New Age Exploitation | The Sociology of Religion

By Christine Kuntzemann

In my experience, I have come to believe that the basic fundamental human needs shared by every individual throughout history (not taking into account, of course, the fundamental biological human needs such as shelter, food/water, safety, physical health, etc.) are twofold; we all share a need for understanding/acceptance from both ourselves and others, and a need for emotional security. Historically, religion (organized or otherwise) has worked to fill these needs by providing the individual with a feeling of community and acceptance within a group as well as a sense of purpose and belonging that comes to satiate the need for emotional security. However, as is evident from even a brief overview of world history, these needs to belong and feel secure are so powerful that the desire to fulfill them provides the corrupt (or the entrepreneurial, depending on how one wishes to look at the issue) with an opportunity to exploit them in order to gain power or profit. The injustices and corruption within organized religion is becoming recognized more and more by the general public and, as such, there has been a shift away from the traditional beliefs and practices that they employ. However, this shift away from tradition leaves many feeling as though the fundamental human needs explained above are no longer being satisfied and, as such, they turn to alternative means in order to fulfill them. For some, the place of organized religion is replaced by spirituality and New Age philosophies, many of which, perhaps not surprisingly, are eager to fill this void and capitalize on the profits to be made from those who are eager to believe that to spend is to be happy.

Although religion can be considered to be the cause (either directly or indirectly) of many of the evils in the world throughout history, particularly its sparking of an ‘us vs. them’ mentality that persists even today, begrudgingly I must admit that perhaps religion does do some good in that it can be used to foster a sense of community outside the self. In other words, it can be used as a tool to promote a feeling of responsibility to others as opposed to only the individual. While for some New Age philosophies this may also ring true, for the vast majority the individual is paramount and is focused on at the exclusion of the community. This is especially true of the relatively recent self help phenomenon. Self help books (for example, A New Earth – Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, The Power of Positive Thinking, and You Can Heal Your Life, to name but a few) focus solely on the individual and work to encourage and validate desires and goals of the self, most often related to finances, monetary/business goals, and interpersonal relationships. They work to place both the blame and the solution squarely on the shoulders of the individual, teaching us that we, not societal structure or capitalistic ideals, are the source of our problems through our own negative thinking.

That being said, we also possess the key to the solutions for all these problems, namely, to revamp and improve upon our lives by changing our ways of thinking about ourselves and our situations. According to such books, we feel emotionally insecure because we base this security on how we imagine others to perceive us (i.e., we are not meeting our fundamental need for understanding and acceptance). However, we can fulfill all of these needs by simply changing our ways of thinking and our strategies on how to obtain our goals – and all we have to do is buy this book or, better yet, attend a seminar. Happiness is just that easy. Such books seldom, if ever, take into account that factors in the individual’s life which they cannot control (for example mental health conditions such as anxiety or an unnecessary need for material accumulation in order to feel on par with their peers) and, instead, insist that all of the person’s issues exist in their own minds – victim blaming at its best. Of course, on top of this, nowhere do these books and seminars address anything outside of the individual and seldom promote working to improve the society in which said individual lives. Ignorance is bliss, after all, and to be truly happy means to focus solely on the self while turning a blind eye to the problems of others.

A second issue surrounding the rise of New Age philosophies also concerns its focus on the self, specifically on its tendency to link the ‘individual’ with the ‘consumer’. Put a different way, the New Age phenomenon encourages people to spend money in order to obtain happiness; the more you buy (particularly on New Age books and paraphernalia), the closer to happiness you will be able to come. Followers are encouraged to pursue their wants and desires and not to become hung up on worries over finances; worries which, it teaches, are all in our heads. New Age philosophies encourage the frivolous spending of money in order to fill the void which is left when the fundamental human needs for understanding/acceptance and emotional security are left unfulfilled. What many followers do not seem to realize, however, is that this focus on guilt free spending does not only fail to fill this perceived void (money cannot buy happiness, after all) but also conditions the follower to become a more prolific consumer. By validating the desire for material gain, followers strive to consume more and more in a vain attempt to increase their happiness, acceptance, and emotional security while turning a blind eye to the issues which arise from blind consumption; issues such as sweatshops, child labor, and the outsourcing of local jobs to cheaper, often impoverished countries.

A third problem dealing with the opportunistic exploitation of fundamental human needs exhibited by the New Age movement goes hand in hand with conditioning the follower to become a product hungry consumer – in order to consume in excess, one must also earn money. The term ‘spirituality’ is favored by the New Age movement as it not only presents itself, more or less, as all of the good feelings provided by traditional religions without any of the baggage, but also because it is so vague a term that it can be applied to nearly everything the follower may relate to or deal with in their daily lives. ‘Spirituality’ can be applied to everything from education and sports to the professional sphere. Books, audiotapes, and seminars claiming to increase worker productivity and effectiveness abound in the working world and, with their suggestions on how to become a better businessman or woman, promise to bring about profits for both the individual as well as the companies, corporations, or facilities for which they work. So promising are these claims that some businesses and, shockingly, educational institutions have actually come to promote the exploration of one’s work oriented spirituality in order to improve the quality of an individual’s work or study habits. What many do not realize, however, is that not only is spirituality beginning to be forced on students and employees in the place of traditional religions, but also that this form of business related spirituality is conditioning followers to become corporate and money driven automatons focused (unbeknownst to them) on fueling the take over of capitalism.

With the gradual dissolving of organized religions in the Western world, many have been left feeling as if their fundamental human needs for acceptance/understanding and emotional security are no longer being met by the world they now live in. ‘Thankfully’ the New Age movement and the promotion of spirituality that comes along with it have stepped up to replace religion in recent years, promising followers that happiness is as easy as purchasing self help books and spiritual paraphernalia. By hiding under the guise of holistic spirituality, a term so vague it can be applied to almost anything and can relate to any aspect of life, the New Age movement continues to be able to infiltrate our personal and professional lives and is able to be pushed upon us by businesses and educational institutions in ways religion is no longer allowed to. In effect, it has taken the place of religious indoctrination as it is considered by many to be both beneficial and free of the baggage and stigma attached to more traditional organized religions. However, what many followers do not realize is that they are being groomed, both in the business world and the material realm, to work harder and spend more in a never ending quest for happiness and security. By encouraging people to work harder and spend more, the New Age movement promotes exhaustive work ethics and material excess, in effect bolstering the power of capitalism at the expense of the individual, however hard they may attempt to convince themselves that tireless work and endless pointless material gain will result in a healthy, happy, and well rounded life.

Works Cited:

Carrette, J. & King, R. (2005). Selling spirituality: The silent takeover of religion. London: Routledge.