Essay
Culture
5 min read

The cost of selling spirituality

A $3.7 trillion industry ‘market’ for spiritual consciousness and wellness says something about today. Daniel Kim explores what’s driving this commodification and its market failure.

Daniel is an advertising strategist turned vicar-in-training.

A white neon sign against a brick wall reads: 'This is the sign you have been looking for.
Sign o' the times.
Austin Chan via Unsplash.

Apparently, Scorpio women from Gen Z are the most passionate about astrology, while Taurus Gen X men are the most skeptical. At least, that’s according to a delightfully insightful consumer report put together by the Peoplestrology website after surveying 2,800 people. I’m a Taurus 1995 MillZennial man so I’m not sure where that puts me. I’m also a trainee Anglican vicar which may contribute more to my demographic features, but that’s beside the point.  

We are increasingly fascinated by spirituality and religious practices. We are at a point where we can no longer assume that ticking “No Religion” on a survey means you’re an atheist or that you don’t believe in a supernatural realm or a God. In fact, a report by Theos found that only 51% of people in the UK who claimed ‘No religion’ also claimed that ‘they don’t believe in God’. That’s unreal. Another unbelievable insight from the 2022 UK religious data was the ‘Shamanism’ is now the UK’s fastest growing religious movement. Meanwhile, #WitchTok had 18 billion views in 2021, even hitting the mainstream when it got its own BBC article last year. For the uninitiated, these are TikToks that introduce people to witchcraft practices. A quick wander around the Waterstones ‘What We Recommend’ tables is enough to see the huge push to retrieve ‘ancient traditions’ that help people navigate the spiritual wilderness of modern life. Marcus Aurelius’ Stoicism, and the Confucian classics, are making their comeback. It goes beyond self-help.  

I used to work in a Soho advertising agency. I remember sitting on a teal coloured mid-century sofa with colleagues discussing star signs and pagan mythology over a coffee break. As the Christian, I was the one feeling like the cynical sceptic. That’s a strange experience and feels like cultural whiplash. Flashback ten years and secondary school in the mid-noughties and early-tens was brutal as a Christian. I watched Richard Dawkins' polemic God Delusion documentary during my religious education classes and my fellow classmates laid into Christianity like it was the most vile and stupid thing in the world. Anyone who believed in a supernatural reality was equally vile and stupid. Today, the New Atheist movement seems like a strange late-twentieth century aberration that has very much given way to a re-spiritualising world. In some cruel corners of Reddit, the New Atheist is even a subject of ridicule. 

It’s possible to discern two impulses going on in this re-spiritualisation. On one side of the heart, there are those who are reaching for the spiritual but not the religious - wanting connection with something bigger than themselves to provide meaning and an experience of transcendence. On the other hand, there are those who lean more religious but not spiritual - we want something to provide structure and order to our lives. There’s less of a concern about the spiritual experience but a desire to reign in the chaotic life - I used to have agnostic friends who would pop into a Catholic Mass because they liked the stability of the ritual. These are two ends of a continuum and invariably we are all somewhere in the middle. Both impulses are profoundly important ingredients to a life that is full of meaning. 

This, in my opinion, is an exciting and positive move in our society. It turns out that humans really can’t live on ‘bread’ alone - not least live on careers, brunches, or think-piece articles - and we certainly can’t live on ‘content’ alone. There is a spiritual vacuum, and we’re reaching for the oxygen. 

But in all of this, there’s a serious concern. Because wherever there’s demand, there is profit to be made - and right now, there is ample spiritual demand.

The ‘market’ for spiritual consciousness and wellness will be a $3.7 trillion industry. 

When reflecting on astrology’s role in contemporary society, the Peoplestrology report deems it the ‘perfect solution for our hyper-individualised culture’ and the report ends with an ominous recognition that the ‘market’ for spiritual consciousness and wellness will be a $3.7 trillion industry. The valuation of the ‘spirituality marketplace’ and the emphasis on ‘hyper-individualism’ has me seriously worried. It opens the door to the commodification of religio-spiritual practices and extracting capital value from people’s genuine spiritual search. It can become a product that we use rather than a profound source of ultimate meaning. And it’s already happening.  

