04 August 2008

Are you sure you're not religious?

Peace, progress and prosperity have birthed often unforeseen offspring, both beautiful and hideous. Among the latter are new popular delusions. Though religion - as it is commonly understood - is perceived to be on the retreat, the comfortable civilization has not entirely lost its need for mysticism, for collective illusions. Its increasing secularism masks the accompanying rise of another breed of religiosity, one that has evolved to fit the times, this age of peace, progress and prosperity.

This ascendant faith is Consumerism, and its adherents outnumber the total following of the elder gods. This is largely because the Consumerist god isn't a jealous one. This is a god that doesn't demand undivided devotion from its followers. They are free to worship other gods, or even none, so long as they remain true to Consumerist teachings. Here is a faith that, far from being exclusive, actively seeks new converts to swell its already bloated ranks. Proselytising is Consumerism's defining feature. Its methodology has been refined to a level of sophistication that shames the comparatively clumsy, schizophrenic (sometimes saccharine, sometimes savage) efforts of the older religions.

That Consumerism is a religion is no hackneyed metaphor. The religious forms and apparatus are all present. There are idols to venerate, objects to fetishise, symbols to interpret, higher powers to fear, authority figures to obey, paradises to be entered. There are myths to believe in, guilt to assuage, psychological voids to fill, morality to enforce, truths to ignore, lies to promote, doubters to be convinced, critics to be silenced, sheep to be herded. As with the elder faiths, animosities are stoked for the resulting suspicion, discrimination and myopicism are essential to maintaining control and a seemingly paradoxical cohesion. But this cohesion is achieved because the faithful - Consumerist or Christian, Muslim or Hindu - are united in a shared envy and distrust of the Other. Such base feelings are their common thread.

Consumerism is growing in fertile soil. The comfortable times allied with Consumerism's particular character conspire to allow this upstart religion to thrive. As a faith that transcends geographic, socio-economic, cultural and even ideological distinctions, Consumerism opens its arms to embrace all who come to it seeking solace and meaning.

In the film The Usual Suspects the conman Roger 'Verbal' Kint (played by Kevin Spacey) remarks that "the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist". Consumerism has pulled off a similar trick. It has convinced a world increasingly skeptical of religion that it isn't one. And therein lies its persuasive power, a power that can turn even avowed atheists into unsuspecting Believers.


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