Religion Essays - Religion in Consumer Society

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Religion in Consumer Society

Through this paper, the researcher intends to explain the dynamics of religion in consumer society and tries to answer some questions like why even the question of communal disharmony doesn’t arise in consumer society? How the dynamics of material accumulation shifts the interest of man from totality to unit? How man attribute meaning to the new interaction setting based on accumulated materials and so on. Interaction is taken as the key concept in the analysis of religion. One of the basic hypotheses of this paper is that religion exists in interactive social setting which exert its influence upon the human being as actors. The firm belief of the researcher is that growth of materialism diminishes the influence of spiritualism that binds a group or community together is also taken as another premise. Following Marx materialism is taken as the starting point of analysis, accepting economy as infrastructure on which superstructure of religion is built.

Religion – Some Dynamics

There is no such complex phenomenon as religion that has influenced mankind from the history of its origin. Sociologically religion is considered as one of the major social institutions. Like all phenomena religion can also be studied in various ways depending upon the type of information one is interested in. Using different approaches various scholars devoted themselves to the study of religion. Whatever may be the area of interest, every one takes individual as core focal point of analysis in dealing with one’s conviction to own religion. A brief analysis about the basic characteristics of religion will help us to go little further in the analysis of the dynamics of religion.

Biju Vincent, Research Scholar, Dept. of Sociology, University of Kerala, Kariyavattom Campus, Thiruvananthapuram

  • Religion is the common property of a group in which every individual is born. It is always predetermined that in which religion one is to be reared.
  • Every religion expects its members to follow the blueprint in terms of religious behaviour. Since it had been formed long before one is born it exerts pressure to make individual to follow.
  • Like culture religious behaviour is learned by man through different kinds of interaction.
  • Religion is socially transmitted.
  • Being the part of society and like any other social institution, religion too undergoes constant changes.

Religions are both cumulative and man made. This statement may contradict the existing belief. Here, what is meant is that the patterns of religions may be devel-oped in such a manner that man believes that supernatural powers dictate or desire. The main point here is that though religion is believed to be developed by the supernatural powers’ human beings are involved in the formation of religious concepts and practices (Glenn M.Veron, 1962: 22-26). This was well stated by Hunter, to him “theology is always the work of man, not of God, although it is man’s best attempt to describe God’s revelation of Himself to man” (David R. Hunter, 1960: 248-252).

Religion does not exist in isolation, nor does man’s religious behaviour occur in isolation. The social interaction taking place, enable members to form the norms and rules which hold them together in a group. Norms receiving religious endorsement or sanctification have special strength, especially for the individual or the group who really follow religious doctrines. When religion provides the supernatural definition to group and incorporated into the mores of the group, it acts as powerful ‘social cement’ which serves to preserve social order in the group and to discourage social disorganization (Glenn M.Veron, 1962: 80). This ‘group binding’ nature of religion is a point to be noted. Since both the belief system and to some extent the spirituality is used to bring the cohesion in (religious) group; the same can be used to direct or redirect the religious sentiment of the followers. The established truth is reinforced by supernatural endorsement.

No religion by its nature provides platform for change. It changes individuals as believers to keep it unchanged. Religion resists changes considering that the emerging changes never harmonises religion with the existing social system. When it registers the resistance towards the proposed change, religion turns to having the potentiality of bringing disorganization. Religion causes to bring disorder in the same manner it produces order in the social system. Rather than being an integrative force, it redefines the goal for the moment and practices the communal enticement that is usually seen in the agrarian social structure (See table 1). At this juncture we should have deep thinking that whether Marx was right when he reveals the opiate nature of religion. To some extend this nature of the followers is exploited by the religious fundamentalists.

Consumer society – An analysis

The peculiarities in accumulating materials that are meant to establish an interaction setting. Man needs materials not just for living alone but for changing living environment also. To ensure happiness through consumption man is continuously engaged in changing his interaction setting. The consumer culture in the today’s society is like a “choosing self” (Slater 1997: 59). Commodities are purchased as an expression and mark of style, prestige, luxury, power and so on.

