Whatever else one thinks of Slavov Zizek, he is occasionally capable of keen and clear insights. One of his favorite targets is New Age spirituality and western restructurings of Eastern religions. In this plea for a Hegelian reading of Christianity, Zizek dialectically drills the issue:
Postcolonial critics like to dismiss Christianity as the “whiteness” of religions: the presupposed zero level of normality, of the “true” religion, with regard to which all other religions are distortions or variations. However, when today’s New Age ideologists insist on the distinction between religion and spirituality (they perceive themselves as spiritual, not part of any organized religion), they (often not so) silently impose a “pure” procedure of Zen-like spiritual meditation as the “whiteness” of religion.
The idea is that all religions presuppose, rely on, exploit, manipulate, etc., the same core of mystical experience, and that it is only “pure” forms of meditation like Zen Buddhism that exemplify this core directly, bypassing institutional and dogmatic mediations. Spiritual meditation, in its abstraction from institutionalized religion, appears today as the zero-level undistorted core of religion: the complex institutional and dogmatic edifice which sustains every particular religion is dismissed as a contingent secondary coating of this core.
The reason for this shift of accent from religious institution to the intimacy of spiritual experience is that such a mediation is the ideological form that best fits today’s global capitalism.
Since the 1960s and perhaps earlier, there has in fact been a well-documented movement away from organized religion to supposedly more authentic forms of private belief and idiosyncratic practice. While most who move in this direction conceive of themselves as active and deliberate agents, few seem aware of the massive global industry which makes the movement seem so natural. The interiorization and privatization of belief, which can be purchased and hence “experienced” ala carte according to one’s tastes and desires, is the perfect and nearly invisible play for producers who sell spirituality. Those comfortably ensconced in a packaged world of yoga, meditation, ayahuasca, neo-shamans, retreats, incense, diets, books, gurus, music, and serenity aren’t likely to be change agents or agitators for social justice. The yoga studio is not a site of resistance.
Zizek’s insight is not entirely original, as this critique has been around for some time. Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion (2004) is an extended meditation on the subject. In “Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality” (2000), Lisa Aldred bemoaned the commodification of Amerindian religion but she could have been discussing any number of Eastern religions with equal validity:
In the so-called postmodern culture of late consumer capitalism, a significant number of white affluent suburban and urban middle-aged baby-boomers complain of feeling uprooted from cultural traditions, community belonging, and spiritual meaning. The New Age movement is one such response to these feelings. New Agers romanticize an “authentic” and “traditional” Native American culture whose spirituality can save them from their own sense of malaise.
However, as products of the very consumer culture they seek to escape, these New Agers pursue spiritual meaning and cultural identification through acts of purchase. Although New Agers identify as a countercultural group, their commercial actions mesh quite well with mainstream capitalism. Ultimately, their search for spiritual and cultural meaning through material acquisition leaves them feeling unsatisfied.
The community they seek is only imagined, a world conjured up by the promises of advertised products, but with no history, social relations, or contextualized culture that would make for a sense of real belonging. Meanwhile, their fetishization of Native American spirituality not only masks the social oppression of real Indian peoples but also perpetuates it.
Slavoj Zizek, “The Fear of Four Words: A Modest Plea for the Hegelian Reading of Christianity,” in The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic, ed. Creston Davis (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009) 27-28.