Sacred Design Labs, for example, is a consultancy that looks to ‘translate ancient wisdom and practices to help organizations develop products, programs, and experiences that uplift social and spiritual lives.’ Their vision is genuinely very positive - it’s to make the workplace a less sterile and meaningless place. Don’t we all want that? However, they are also  perfect examples of the trend in  capitalising on this burgeoning market. To illustrate the point, one New York Times article recounts where the consultancy was hired to pull together hundreds of religious practices and categorise them by emotional states in order to give them possible uses in different corporate contexts. This exercise made the client ‘realize how many useful tools existed inside something as old-fashioned as his childhood church’. I’m glad that religious practices are getting a hearing in mainstream corporate contexts, but it saddens me to hear words like ‘useful’ being used to describe them. That’s only a hop and a skip away from ‘efficient’ or ‘profitable’.  

The inconvenient truth is that this commodification of spirituality is not just something corporations can be guilty of. We as late-modern individuals can be guilty of stripping religious practices out of their religious context and incorporating them into our self-care programmes. Tara Isabella Burton, author of Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, calls this the ‘bespoke-ification of religion’. As Burton notes - ’We risk seeing spirituality as something we can consume, something for us, something for our brand’. And when we turn spirituality into a product, we turn it into something trivial. 

The irony is that this is profoundly counter-productive. Haven’t we agreed that hyper-individualism, and the commodification of everything, were precisely the things that led us to the spiritual vacuum we are now living in? If there was anything that Karl Marx, Aldous Huxley, and Billy Graham could agree on, it’s at least that. Are we doomed to repeat the radically individualistic cycle of dismantling the very thing that we are desperately grasping after - deep connection with our community, with our work, with our bodies, with our universe, and perhaps, just maybe, with our God? Satisfying our spiritual hunger is about more than just increasing our efficiency and decreasing our blood pressure. It’s about answering some of the most important questions any human individual can ask. Who am I? What am I made for? Is there a God or a spiritual dimension to the universe? Am I free or fated? What happens after I die? All these questions require us to look beyond ourselves, and to stare into the wild edges of human experience.   

If we are going to embark on a journey of spiritual discovery, whether it’s through astrology, pagan mythology, silent retreats, Tibetan Buddhism, or dare I say, Christianity, we can’t let our spiritual hunger be commodified for profit. Neither can we let it shrink back to the hyper-individualism that will keep us locked away in a prison called “self”. Our spiritual wellness is too important for that; it is worth more, infinitely more, that $3.7 trillion or a subscription service advertised to you on Instagram.

Article
Art
Culture
1 min read

St Kilda: sketching sanctuary and struggle

A remote Scottish island’s many meanings catch an artist’s eye.

Alastair Gordon is co-founder of Morphē Arts, a painter and art tutor at Leith School of Art. He works from his studio in London and exhibits across the UK, Europe and the US. 

An artist holds a sketchbook while standing overlooking a deserted village by a bay, sided by jagged cliffs.
Sketching on St Kilda.

Nestled amidst the tempestuous waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, the islands of St Kilda stand as a testament to isolation unparalleled in the British Isles. Located miles out from the Scottish mainland, the islands form an archipelago that rises defiantly, resembling a fortress of solitude amidst the tumultuous waves. 

In 1930, the islanders made a heartfelt plea to be evacuated from their beloved home, as the challenges of survival had become insurmountable. This marked the poignant conclusion of a remarkable two thousand years of human existence on the islands and no permanent community has been established since. Presently, St Kilda stands as a wild and desolate terrain, teeming with a diverse array of wildlife. Amongst the rugged slopes, one can witness the unexpected presence of wild sheep, descendants of the original livestock once cared for by the community. Following the evacuation, the sheep were left to roam freely, adapting to their newfound freedom. Isolated from the outside world for countless centuries, the islands have even given rise to their own unique subspecies of mouse and wren, a testament to the extraordinary resilience of life in this remote haven. 

It took me three arduous attempts, spread across consecutive years, to finally set foot on the elusive Hirta, the main island in a cluster of islets and sea stacks known collectively as St Kilda. Access to this remote wilderness is only granted during the warmer months, and my previous endeavours had been thwarted by relentless bouts of stormy weather. However, these failed attempts only served to intensify my determination, turning the eventual arrival into a pilgrimage of sorts, where the sweet taste of success was amplified by the challenges overcome. 

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. 

As St Kilda emerged on the horizon, it appeared like a jagged tooth or a mystical axis mundi, a place where the earthly and spiritual realms intersect. Despite its wild and untamed nature, the island is paradoxically dominated by the imposing presence of the Ministry of Defence. Strange listening devices and radars loom over the cliff tops, as if engaged in a silent conversation with the world beyond. Stories of St Kilda often carry an air of romanticism, but the reality of island life was harsh and unforgiving. 

