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From the Market of Religions to the Religion of the Market

by Maria Wolflingseder Tuesday, Jul. 31, 2007 at 9:42 AM

The democratic order became concrete as a form of the market. While a secular state forms around the market, the market ceases being merely profane. The market as a fate religion accepts and rejects like a Calvinist God,


By Maria Wolflingseder

[This article published in: Streifzuge 39/2007 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

“A new awareness rises in the middle class and even the educated despisers cannot deny it: religion said to be dead returns in consciousness” So begins Thomas Assheuer in his article in DIE ZEIT, February 8, 2007 in the series “What Should I Believe? On the “Curse and Blessing of the World Religions.” His title was: “Critics Stylizing Religion as Humanity’s Plague are Caught in Superstition.” He ended with the urgent recommendation: “Recognizing the necessity of religion as an anthropological constant is rational – even for critics of religion.”

DIE ZEIT is not a newspaper friendly to the churches. This positive standpoint has finally come into the left-liberal mainstream.

Religion-criticism was sown thinly in the last fifty or sixty years. Where it occurred, it was limited – arrested in the Christian good-evil dichotomy – to denouncing the “sins” of the church (crusades, witch-burnings and other violent crimes). This dichotomy also appeared very clearly in esoteric-criticism. The phenomenon religion and unquestioning faith were not religiously emphasized although whole books were listed. The “good rationality” in the democratic mainstream was opposed to the “evil rationality.” In their zeal, anti-clerical or atheist circles often acted as fixated hunters of clerics and theists who didn’t want to analyze or know their object.

Here we will probe deeper and illumine the “return of religion.” Is religion returning? Have not capital or the market and commodity-discourse already replaced the traditional God?

Seen historically, faith or superstition always experienced an upswing when the economic situation worsened. In the first half of the 20th century, in the time of the great economic crisis, a religious movement boomed as in the new age or esoteric movement that gained a foothold in the middle of the 1980s in Western Europe and has not lost its attraction today. Many practices and dogmas have become established in society, first and foremost positive thinking. (cf. Wolflingseder)

In the recent past, the spiritual vacuum manifest in upheaval and crises beyond the former Iron Curtain was immediately filled with the religious. The traditional churches and countless other variants of unquestioning faith experienced a great upturn. The traumatic event of the maximum credible accident in Chernobyl 1986 provoked the rise of “unquestioning faith.” Since the reactor accident, belief in karma and rebirth has been in a boom season. However this belief is not understood in the original Buddhist sense where nirvana and ending rebirth are the goals. On one hand, rebirth serves as a comfort to those who fear being killed or losing relatives in an environmental disaster and on the other hand is turned into a (good) necessity with the karmic justification of the unfortunate aspect. This meaning support is very widespread today. Two aspects of religion have caught on in a new variant: belief in a higher power that firstly guides our fate and secondly compensates us for all suffering with life after death.

Since the turn of the millennium, religious forms have become more popular. Spiritual and religious values are sought by persons of the most different origins in a strange harmony: from social critics, managers, economic bosses and leftist humanist scholars (like Jurgen Habermas and Slavo Zizek) to genetic- and nuclear-engineers on the heels of the Dalai Lama. Only the supposed way backward to religion exists since emancipatory perspectives pointing beyond the capitalist market economy are denied. Religious arguments attempt to take the sharpest fangs from “predatory capitalism.”


One characteristic of the return of the religious is its free enterprise orientation that can not be ignored. The philosopher Herbert Schnadelbach speaks of an “interest in religion” that “points to the cultural demand side.” However this demand is not directed to “religion with its themes, promises and exactions.” Religious world explanation models are not self-contained eclectic and unstable theological structures any more but “events” on one side (from papal funerals and world youth day in Koln to bike masses with tens of thousands of motorcyclists) and on the other side the “feeling of faith” expressed in the search for meaning and spirituality. Everything still remains vague. A contrast program to our profane everyday world ruled by technological and economic pressures is sought. The new religiosity and the new spirituality are a horn of plenty that can be filled with everything imaginable. They represent a container for everything lacking in life. The religious today is only one offer among many alongside the leisure-, sports-, television-, tourism industry etc. A faith as it once seized the whole person defining all aspects and areas of life hardly exists any more today. One makes use of religious elements exchangeable with one another.