In the very active consumer society we can identify a “generalized shift” in social practices and mentality that unleashes desires to express individuality (Appadurai 1996: 72). Historical analysis shows that these changes not only depend on the development of markets but also on the weakening of the state, religious, or other normative controls over material means of expression and the rise of new, independent rationalities (Zukin,S & Maguire, J S, 2004:189). The coming of consumer society encourages self expression through consumption practices and shifting of interaction setting from collective unit to individual unit (Davis 2000).

The consumption pattern of individuals is very complex in the contemporary society where they construct differentiation (class) based on what they consume (Holt 1997, Warde 1997) rather than the predetermined elements of stratification and by cultivation of particular lifestyle (Bauman 1988). Even the reinforcement of social relationship is based on the variable use of the commodities (Feathersone 1991:5). The same pattern of consumption reproduces dispositions which constitute differential tastes resulting the definition of social and symbolic status in the new social order. At this juncture, class of consumers breaks other social boundaries in favour of the strata where they find happiness rather than satisfaction i.e. they put their interests in the dynamics of class shaping consumption orientations while consumption is representative of, and acts to reproduce, class-based social relations. People starts seeking new products and new pleasures because they are stimulating; to play new games, try out new items, explore new material objects, learn new tastes etc. in the individualized consumer society. People assign value to older items if it never infringes their pleasure and ideals. In short, the consumer society as a whole thinks and acts different from that of agrarian and even modern society. Here in the society, ideals, beliefs, practices, and interests of people become similar i.e., it is in the process of homogenization. Spending time for shopping has become third, after time spent at home and work place. Treating consumption as way of life, individuals mostly interact with homogeneous groups forming similar mentalities, confronting similar problems and so on.

Shifting interaction setting

For the purpose of the analysis, interaction setting is divided into macro and microlevels. This is formulated based on the changing dimension of interaction in the history of human beings. Interaction is determined by the economic tradition of the world. As pattern of interaction varies, all activities, community sentiments, spirituality, social consciousness etc change.

Early societies were seen as tightly bounded communities, ensuring individual commitments to the working of entire social system (Hall. JR 2003: 71). When the economic structure was agrarian people’s interaction setting was very much limited. They always bore the community feeling or they were more attached to the group in which they live. They were tied through enticing one another to carry the spirit of living together. Every activity was community oriented or in other words no action that which distort the unity of community was tolerated. Each and every member of the community shared the same feeling towards the community. The sharing of similar sentiments in the group made all the individuals homogeneous.

In the same way community binding spirituality comes to play. This ability of religion to bind people, probably gives way to religious fundamentalism if it is not handled appropriately. This is what we see in almost all communally disharmonious situations. To be more specific, this is true in Indian situation. To religion, the rural social structure is more apt for enticing people towards particular ideology or end. They are easily manipulative because of the lack of sufficient education and exposure to the outer world. The very religious attitude of people along with easy handy feature of the group of people becomes more vulnerable. This was the same situation in the West in 15th and 16th centuries, when vested interests manipulated Christianity as a means to accumulate power and as a rationalization for confiscating boundaries. The situation is more or less similar in India, provided it is the land of multiple religions. This is what it makes more dangerous when the disturbances are brake out.

As economic structure moves from an agrarian to industrial society every thing changes. Now with the introduction of technology, a new type of activity originated in human society. The core and system maintaining action comes from the main economic institution called industry. A never seen type of production system is incorporated in the new world system of production – mass production. Along with new form of economic production world order has changed into one which is based on economic domination, mass production of goods and their availability brought drastic change in the lifestyle of individuals. Wide spread of the philosophy of individualism influenced the mental frame and different spheres of individuals interactive circle. The transformation from community based system carried a little confusion over the direction of movement of individuals. Thus this period can be called the period of confused individualism in terms of the relation between religion and economic system. The community binding nature of religion started declining during this period. Therefore, it has become semi communal. Accounts of modernity trace the development of new self to the process of individualization (Bauman 2000, Beck & beck-Gernsheim 2002). The fundamental tension was between individual’s desires for self-fulfillment and the needs of the social order (Bellah et al.1950: 89) ie, individualism and social commitment. This individualistic attitude gives rise to the heterogenic consciousness to entire social world.

