieties of religious experience. Do I have to credit William James for that? Ah no, titles are not subject to copyright.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think you mistook my meaning. Insight is insight, and it doesn’t matter where it comes from — I don’t suppose that marijuana is a typical source of insight (though I can imagine some insights occurring to some anxious people while they’re high that anxieties might otherwise prevent them from recognizing while they were sober — there are probably other examples I could think of with time, but this one is sufficient, I think, to prove the point), but then most people who smoke aren’t after insight, but relaxation, or the high itself.

          Odd that you didn’t get the notification for two months. Oy…


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