10 years ago I completed a 4 year Masters Degree in Comparative Religion at the University of Edinburgh. My final year dissertation was a study of capitalism as a religion. The dissertation received the highest First grade of all the students in my year group. I was asked to continue onto do a PhD in topic by my Professor but decided it was time for me to become an entrepreneur instead.
Over the years I’ve mentioned the dissertation to a number of people and everyone has always been fascinated by the topic and many people have asked me for a copy. Given the insanity going on in the world, I thought it was time I published the dissertation as I do believe it is an important topic.
Many people believe capitalism is the only economic system we can possibly have despite the fact Harvard University found 51% of American Millenials no longer ‘believe’ in capitalism (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/04/26/a-majority-of-millennials-now-reject-capitalism-poll-shows/?utm_term=.4323f8e76399). There clearly remains some ‘blind faith’ that capitalism is the only, and best, way to organize our global economic system. On January 1st, I will challenge this blind faith with the book I will publish.
Please bear in mind this was an academic exercise and all the points I argue here are not reflective of my personal beliefs. I hope you get value if you decide to read this!
University of Edinburgh, School of Divinity, Honours Dissertation
Selling Religion - An analysis of capitalism as a religion
by Lucian Tarnowski
16th April, 2007
Word count: 10,870
A dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Religious Studies
Capitalism can be narrowly defined as: ‘An economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’ (Summers and Holmes, 2006: 172). However, for the purposes of this dissertation I will look also at the effects capitalism has on people, as a worldview which directly informs the ways many people live their lives. Indeed, capitalism currently forms the predominant means of subsistence for the majority of the world. Historically one’s means of subsistence has often been reflected in one’s religious or worldview. Since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989 capitalism has been proclaimed globally triumphant. It is highly likely that it has developed to become the most powerful and globally influential worldview in the history of society and provides many people with a source of meaning to their lives. In this dissertation I therefore aim to assess whether capitalism can itself be seen as a religion. In order to do this I will systematically analyse to what extent capitalism fits into Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion. This self-reflexive project should demonstrate to what extent capitalism has shared characteristics with those typically found in the commonly accepted religions of the world. From this point I will be in a position to conclude about the ‘religious’ characteristics inherent in capitalism and then assess the global consequences of accepting capitalism as a religion.
In order to understand whether capitalism can be accepted as a religion one must analyse what a religion tends to look like. Indeed, religion holds centuries of association with power; it evokes both positive and negative images; it is constantly re-imagined and reinvented and provides a spectrum of ideas for assertions of power. Religious ideas shape cultural imagination and have the power to inspire people not only to make money and kill others but also to stand and fight for justice and build societies that care for the weakest members. However, to say exactly what religion is and what religion is not is a highly difficult and controversial task. This issue brings us to the first problem of finding a suitable definition of religion.
1.1 The problem of defining religion
Religion is a highly contested subject and resistant to definition. Therefore, the ambiguity of the word ‘religion’ must be noted from the start. Indeed, if one looks at the history of the term we find that it is by no means a global term but one created by the West that has been appropriated universally. To begin with the words of Max Weber, ‘to define “religion”; to say what it is, is not possible at the start of a presentation such as this. Definition can be attempted, if at all, only at the conclusion of the study’ (Weber, 1963: 1). There has been no lack of attempts to define religion. However, thus far, no definition has come close to suiting all parties. Yet, despite this problem, there are forms of cultural life that are clearly identifiable as ‘religion’ in contrast to other cultural practices (Flood, 1999: 42). The aim of this study is to analyse whether it is legitimate to include capitalism among these forms of cultural life.
1.2 History of the term ‘religion’ and its global applicability
‘‘Religion’ is not a native term; it is a term created by scholars for their intellectual purposes and therefore is theirs to define’ (J.Z.Smith, 1998: 281). The abstraction ‘religion’ originated in the context of the critique of Christianity in the Enlightenment and the rise of the modern individual, which has since become an etic category through its application outside Christianity (Harrison, 1990: 1). Cady argues that the presumed universality of the category has allowed a western, liberal mould to frame the data, wrenching it from its own material and socio-political context. Not only has this distorted the West’s understanding of other cultures, but liberal ecumenical theological interests have been served in the process (Cady, 2002: 118). Therefore, the history and ambiguity of the term will be acknowledged in the analysis of capitalism as religion. No scholar of religion occupies a position from nowhere; by being aware of the historical issues and mental constructions of what can and cannot be labelled religion, one is a step closer to achieving an impartial position.
1.3 The power and political implications of defining the term ‘religion’
‘No statement about what religion is can avoid at least partially explaining what religion does, where it comes from, and how it works’ (Arnal, 2000: 22). Religion is a powerful and politically loaded term. The act of defining religion in this or that way, exercises control on the part of the definer (Sutcliffe, 2006: 2). There is certainly a high degree of misuse of the term in order to serve interests, which leads on to the politics of representation. One must ask who gets to do the representing through the control of language and whether this can ever be legitimate control. It is therefore important to constantly bear in mind the fact that definitions of religion are not neutral and do not occur in an academic vacuum (Nye, 2000: 461).