What characterizes these religious needs? “Religion does not return and seize the person.” Schnadelbach writes “People reach for something they regard as religious. They feel a vacuum and want to see it filled. The search for “meaning” is constantly stressed. The question is often “What makes my life meaningful and worth living here and now?” There are as many answers to this question as there are persons. Therefore the term meaning is always wrapped in a fog of “iridescent uncertainty,” surrounded with “a metaphysical halo” as a great nebulous religious object (Schnadelbach). The term describes a vague longing for something “spiritual,” “higher” and “transcendent.” Schnadelback calls “meaning” a “verbal fetish” or “empty clichés” because “meaning” does not exist in itself. Meaning sells well. “Promises of happiness are not fulfilled in a market society (especially in a capitalist society) since money is earned in the promises, not in the fulfillment of these promises.” (Karlheinz Geissler)


The market knows how to exploit crises of meaning. A new branch was created, esotericism, a successful fusion of religion and market that has boomed for over twenty years. This branch represents an essential economic factor in decadent capitalism. The religious and spiritual have adopted clear features of commodities. If religion – the one in which someone was born – was once something rigid, the laissez-faire of esoteric diversity can hardly be resisted today. The offers are exchangeable like all offers of goods. As in a supermarket, everyone can find meaning in a commodity. The market of spiritual therapies, diets, sexual practices, healing accessories and relevant books and journals is boundless. Since the competition is great, the offerers try to trump one another in curiosity, pathos and exoticism.

A glance at history shows that the protestant church helped enforce the commodity logic. The pageantry and pomp of Catholicism with its Mary- and Jesus worship and strong characteristics of sublimated sexuality were replaced more and more by the sober Protestant work ethos that regards earning money as the main source of pleasure. Thus the religion fetish was repressed more and more by the capital fetish.

In many esotericism seminars on spiritual association with money, one is aught how to become effortlessly rich with the right consciousness. In this way, the capital fetish is (re-) sacralized. The system-imminent coercion of needing money to survive is spiritually reified instead of criticized.

In the evangelical movement in the US, the capital fetish is sacralized. The religion fetish and the capital fetish merge. “Giga-, mega- and mammoth churches appear and function like shopping malls. With escalators, glass elevators, spacious lobbies and air-conditioning, the person is not a sinner but a customer with all the worries and desires of modern life.” (Andrea Bohm) Everything is under one roof – from Starbucks, fitness centers, multimedia shops, counseling for the unemployed, kindergartens to groups for alcoholics, singles, fiancés or divorced. The missing infrastructure is also replaced for the fast growing suburbs or the suburbs. Church services occur three times every Sunday with 9,000 visitors at each. They resemble multi-media pop spectacles. Like commercial events, they use the same forms as their adversaries. The collections of up to 0,000 per Sunday are guarded by an array of hefty police in leather gear.

In the last 25 years, the number of giga-churches in the US has rapidly increased from 50 to 880. In each, up to 100,000 persons assemble weekly. The number of Americans who describe themselves as evangelical Christians varies between 20 and 30 percent of the population, 60 to 90 million persons. “Mega-churches are mega-businesses,” the economic magazine Forbes writes. The army of volunteers keeps down the operational costs of the pastors. The evangelical parallel world reaches into the very normal business world. An advertising spot on the radio extends the invitation: “Let us repair your car; we will caress it in the name of Jesus Christ.” A brochure urges: Lose a few pounds for the Lord.” For those who cannot trust the secular any more, there is a “Christian Yellow Pages.” Car dealers, chiropractics, piano tuners and travel agencies offer discounts for the pious or God-fearing.

That the mammoth churches arose in the US was not an accident. Both the US and the French revolution separated church and state. However these revolutions were not identical. While the state in France was protected from religion or from the catholic clergy, the opposite occurred in the US. Religion was withdrawn from the power of the state. As everybody knows, the first settlers were Puritans who escaped paternalism by the English state. They sought a legally guaranteed free space for that specifically American community life in which piety and work ethos, Bible study, self-discipline, personal initiative and striving for economic success reinforce each other.” (Christoph Turcke) The rights to be protected were first of all those of protestant Christians. Religious freedom referred more to developmental possibilities for that protestant spirit that saw only business success as reliable confirmation of not being rejected by its God rather than freedom of every individual.” (Ibid) This variant of secularization continues today and is one reason why the totalization of market conditions always advanced more quickly in the US than in Europe.


