Is the Spiritual Consumer a God?
The New Mindscape #12–4.
Another response to the crisis of religion is extreme individualism. When people are bombarded with so many philosophies and ideas, some people just stop thinking. They may acquire a sense of meaninglessness — exposed to so many different worldviews and systems of belief, people just give up on all of them, and live in their own, individual world. Or they may compose their own, totally private and individual spirituality. “I believe whatever I choose to believe, and nobody has the authority to tell me what to believe or not. I will just construct my own personal and individual belief system.” This is what we call spiritual individualism.
Spiritual individualism is a type of spiritual modernity. In modern society, we see the rise of individual, who becomes the final authority in many aspects of life. Individualisation is one of the defining characteristics of modernity. In that sense, spiritual individualism is a perfect expression of modernity.
I did some field research at Asheville, a small city in the United States where a lot of spiritual individualists live. This is a place associated with the New Age movement. In the New Age movement and similar type of groups, people are constructing their own spirituality from a variety of sources. Some of them practice Daoist qigong. Some of them do Kundalini yoga. Some of them practice a modern form of American Indian religion, which involves smoking peyote, a certain kind of drug to enter altered states of consciousness. Some are involved in Buddhism. You can find all spiritual practices there.
Many of those people come together at a building every Sunday morning for an activity called the “Dance Church”, or alternatively known as the “Asheville Movement Collective”. This activity is similar to the habit of going to church every Sunday. But this group is different from the church, because the Christian church has authority — the priest tells you what to think and do. But at the Dance Church, they don’t do that. They are supposed to move naturally and spontaneously in accordance with the self. They are not allowed to follow any prescribed types of dance, such as hip-hop, tango, etc. They are told to be themselves. So when the music is plays, everybody moves spontaneously. “Don’t follow anything else but yourself.” What is interesting is that there is a strong rule: “there must be no rules”. “You MUST be yourSELF, and nothing else.” Isn’t that paradoxical?
I mentioned earlier that in the axial philosophies and religions, the idea was to transcend oneself. If one transcends oneself, then clearly, one should transcend to something else, toward something other than oneself. But here, the idea is that there is nothing beyond the self, the truth is only in your self. What is the result? If you refuse to follow any form from anybody, what can you do except to move your body around? If you start to do anything more than that, you’re following some kind of authority, teaching or path. But these spiritual individualists do not want to follow an authority or discipline. Spiritual individualism is thus often associated with the commodification of spirituality and religion, turning spiritual practices into commercial products. Thus, as a consumer, “the consumer is god”, and you have the total freedom to pick and choose what you wish.
This essay and the New Mindscape Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change, with the support of the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.