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.