The question whether we live in a post-secular or post-religious society is ardently discussed in the middle class press. Recently the answer was: secularization in Europe represents a kind of exception that is disappearing again. One trailblazer for this perspective was Jurgen Habermas who in his Frankfurt peace prize address barely a month after September 11, 2001 spoke of the dawning “post-secular society” and the “truth potential” of religion, its “meaning resources” and “sensitivity for missed life.” This address met with a great response. The “post-metaphysical thinking turned against a scientistic conception of religion and exclusion of religious teachings from the genealogy of reason.” (cf. Rene Agulgah)

Different from the dominant discourse, we cannot speak of an historical overcoming of religion or of a post-secular society. Subjecting all life under religion or mixing up all areas of life and activities with religion was only replaced by the subjection of all life under a new fetish, value, commodity or the market.

In his article, “The Mystification of the World,” Ernst Lohoff vividly described the historical captivity of the fetish form. The significance of a world to come in the classical religions has greatly diminished in the modern age. However this “demystification” was misleading. Max Weber saw a “house of new bondage” arising as a dark backside of an inexorable secularization process. “The victory of commodity and reason over classical faith took place within the universe of magical practice and magical thought and in no way burst that universe. The supposed `demystification of the world’ turned out to be a new universal form of mystification. The omnipotent `real metaphysics’ of commodity and value replaces the religious miracle world and draws people in a mysticism that eclipses the oddities and absurdities of all its predecessors… The metabolism process of everyday human reproduction was transformed into an unending fetish service.” (Lohoff)

Unlike the conventional religions, its transcendental-religious character remains hidden to commodity thinking and acting. The absurdity of metaphysical ideas and otherworldly rites like earning money and the legal system is not recognized as such but wrongly identified as completely worldly. The character of unquestionable social realities of nature is ascribed to these ideas.

The Marxist criticism of political economy unmasks the connection of the basic commodity structure and religion. Marx did not recognize the range and importance of his discovery. His recourse to the intellectual world of theology remained merely metaphorical-polemical. Lohoff argues that far more than an accidental outward correspondence exists between religion and the rule of commodities. A structural inner relationship joins them. “Seen historically, the forms of consciousness and praxis constituting modern commodity subjectivity come from genuine religious sources, more exactly from western Christian sources. The metaphysic of value and commodity has repressed the Christian religion by taking and transforming its inheritance.” So the religious need is constantly kept alive and filled with new life.


Faith in the market economy or the fetish character of commodities replaces the traditional religions. Money has largely replaced God and become our new religion, a universal totalitarian religion that never existed before. No one on the whole globe can evade the pressure of having money.

Religion – in the sense of some kind of faith in a “higher being” or a transcendental sphere – has not disappeared. Religion has only been transferred or outsourced to a separated social sphere that reverberates on society the more the crisis of the commodity society advances and its meaning-giving authorities break down.

The evangelical theologian and philosopher Christoph Turcke – a bright exception in the current religion debate – summarizes this: “In the 18th century, the market expanded and flaunted about. The democratic order became concrete as a form of the market. Giving the market a civilized framework and legal security is the state’s primary function today. Thus conditions have reversed in a spectacular way. While a secular state forms around the market, the market ceases being merely profane. It assumes an existential or cultic dimension and becomes the central socialization power, not only a trading center of goods… Thus the market is promoted to the authority that decides over weal and woe, meaning and nonsense and the existence and non-existence of human life. It begins to play fate.

The market accepts and rejects like a Calvinist God. When the commodity labor power languishes, it reveals itself to be a fate religion worshipping only profit. Goods not for sale have no meaning. Unemployment strikes existentially. The affected are hardly helped in hearing from all sides they are “valuable persons.” The market speaks against this. When it accepts workers, they are only in a treadmill and in no way in Abraham’s bosom. This is also true for the elect. No one seriously expects that the market can rescue from suffering, sickness and death. But it redeems from the curse of not being for sale. Its deliverances are insipid but real. Unlike all its predecessors, its divinity needs not be expressly proven. The universal acquisition of food and wealth confirms it ceaselessly. This deity has gone downhill in a double sense: on the ground of facts and on the trite reality principle. The market promises nothing but itself. Its “supreme good” is the boom season.

We live in a time of upheaval marked by three phenomena. Firstly, religions in the traditional sense are still effective although secondly the market and capital have largely replaced God. Thirdly, the new religious forms visible in the esoteric movement, the evangelical movement etc. serve many as attempts to oppose something to the suffering and meaninglessness in our society and find a support. Still religion in the traditional sense does not experience an upswing. We meet at best a desperate rebellion. Religion and faith in the original sense are historical forms of mastering life and human relations. Emancipation only has a chance when all fetish forms – from the traditional religions to the capitalist market with its appendages politics, law and work – are overcome.

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