As our boat ventured into the circular embrace of St Kilda, a sudden stillness descended upon the waters, transforming the surroundings into an idyllic oasis of tranquillity. The island, formed from the remnants of a volcanic eruption, boasts a natural harbour in the shape of a perfect circle, its walls rising like a majestic amphitheatre to a towering height of 426 metres, equivalent to the Empire State Building, before plunging abruptly into a sheer drop.  

The village, consisting of a single street lined with stone cottages known as Black Houses, was the epicentre of island life. Daily existence revolved around the rhythms of fishing, agriculture, and church. Each morning, the island parliament convened to allocate the day's tasks, which often involved harvesting birds, tending to livestock, and repairing nets. Every year, the men of the island would scale the treacherous cliffs with nothing more than homemade ropes to gather the young birds from their precarious nests, while their protective parents swooped and dived in an attempt to thwart such pillaging. Winters were harsh, and the traditions of the church were strict. Missionaries were sent to the island to minister to the faithful, imposing a rigid routine of spiritual disciplines that seemed to serve as both law and religion.  

Upon reaching the shore, we were greeted by the island steward, one of only two current inhabitants of the island and resident only in the warmer months. Unless, of course, one counts the Ministry of Defence, whose enigmatic presence permeates every corner of the island. Their satellite dishes and listening posts loom ominously, as if engaged in some clandestine communication with an unseen realm, shattering the illusion of complete wilderness.  

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. It brought to mind the image of Superman in his fortress of solitude or Edmond Dantès, a victim of misfortune, imprisoned and abandoned until the idea of the Count allowed for a rebirth. 

But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world 

As a child, I often sought solace on islands during family holidays. There was something about the encircling presence of land surrounded by water that evoked a sense of tranquillity, a sanctuary away from the worries of the world. A sacred space where a weary soul could commune with the divine.  

As I ascended the steep walls of Hirta, my camera in hand and sketchbook tucked under my arm, I couldn't help but feel a sense of purpose. I felt like one of those Romantic painters of the previous century who attempted to bring a taste of the natural sublime to the city dwellers, trapped in their concrete jungles and smog-filled air. In that moment, I released mine is not the task of modern-day Romantic painter, venturing into the wilderness to capture moments of awe-inspiring beauty but to chronicle the mundane moments of domestic sublime as witnessed by this landscape through centuries of human inhabitation. The images I captured and the sketches I made now form the basis of new paintings to feature in an upcoming exhibition at An Lanntair gallery in Stornoway.  

But as I continued my climb, I couldn't help but question the romantic notions that had fuelled my journey. The landscape itself remained indifferent to my perception of it. It cared not for the grand narratives I projected onto its rugged terrain. It simply existed, unyielding and unapologetic. 

And what of St Kilda? Was it truly an idyllic haven, shielded from the political and ecological pollutants of the outside world? Or was it a fortress of solitude, where harsh regimes and a cruel climate ruled? Perhaps it was an oxymoron, embodying both extremes simultaneously. 

As our boat sailed away from the island, I found myself pondering the reality of life on St Kilda. What was it truly like to inhabit such a remote place? At times, I allowed my imagination to wander, envisioning a utopia where crime was unheard of, where the absence of policing was a testament to the inherent goodness of humanity. But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world. Life on St Kilda must have been a constant struggle, a battle against the elements, made bearable only by the flickering hope of a better future. 

As I packed away my camera and sketchbook, I couldn't help but feel a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to glimpse into the past, to touch the remnants of a forgotten world. The exhibition I will present in Stornoway will be more than just a collection of art; it will be a tribute to the resilience of the islanders, not just in St Kilda but across the Outer Hebrides in times of hardship, to their ability to find beauty and hope in the harshest of circumstances. And as I prepare to share their story again through painting, I hope that it will serve as a reminder of the fragility and strength of the human spirit, even in the face of isolation and adversity. 

 

Alastair Gordon is an artist based in Edinburgh and London. His new exhibition of paintings opens at An Lanntair in Stornoway, Isle of Harris 31 May 2024. The exhibition coincides with a parallel two-person exhibition with Elaine Woo MacGregor opening the same night at Cynthia Corbett Gallery, London.