Postmodernity refers to historical epoch that is generally seen as following the modern era (Ritzer 2000: 603). For many this era is characterized by the drastic shift from production and towards a culture, identities and lifestyles based on consumption (Kidd 2002, p 88). Postmodernity was viewed differently by various scholars. Start Hall and others (1993) see it as a form of liberation and fragmentation. This type of liberation is achieved by accumulating goods produced in the market by modern technologies. Thus the interaction setting in this period is always associated with accumulated products. People find time to deal with the goods they accumulated showing the shifting nature of interaction. If people got enough time to deal with religious activities in the agrarian society, people in the postmodern era struggle to manage their time between the commodities. The active consumers (individuals) get involved into the realm of assigning meaning and values to those commodities that are always in contact with them. The homogeneous nature of production system produces similar type of consciousness. Rather than being diverse in terms of groups in which each belong, individuals prefer to set a platform of identification based on the consumption of commodities. Thus it leads to the redefinition of almost all the existing system. New criteria for defining class structure come up like education, income, and display of goods. Here individual actors are placed in those realms where they can freely act in situation.

Earlier, Marx explained social stratification on the basis of production. In other words, production relations determine the class structure in the industrial stage. When it comes to the postmodern period, as viewed by Baudrillard (1973) as signs and images create classes of different commodities social stratification of such a society is subordinated to signs and images. Baudrillard goes on saying that in such a way people are what they consume and is differentiated from other types of people on the basis of consumed objects. In consuming certain objects we are signifying that we are similar to those who also consume those objects and we are different from those who consume other objects. In support of Baudrillard, Doshi,S L (2002: 273-275) also argue that in a consumer society people do not have social relationship with other people. They interact with the objects through signs. The kind of interaction brings people closer irrespective of the place of origin and the group from which they hail. Thus the homogenization is brought in consumer society. People displaying same taste establish their distinction (Bourdieu: 1984). Taste for specific kinds of consumer goods are implicitly socialized by social class and status or are consciously learned as a means of integration into new social groups (Halle 1993).

Shifting Spirituality

By this way the homogeneity of consciousness is brought in the postmodern era. It becomes very clear that the dynamics of spirituality that holds the whole group become decreased. At this juncture, religion become not of very important to any group. Because,

the existence or the definition of any group itself is in question. This dynamics ie., the shifting of communally based spirituality to individually defined spirituality through material accumulation is very much shown in the picture above.


Man has been interacting with individuals since he appeared on earth, though it has tremendously changed. Everything we see in human society is established out of interaction and moreover for facilitating interaction. But it is bound by both time and space which can be considered as infrastructure capable of enriching interaction. The kind of relationship existing in various periods – agrarian, industrial and postmodern – is different from one another. The activity emerged out of interaction determine the sentiment, spirituality, cultural product and even consciousness of individuals of a period. Since people in agrarian period follows more or less religion of similar nature – for instance, Indian religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism etc. – a kind of homogeneity is established between the individuals in society. The same homogeneity is also established in postmodern era between the people living in consumer society while interacting with homogeneously mass produced commodities in the market. When spirituality shifts from communally binding to products centered, people opt to visit places of religious worship only when they are totally bored or when they desire to have relief from the prolonged interaction with commodities accumulated. Nobody is much interested in others matters in consumer society; in other words individuals are left free to follow their will. To reach this stage India has to walk a long way from its religious rudimentary at least to the ‘industrial openness’ (to choice). Rowena Robinson (2004:18) was right when she cautioned that power of caste, language and ethnicity to fabricate again and ever anew the boundaries between imagines groups can not match that of religion. Thus only thing that the state can do to ensure religious harmony is to promote free economy and thereby facilitate in creating a new consumer society of identical nature. Then the elimination of communally disturbed society is not far away; it is at the threshold. Only thing needed is to embrace consumer culture without lo sing the ethical values.


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