Rethinking secularism:

Religion and modern communication

posted by Bryan S. Turner

The following is excerpted from a chapter in The Post-Secular in Question: Religion in Contemporary Society, a joint publication of the Social Science Research Council and New York University Press.—Ed.

The Commodification of Religion

There has been considerable amount of research on how commodification and the Internet are transforming the religious lives of young people. For young Muslims, Internet use is an important means of building a consensus about, for example, whether the use of henna for cosmetic purposes is com­patible with Muslim tradition or whether dating and premarital intimacies are compatible with the life of a “good Muslim.” Whereas the religious sys­tem of communication in an age of revelation was hierarchical, unitary, and authoritative, the system of communicative acts in a new media environment are typically horizontal rather than vertical, diverse and fragmented rather than unitary, devolved rather than centralized. Furthermore, the authority of any message is constantly negotiable and negotiated. The growth of these diverse centers of interpretation in a global communication system has pro­duced considerable instability in the formal system of religious belief and practice. In Islam, for example, there has been an inflation of sources of authority, since through some local and specific consensus, almost any local teacher or mullah can issue a fatwa to guide a local community. Because new media provide multiple channels of access and encourage discursive interaction on blogs, they bring about a democratization of knowledge and religious lifestyles. Although there is clearly a digital divide, more and more people have access to these religious sites of communication. There is a democratization of Islam in the sense that many young Muslims bypass their traditional ulama and imams in order to learn about Islam from pam­phlets and sources, but this is equally true of other religious traditions.

There is in very general terms an important growth of religion online. In developing an account of the commodification and democratization of religion, let me return to the matter of ineffability, concentrating on the issue of communication and modern Islam. How is the Internet shaping the daily lives and religious practices of young generations? One obvious answer is that it makes the actual collective practice of religion—such as going to church or to the mosque—no longer necessary, and the result is that reli­gion online becomes online religion. The Internet has therefore only served to reinforce the problem of authority. Within the Muslim diaspora, where young Muslims face new problems relating to personal conduct, the new Internet intellectuals create personal websites, providing religious or ethi­cal rulings on various questions relating to religious conduct. These e-mail fatwas are not recognized by traditional shari’a courts as admissible evidence and cannot be readily enforced, but they clearly have an influence within the diaspora. They become authoritative, as users compare these rulings against other sites and e-fatwas. The debate on the Internet between multiple Mus­lim audiences constitutes an informal shari’a in which a communal consen­sus can emerge around controversial issues related to appropriate practice in new environments.

In summary, the Internet is an important technology for creating an imagined community for individuals and groups that are separated from their homelands and exist as minorities in alien secular cultures that are often hostile to Islam. These Internet sites also serve to reinforce the indi­vidualism that many observers have associated with neo-fundamentalism because, in the case of Islam, the global virtual ummah, or community of believers, is the perfect site for individuals to express themselves while still claiming to be members of a community on whose behalf they are speak­ing. We can conclude therefore that these forms of religious communica­tion are characterized by a principle of subsidiarity by which authority rests in the local and specific act of communication rather than in a principle of hierocracy.

These media contribute to a growing subjective individualism that is very different from the rugged ascetic and disciplined individualism of early Protestantism. This emerging religious subjectivity can be interpreted as a facet of the “expressive revolution” that had its roots in the student revolts of the 1960s. In the new individualism, people invent their own religious ideas and borrow religious practices from diverse traditions. The result has been a social revolution flowing from both consumerism and individual­ism, and as a result, “Capitalism’s success eroded class rivalries and replaced the activist and utopian mass politics of the inter-war era with a more bloodless politics of consumption and management. Goods not gods were what people wanted.” Consumerism helped to break down the old division between religion and the world, contributing to the contraction of the span of transcendence.

Religious lifestyles get modeled on consumer lifestyles in which people can try out religions rather like the way they try out a new fashion in hand­bags or shoes. In a consumer society, people want “goods not gods,” and to a large extent their desires can be satisfied by consumer credit. A new indus­try has emerged, concerned with spiritual advice on how to cope with the modern world while remaining pious and pure. Pious lifestyles are marketed by religious entrepreneurs who need to brand their products in the spiritual marketplace.

The consequence of these developments is a growing division between traditional “religion” and modern “spirituality.” Globalization has brought the spread of personal spirituality, and these spiritualities typi­cally provide guidance in the everyday world as well as subjective, tai­lor-made meaning. Such religious phenomena are often combined with personal therapeutic, healing services or the promise of personal enhance­ment through meditation. While fundamentalist norms of personal dis­cipline appeal to social groups that are upwardly socially mobile, such as the lower middle class and the newly educated, spirituality is more closely associated with middle-class singles who have been thoroughly influenced by Western consumer values. David Martin’s study of Pentecostalism also suggests that new therapies and lifestyles can be sustained through mem­bership in Pentecostal groups in which religion and material aspiration no longer conflict.

The new religions are closely associated also with themes of therapy, peace, and self-help. Of course the idea that religion, especially in the West, has become privatized is hardly new. However, these new forms of sub­jectivity and privatized living are no longer confined to Protestantism or the American middle classes; they now have a global audience. These reli­gious developments are therefore no longer simply local cults but burgeoning global popular religions carried by the Internet, movies, rock music, popular TV shows, and pulp fiction. I have described these new forms as pick-’n’-mix religions because their adherents borrow freely from a great range of religious beliefs and practices without any noticeable regard for coherence. It is also a new experimental context in which the iconic can also be the iconoclastic, as represented in Madonna’s experimentation with both Cath­olic and Hasidic personae.

