Consumption and Religion

The connection between consumption and religion has been investigated by a wide range of scholars. Topics examining this  relationship include: the rise of capitalism and the nature of modern capitalism, competition among religious organizations for religious consumers, the consumption of religious goods and services, as well as consumption as a secular religion.

In  The  Protestant Ethic and  the  Spirit  of Capitalism (1958), Max Weber argued that Puritan religious beliefs, particularly Calvinist doctrine,  were  among  the  necessary conditions leading  to   the   development  of  capitalism. Believing that salvation is predestined but not knowing for certain if they were chosen, Calvinists sought confidence in the fate of their souls through intense engagement in worldly activities. This ethic of hard work was coupled with a belief in the virtue of leading an austere life, including restricting the consumption of luxury goods. Consequently, profits were available for reinvestment  in  economic  enterprise.  Thus economic acquisition came to  be seen as an end in itself, rather than exclusively as a means of satisfying needs and desires.

Contemporary   scholars   have   questioned whether this process is found only in the West and if religious values identified by Weber are peculiar to Protestant Christianity. Broadening Weber’s view, Collins (1997) noted that such beliefs were found in  Zen  Buddhism in  late medieval Japan. Buddhist  movements of the time rejected ceremonial religion. Instead, the activities of everyday life became regarded as opportunities for meditative practice. This focus on engagement with the world was also combined with a critique of lavish lifestyles.

This combination of religious beliefs facilitated investment in  commercial activities, enabling the transition to a market based economy. Collins also argued that in both the East and the West,  religious organizations often  contained the first entrepreneurs. The  extent to which the lifestyle of Calvinists and other Protestants involved limits on consumption has also been questioned. Wealthy Dutch  Calvinists of the  seventeenth century participated in a variety of forms of conspicuous consumption, but their style of consumption  reflected an embarrassment with  wealth stemming from their religious beliefs (Schama 1987). While the affluent of Italy and France had long preferred ostentatious building facades, Calvinists preferred less ornate exteriors. Interior display, on the other hand, frequently  involved luxurious  materials: dining tables inlaid with  mother of pearl and  floors constructed  of  marble were  not  uncommon.

Paintings became popular among the  middle class. In dress Calvinists preferred somber colors, especially black and white, but the materials were first class: black satin or velvet adorned with white collars of linen or lace. Nevertheless, for  some seventeenth century  Calvinists income rose even faster than expenditure, and religion, while not limiting consumption, influenced style.

Scholars have also been concerned with the role of the  Protestant  work ethic in  modern capitalism. Some  suggest it  has  fallen away and been replaced by a consumer ethos. Others claim that a culture of hedonism has long existed along with  the  Protestant  ethic.  Bell argued that traditional American values of hard work, restraint, and delayed gratification have been  replaced by  a  culture  that  emphasizes newness of experience and a demand for plea sure and leisure through consumption. Gradually work has become a means of increasing consumption, rather  than  being viewed as a valued end in itself.

Not   denying   Weber’s  claims,  Campbell (1987) argued that a romantic ethic promoting a spirit of consumerism developed in parallel with the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Arising out of Romanticism at the start of the  nineteenth  century,  hedonism was an important  ingredient  in  the  development  of consumerism. Pleasure and emotion became a defining feature of life; the search for pleasure led to a desire to consume novel things and an  eagerness for  new  experiences. Campbell argued that consumption played a critical role in the Industrial Revolution and continues to influence the character of modern capitalism.

Sociologists of religion have examined consumption by investigating religion as a market place. One theoretical approach conceptualizes religious organizations as marketers of religious products competing with each other for religious  consumers  (church  members).  Others have focused empirically on  the  relationship between contemporary religious practices and consumption.

The theoretical approach of Finke and Stark (1992) was developed to examine the relationship between religious pluralism and religious participation. They  argued that an open consumer  marketplace  for  religion,  as  opposed to   a   state dominated   monopoly,  promotes individual participation in religion. Their proposed  mechanism  is  competition.  Religious economies are expected to behave like commercial economies: the more religious organizations there  are, the  more competition there  is for religious consumers. Consequently, the leaders of religious organizations are motivated to produce better religious products, which in turn attract more people to religion. This theoretical argument has been used to  explain the  relatively high level of religiosity in  the  United States as compared to  most European countries.  Competition  among religious organizations  is  expected to  be  high  in  the  United States, because unlike many European countries the United States lacks a state sponsored religion (or religious monopoly). A large number of empirical studies have investigated these claims,  and  the  overall findings  have  been mixed. Many studies of particular times and places have not found that religious pluralism is positively correlated with religious participation (see Chaves & Gorski 2001 for a critical review of this literature).

