Religion Snapshots: Capitalism and/as Religion, Part 1

images-1Religion Snapshots is a feature with the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, where a number of contributors are asked to briefly comment on popular news items or pressing theoretical issues in the field, especially those topics relating to definitions, classification and method and theory in the study of religion more generally. For previous posts in the series, see herehere and here.

Question: Capitalism, it has been argued, and “neoliberal” capitalism in particular, operates under a metaphysical idea that elevates individualism (e.g., personal success, fulfillment, achievement, etc.) as its highest ideal. Do you agree with this premise and if so, what might this suggest for how religion is imagined?

Craig Martin: In my work I’ve definitely found an emphasis on “individualism” in contemporary discourses in capitalist societies. A series of normative binaries are often found in a chain: individual vs. collective, individuality vs. collectivism, individual freedom vs. social control, etc. These are often incorporated into discourses on religion, especially when “individual religion” is opposed to “organized religion,” or “spirituality” to “religion” in general. I reject the quasi-libertarian anthropology undermining these distinctions, which opposes freedom to social constraint; by contrast, my social ontology assumes that freedoms are products of social constraints. On the latter view, claims about individual freedom or individual religion are not to be taken at face value—perhaps there are no individuals—but instead are taken as data that must be redescribed or explained. I suspect that those who use the vocabulary of “individual religion” are deploying the normative connotations hung on the discourse of “individuality” in order to valorize a particular social practice while pretending that it’s not social. In my research I’ve found that what is often identified as “individual religion” looks an awful lot like consumerism. Perhaps “individual religion” serves as a legitimation for consumer capitalism?

Tenzan Eaghll: Over the past month, for a course on the history of Christianity, I had to mark about a hundred papers on the Holy Land Experience (HLE) in Orlando, Florida. For those who don’t know of it, the HLE is a Disneyland-like theme park created by evangelicals and tries to present a copy of ancient Jerusalem. Like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the HLE attempts to recreate ancient Jerusalem through a single perspective, offering a re-enactment of the Crucifixion and other biblical representations. Moreover, access to the HLE costs money and is run by ITEC Entertainment Corporation.

The point of the assignment was for students to note how evangelical Christianity is intertwined with both an idealization of the past and various capitalist interests. Students who did best on this assignment were those who extended their criticism to the idealization of Christian history in general, noting how the presentation of Christianity, as a single unified narrative, depends on its abstraction from space and time as an ahistorical entity.

All this is to suggest that the way religion is imagined is deeply intertwined with the commodification of history and individual experience. The discussion of Christianity or religion as a ‘thing’, is intertwined with a certain commodification of space and time. It is only by idealizing a particular narrative and packaging it for consumption, whether it be an iphone, an ‘individual,’ or a ‘religion,’, that we are able to sell it to others.

This is why there is a deep relation between capitalism, fabrication, and how we imagine religion and identity in ‘the West,’ and it is born out by how we commodify certain narratives with an aura of sacrality.

This may seem like a roundabout way of getting at the above question, but I think it speaks to the narrative of ‘identity’ and ‘thinghood’ that is central to capitalism. Whether it be the success of the individual or the ‘sacred history of Christianity’ at the HLE, what is portrayed is an idealized narrative fit for consumption.

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