These phenomena have been regarded as aspects of “new religious move­ments” that are, as we have seen, manifestations of the new spiritual mar­ketplaces. Such forms of religion tend to be highly individualistic, they are unorthodox in the sense that they follow no official creed, they are charac­terized by their syncretism, and they have little or no connection with insti­tutions such as churches, mosques, or temples. They are post-institutional, and in this sense they can legitimately be called “postmodern” religions. If global fundamentalism involves the modernization of social groups who are new arrivals to global megacities, the global post-institutional religions are typical of postmodernization.

Finally, spirituality is a mobile religiosity that mobile people can trans­port globally to new sites where they can mix and match their religious or self-help needs without too much constraint from hierarchical authorities. It is a religious orientation that permits rapid and easy transitions between dif­ferent identities, in which modern conversions tend to be more like a change in consumer brands than a searching of the soul. If the new religious life­styles give rise to emotions, these are packaged in ways that can be easily consumed. Brand loyalty on the part of consumers in low-intensity religions is also minimalistic.

Conclusion: New Gods of Communication

In modern societies, the principal characteristics of religion are its individu­alism in association with the decline in the authority of traditional institu­tions (specifically, the church, the liturgy, and the priesthood) and a grow­ing awareness that religious symbols are social constructs. Robert Bellah’s predictions about modernity have been strikingly confirmed in the growth of popular, de-institutionalized, commercialized and largely post-Christian religions. In fact, similar processes are at work in all the major religions. In a differentiated global religious market, the various segments of the religious market compete with one another for followers and resources. Bourdieu’s ideas about the struggle for symbolic capital in the field of religion provide a valid sociological perspective on the volatility of this religious field. The new religions are genuinely consumerist, but while fundamentalist move­ments appear to challenge consumer (Western) values, they are themselves typically selling a lifestyle based on special diets, alternative education, health regimes, dress codes, pilgrimage destinations, and marriage services. The contemporary religious market is consequently highly diversified into a range of competing groups, charismatic movements, Pentecostal churches, traditional religions, spirituality, and the like, but these are all, to varying degrees, influenced by consumerism. The audiences for religious services are also differentiated by class, gender, education, region, and so forth.

The triumph of popular, democratizing, global consumer culture is now having a deep impact on the traditional, hierarchical, literate religions of the past. Perhaps the most important development in modern religion is the changing status of women; one can safely predict that women will become increasingly important in religious leadership, and not simply in liberal Episcopalian churches but in the world religions more generally. Gender is a crucial feature of the new consumerist religiosity in which women increas­ingly dominate the new spiritualities; women will be and to some extent already are the important “taste leaders” in the emergent global spiritual marketplace.

Globalization theory has focused scientific attention on modern funda­mentalism, which is seen as a critique of traditional and popular religiosity. However, the real effect of globalization has been the growth of heterodox, commercial, hybrid, syncretistic religions over orthodox, authoritative, and institutional versions of the spiritual life. The ideological effects and social consequences of these religions cannot be easily or effectively controlled by religious authorities, and they often have a greater impact than official mes­sages, at least among the young. In Weber’s terms, it is the triumph of mass over virtuoso religiosity.

Pentecostalism has prepared the lower middle classes for participation in the emerging consumer economy of Latin America, and in a similar fash­ion, reformist Islam in Southeast Asia provides newly urbanized people, and especially educated women, with values and practices that are relevant to life in more complex, multicultural urban and largely secular societies, in coun­tries where international corporations have provided employment opportu­nities for young people willing or able to leave their villages for work in the megacities.

The habitus of the modern adherent of deinstitutionalized religion is basically compatible with the lifestyles of a commercial world in which the driving force of the economy is domestic consumption. Megachurches have embraced the sales strategies of late capitalism in order to get their message out to the public. On these grounds, one can claim that modern religions are compromised because the tension between the world and the religion is lost. We may define these developments as a form of social secularization. One can imagine that social historians will object to this argument, claim­ing that commercialized religion was not unknown in the Middle Ages, when pilgrimage and relics were basic elements of the economy of European societies. However, with contemporary social differentiation, the market no longer dances to the tune of the dominant religious institutions. Further­more, these secular developments are global rather than simply local. The result is a sociological paradox or set of paradoxes. Religion has erupted into the public domain, being associated with a number of radical or revolution­ary movements from Iran to Brazil and from Poland to Colombia, but at the same time, religion has been coming to terms with a variety of changes that are the consequence of commodification. More precisely, the secular­ization of religion has occurred through a double movement—democratiza­tion and commercialization. The sense of mystery and awe surrounding the ineffable character of the sacred has been eroded by the liberal ethos of democracy, in which egalitarian, immediate, and intimate relations are valued more than hierarchical, distant, and formal relationships. Religion as an agent of social change has been further compromised by the loss of any significant contrast between the sacred and the world. Religion has special­ized in providing personal services and has therefore been competing with various secular agencies that also offer welfare, healing, comfort, and mean­ing. In this competition, religious groups have by and large taken over the methods and values of a range of institutions operating within what we can, for want of a more sophisticated term, call “the leisure industries.”

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One Response to “Religion and modern communication”

  1. This post touches on some of the key phenomena found in the manifestation of religiosity in the contemporary world. However, commodification, neofundamentalism, e-fatwas and other online forms of religious expression as described here do not point towards a post-institutional religion. While the individual may have become a more empowered agent, Pentecostalism, megachurches, the new spirituality, and self-help industry are very much socialized expressions of religiosity and therefore anything but post-institutional. Social scientists tend to conflate new individualism and democratization into singular forms of nonhierarchical religion. A more historicized approach will show that, aside from the media they employ, these developments are not as unique and novel as is often implied. A careful historical study of questions of religious authority, at the basis of the dichotomy orthodox-heterodox or heretical, alongside a survey of the tremendous interest in religious virtuosi (Rumi, Ibn Arabi, the Buddha) will result in a more complex description and accurate analysis of contemporary religion.

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