Analyses of changes in  the  religious landscape  suggest  that   religious  practices  have increasingly become connected to consumption. Wuthnow (1998) argued that  in  the  1950s a ‘‘spirituality of dwelling’’ predominated, where individuals sought the sacred within religious organizations, like churches  and  synagogues. By the 1960s, a ‘‘spirituality of seeking’’  had increased in  popularity.  A quest  culture  led people  to  look  beyond  established  religious institutions for spiritual direction and insight. Most recently, a ‘‘spirituality of practice’’ has become prominent. Appealing to those uncomfortable within  a  single religious community but wanting more than endless spiritual seeking, this approach centers on various devotional practices used to connect everyday life to the divine. Both spiritual quests and practice based spirituality are intertwined with the consumption of particular goods and services.

While interest in spirituality is not new, in the late twentieth century forums for spiritual seekers proliferated. While some forums include less commercial groups like science fiction clubs and self help meetings, the emphasis on self understanding and spiritual seeking among the post World War II generations facilitated the emergence of new spiritual industries. Books, videos, music, psychic services, natural  food stores, and retreat centers have become outlets for those seeking a variety of spiritual resources. Suppliers of these goods and services are found both inside and outside of established religion. In particular there has been an increase in the printing and sale of books on spiritual matters. With  sections devoted  to  Buddhism,  Native American religion, New Age spirituality, self help,  and  religious  fiction,  bookstores have become the most important centers of spirituality apart from religious congregations. Publishers of print materials have successfully stirred customer interest and tapped into unfulfilled needs, leading some scholars to refer to book stores as the churches and synagogues of the current period.

Practice based   spirituality   often   involves efforts to simplify and be more conscious regarding  consumption.  Ironically,  new  products and services have emerged to assist in the simplification endeavor: restaurants and stores that provide  wholefoods, services  such  as  yoga instruction and guided meditation, and wellness clinics providing holistic healing treatments. In addition,  spiritual  practices  are  increasingly structured  around specialized niches, such as ecospirituality, feminist  spirituality,  or  combining Christian  beliefs and  physical fitness. Spiritual entrepreneurs  have helped to create those niches. Alternatives and complementary additions to traditional religion are increasingly found in the market.

Religious holidays are increasingly associated with consumption. It  has been observed that shopping and gift exchange has replaced the Christian  story  of the  birth  of Jesus as the primary  meaning associated with  Christmas. The purchase of gifts to be exchanged during religious holidays is a major component of the economy of  the  United  States.  Many  large retail stores conduct 25 percent or more of their business in the weeks preceding Christmas, and American consumers spend $200 billion during the Christmas shopping season or an average of $800 per family (Farrell 2003). In response to the dominance of Christmas and the shopping rituals associated with it, the winter holidays of other religions have been elevated in relative importance.

Examination of the devotion to consumption itself has also been a theme at least since the writing of Thorstein Veblen. Recently, fast food restaurants, amusement parks, shopping malls, and similar settings have been conceptualized as cathedrals of consumption. Ritzer (2005) argues that such settings drive hyperconsumption. As consumers become disenchanted with rationalized consumption, including the uniformity of available services and products, newer and more magical settings are created to reenchant the experience of shopping. At the same time, the settings themselves are highly rationalized and are being replicated across the world. Shopping malls have become some of the largest and most popular public spaces in urban  areas. Others have argued that  participation in fashion and shopping involves meaning making acts. Part of the construction of the perfect self, consumption has been conceptualized as a secular ritual, in  part   through   the   efforts  of  advertising (Twitchell 1999).


  1. Campbell, (1987) The Romantic Ethic and  the Spirit of Modern Consumerism. Blackwell, Oxford.
  2. Chaves, & Gorski, P. S. (2001) Religious Pluralism and Religious Participation. Annual Review of Sociology 27: 261-81.
  3. Collins, (1997) An Asian Route to  Capitalism: Religious Economy and the Origins of Self-Transforming Growth  in  Japan. American Sociological Review 62(6): 843-65.
  4. Farrell, J. (2003) One Nation Under Goods: Malls and the Seduction of American Shopping. Smithsonian Books, Washington, DC.
  5. Finke, & Stark, R. (1992) The Churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
  6. Ritzer, (2005) Enchanting a Disenchanted World: Revolutionizing the Means of Consumption, 2nd edn. Pine Forge Press, Thousand Oaks, CA.
  7. Roof,  C.  (1999) Spiritual  Marketplace: Baby Boomers  and the Remaking  of American  Religion. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  8. Schama, (1987) The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. William Collins Sons, London.
  9. Twitchell, (1999) Lead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism. Columbia University Press, New York.
  10. Wuthnow,   (1998) After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s. University of California Press, Berkeley.

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