Image by Mohamed Hassan/Pixabay/Creative Commons

How millennials make meaning from shopping, decorating and self-pampering

(RNS) — Today’s millennials are in many ways caught between a rock and a hard place, at least when it comes to traditional religious observance.

On the one hand, they’re disillusioned with their parents’ religious traditions, which have failed to provide them with a coherent account of meaning and purpose in the world. On the other hand, they’re alienated from the conservatism of more hard-line denominations with stances on LGBTQ issues or sexuality that an increasingly progressive generation sees as at odds with millennials’ core values.

These values hold that the self is an autonomous being, the self’s desires are fundamentally good, and societal and sexual repression as not just undesirable but actively evil. These millennials, which in my new book I called “Remixed Millennials,” are at once attracted to moral and theological certainty — accounts of the human condition that claim totalizing truth or demand difficult adherence because the challenge is ultimately rewarding — and repulsed by traditions that set hard limits on personal, and particularly sexual or romantic, desire.

That, for better or for worse, is where corporations come in. Increasingly, companies have recognized that there is a gap in the needs of today’s Remixed: institutions, activities, philosophies and rituals that manage to be challenging and totalizing while also preserving millennials’ need for personal freedom. It’s the dot-com bubble for spirituality, a free marketplace of innovation and religious disruption. No sooner does something become a viral movement than an ingenious startup finds a way to re-create it at a more profitable price point. (Columbia Business School is currently hosting an incubator for “spiritual entrepreneurs,” offering a certificate in spiritual entrepreneurship for those who complete a 20-week course.)

Consumer-capitalist culture offers us not merely necessities but identities. Meaning, purpose, community and ritual can all — separately or together — be purchased on Amazon Prime.

As journalist Amanda Hess wrote in The New York Times, “Shopping, decorating, grooming and sculpting are now jumping with meaning. And a purchase need not have any explicit social byproduct — the materials eco-friendly, or the proceeds donated to charity — to be weighted with significance. Pampering itself has taken on a spiritual urgency.”

Seeking to capitalize on the spiritual gap in the market, more and more brands are packaging and marketing religious and spiritual products. In 2019, you could buy witch-branded candles at Urban Outfitters, download Headspace or another meditation app to practice mindfulness on your morning commute, then pop in to SoulCycle, or CrossFit, or an Ashtanga yoga class on your lunch hour.

A 2018 study by Virtue, the branding-partnership arm of Vice Media, argued that spirituality was the “next big thing” in millennial-focused marketing. “We now think brands should take a step further,” Vice’s chief creative and commercial officer Tom Punch told attendees at a marketing festival, “thinking more broadly about what their role is in society and how they can truly be a force for good in people’s lives.”

Image by Mohamed Hassan/Pixabay/Creative Commons

In the early stages of its development, Facebook set up internal “compassion research days,” during which the company brought in academics from Harvard and Yale to teach the benefits of Buddhist compassion, to employees working on the site’s harassment-reporting tools.

Companies are also using political advocacy to sell themselves as moral arbitrators: See Nike’s advertisements celebrating Colin Kaepernick’s decision to “take a knee” in support of the Black Lives Matter movement or Chick-fil-A’s donations to anti-LGBT-marriage groups (a practice the company ceased in 2019 after backlash from progressives).

These brands are selling not just products but values. In so doing, they are creating moral universes, selling meaning as an implicit product and reframing capitalist consumption as a religious ritual — a repeated and intentional activity that connects the individual to divine purpose in a values-driven framework. The rise of “woke capitalism” and its reactionary converse is endemic of the way today’s new religions interface with the brands that so powerfully promote, reify and profit off them.

Of course, the rise of spiritual branding would be impossible without the third phenomenon that sets this Great Awakening apart from its predecessors: the dizzying transformations effected by internet culture.

The internet has also encouraged us, as consumers with a cornucopia of options demand a creative role in designing our spiritual experiences. For a whole generation it has provided alternative communities, allowing people to find friends or partners who aren’t merely like-minded, but almost identically minded. It disincentivizes compromise and conformity, even as it promises the bespoke ideal: people who think and feel and act just like you.

Long before the advent of the World Wide Web, Marshall McLuhan, often considered the father of media studies, envisioned a technological future characterized by what he called “retribalization.” New forms of electronic media — television, for example — were being touted as ushering in the “global village”: a world in which disparate peoples would be united by the ideas and images newly available to them. McLuhan predicted that instead, we’d splinter into new, technology-driven “tribes.”

As McLuhan rather bombastically (and somewhat offensively) told a Playboy interviewer in 1969, “The compressional, implosive nature of the new electric technology is retrogressing Western man back from the open plateaus of literate values and into the heart of tribal darkness.”

McLuhan was prophetic. From Harry Potter fans to Wiccans, skin care fanatics to political activists, we’re increasingly able to use the power of both social media (Facebook) and public forums (Twitter, Reddit, 4chan) to find people with similar interests, philosophies and even sexual kinks. 

But that’s just one side of the coin. The internet has also made us hungrier for individualization: for products, information and groups that reflect more exactly our personal sense of self.

There is a natural irony to all this. The very qualities that most characterize modern technology — speed and ease of reproducibility — have also kindled a cultural backlash. Our spiritual profiles, like our Facebook profiles, need to be individualized.

Just look at the Ritual Design Lab, founded by designers Kursat Ozenc and Margaret Hagan. Callers into the “ritual design hotline” (past clients have included big brands like Microsoft) tell the lab a bit about their community and needs, and the lab in turn designs a custom, nontheistic ritual. (If you want even more independence, the lab’s custom app, IdeaPop, can help you brainstorm on your own.)

Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World by Tara Isabella Burton. Courtesy image

“The new generation,” Ozenc told The Atlantic’s Sigal Samuel, “want(s) bite-size spirituality instead of a whole menu of courses.”

In Ozenc’s view, this is a good thing. “Design thinking can offer this,” he continued on, “because the whole premise of design is human-centeredness. It can help people shape their spirituality based on their needs. Institutionalized religions somehow forget this — that at the center of any religion should be the person.” 

(This article has been adapted from “Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World” by Tara Isabella Burton. Copyright © 2020. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group Inc.)