Monday, March 7, 2011

Advertising, Religion, and the End of the World

Okay, so the title of this very brief blog post is a bit melodramatic--but I'm thinking of it as a working title for a future book that develops the ideas I presented a couple of weeks ago at the AAAS meeting in Washington DC. I've been thinking of offering a summary of that talk here--but a blogger named Brigid has saved me the trouble. She was apparently at the panel in which I gave my talk, and she does an excellent job of summarizing my main line of argument in a post entitled American Wind Power and the Power of Advertising. (My comment on that post has much more to do with the themes of this blog than the original talk did, which mentioned religion only in a brief concluding paragraph--as an invitation to further research).


  1. Eric,

    I agree that consumerism is a stupid way of life any way one looks of it, and that is leading humanity towards disaster. Every time I listen people speak of “growth” as the goal of economic policy I cringe (so I cringe a lot). No doubt the advertising business is part of the problem, even though it is not quite clear to what degree advertising causes consumerism and to what degree consumerism causes advertising. In any case, if I am right about the implications of modern technology (especially the Internet), the advertising business is doomed, simply because people will have much better means to decide what to buy than follow the message of the advertisers. And if they heed advertisers less, advertising in general will move them less towards consumerism.

    I agree with your main thesis that religion gives us the best means to turn away from a consumerist life.

    What I find a much more critical question is this: There are already many religious people, and religion appears to make too small a difference in their consumerist ways. Sam Harris often says that beliefs are important because they influence the actions of people – which is doubtlessly true. But what I find remarkable, and in our context worrying, is how little religious belief really influences the actions of people, how inadequately morally empowering religion is in the real world. So I don’t think that advertising is the main problem here; I think the main problem is a lack of faith. One can know about God in a purely intellectual way, the way many smokers know that cigarettes are bad for their health and keep smoking. What is missing is a commitment to one’s beliefs.

    Speaking of Christianity, which I know best, it seems to me that in the West Christianity focuses too much on belief (“believe that Jesus is your personal savor and you’re saved”), and in the East focuses too much on church participation (“take part in the church mysteries and you’re saved”). In both cases it seems to me that salvation is seen as some kind of transaction. But Christianity, as all religion, is a call to self-transcendence. Or, in Christian terms, a call to follow the path of Christ, a call to turn into Christ.

    My point is that advertising is not the main problem that causes consumerism (and will probably lose influence in the future anyway); the main problem is that religion as we know it today is too superficial, too decorative. In your next book, instead of focusing on advertising, why not focus on religion and on how to improve matters? I think this is a hugely important issue, pragmatically speaking, not only for society as a whole, but for the good life of the individual also: How to turn religious belief into religious life. Religious belief is, it seems to me, a trivial thing and easy to attain; self-transforming religious life is the point. Which reminds me that Jesus in the gospels speaks a lot about life and hardly ever about belief or church participation.

  2. Dianelos,

    I agree that advertising cannot rightly be singled out as the cause of our consumerist view of life--AND that there is a chicken-and-egg issue (doesn't advertising largely reflect and feed off of a consumerism that is already rampant?). In fact, I think the relationship is dialectical, and encompasses far more than advertising. In my talk I put it this way:

    "The views of life that really determine our behavior are shaped by a range of social influences. But at the same time, these social influences arise from the cumulative decisions of individuals whth their respective views of life. Our views of life can thus be seen as the product of a long-term positive feedback loop: bit by bit, people's views shape society and are in turn shaped by society.

    "The consumerist view is entangled with crucial social institutions and practices--especially business ones--in just this sort of feedback loop."

    I then introduced advertising as one institution that is entangled with consumerism in a positive feedback loop--a particularly instructive example insofar as looking at it carefully exposes how consumerist views of the good life can take root and dominate our more reflective and reasoned understanding of our own good.

    While you may well be right that advertising as we know it is on the way out, this doesn't mean that we are seeing the end of the broader strategies of psychological manipulation which advertising exemplifies. It may not take the same form it took in the television age, but I wouldn't underestimate the commitment and creativity that will inspire businesses to adapt these broad strategies to a new social infrastructure.

    I am, however, sympathetic to the idea that a consumerist understanding of life emerges quite naturally (to be exploited and magnified) in the vacuum created when we are disconnected from who and what we fundamentally are, and hence from what really satisfies us. Religion as a holistic phenomenon is well described in terms of the effort to overcome this disconnect--to "save" us from our "fallenness" by bringing us into a kind of LIVED alignment with the most fundamental reality (as opposed to having the right "beliefs" or performing the right rituals).

    Juggling with the trappings of religion (to borrow Schleiermacher's phrase) is not the path to overcoming such alienation...and based on my experience I am convinced that agnostics and atheists (labels describing states of BELIEF) can live their lives in ways that I would describe as in tune with the noumenal reality which underlies the phenomenal world.

    At the same time, however, ways of life involve implicit presuppositions. I am a theist in part because I think the presuppositions that implicitly undergird the ways of life that seem "truest" (in terms of reflecting a kind of harmony with what we are and with the world) are most coherently worked out in theistic terms. But that is a controversial philosophical matter--well worth pursuing, but not because "getting it right" is either necessary or sufficient for overcoming our disconnection. For THAT, I think the most crucial thing is maintaining an attitude of openness to being transformed by a good that transcends us (and transcends our understanding)--an attitude that can be nurtured through religious language and practice, but often isn't.