1.4 From religion to ‘spirituality’
It is also important to make a brief note on the inherent difficulties in distinguishing between ‘spirituality’ and ‘religion’. In the same way as the word ‘religion’, the word ‘spirituality’ is a culturally constructed, highly problematic concept (Moore, 1994: 145). However, it is not the aim of this study to further the debate on the semantic understanding of the terms. Nonetheless, it must be appreciated that there is a tension present in the use of terminology. It is ‘spirituality’ rather than religion that is being promoted in twenty-first century capitalistic societies. Unlike the use of the word ‘religion’, it appears that ‘spirituality’ holds an untainted image in the mainstream. Many would therefore describe a form of ‘capitalistic spirituality’. However, for practical reasons this dissertation will focus on capitalism as a religion rather than the ‘fuzzy’ concept of capitalist spirituality (Zinnbauer, 1997: 549).
1.5 Approaches to and issues of definition
There is a vast spectrum of approaches to defining religion, depending on the context specifically used. Conflicts about definition of religion often revolve around issues about what can and cannot be legitimately included within the boundaries of the term ‘religion’. In the case of the functionalist definition, the boundaries are often drawn too tightly, resulting in the exclusion of certain traditions. For example, the definition ‘belief in God’ will leave many traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism out of the category of ‘religion’ (Baird, 1991: 8). On the other hand, if the boundaries of the term are drawn too loosely, as in the case of the diluted substantive definitions, it is difficult to know exactly what is being referred to when it is employed, suggesting that just about anything and everything is a religion (Connelly, 1999, 4-5). Getting the balance right is therefore difficult; it is too easy to start to define religion as what one thinks it should be rather than what religion actually is (Strenski, 1998: 113).
It is useful, therefore, to begin with a working (heuristic) definition, provisional in character and subject to modification, in order to bring a critical eye to what counts as legitimate subject matter for religion (Connelly, 1999: 5). A heuristic approach to definition seems to be the only suitable approach, taking into account the artificiality of the category. The heuristic approach can, therefore, be used as a way into the subject, but must always remain open to re-thinking and re-evaluation.
With these points in mind I do not propose a definition in a sentence. I propose that it is more practical not to think of what religion is in general but, rather, what a religion is. This can be achieved by looking at the characteristics of religion. The person that has done this with the greatest effect has been Ninian Smart with his seven dimensions of religion. From this point I propose to use Smart’s dimensions of religion as a working definition of what can and cannot be included in the category ‘religion’.
2.1 An introduction to Ninian Smart
Smart acknowledges the problems of finding a suitable definition of religion and in response argues ‘in undertaking a voyage into the world’s religions we should not define religion too narrowly. It is important for us to recognize secular ideologies as part of the story of human worldviews. It is artificial to divide them too sharply from religions’ (Smart, 1998: 10). Again, one must note that the distinction between religious and secular beliefs and practices is a modern Western one and does not represent the way in which other cultures categorize human values. This is an important point as phenomena can still be called a religion even if its adherents do not themselves see their practices as a religion. Smart argued: ‘To study human beliefs and the feelings and practices that accompany them we need to go beyond traditional religions… In brief, I pay attention to all the major forces of belief and feelings which animate our world’ (Smart, 1983: preface).
2.2 Smart’s economic dimensions of religion
In his book Dimensions of the Sacred (1996) Smart maintains that religions have economic dimensions. He makes an important point about the transition from agricultural societies to industrial societies and some of the consequences this transition has had on the mystical aspects of nature. In pre-industrial society people regarded economic realities in cosmological terms (Smart 1996: 268). Indeed, God gave the necessary rain and sunshine for crops to grow, supplied the fish in the sea and the game to hunt. However, as industrial societies developed, human beings realized that it was they themselves that were the economic actors. As this process of thinking developed, social and economic power was ascribed to people and social structures as opposed to God (Mikaelsson, 2001: 107). Quite simply, people began to acknowledge their dependence on each other, rather than looking to God or the gods for their economic security. This development is highly important to the argument that capitalism is itself a religion. One needs to analyse whether this development of the disenchantment of humanity with the mystery of nature has led to humanity worshiping the very objects of their creation.
2.3 Smart’s dimensions of religion
Smart created his seven dimensional model of religion in order to support his lifelong contention that religion should be understood beyond its doctrinal aspect, usually interpreted as belief in God or gods, which had so dominated the traditional Western approach to the study of religions (Cox, 2006: 162). He preferred to describe religion as multidimensional and organic, which he demonstrated through his seven dimensions.
I would argue that the strength of Smart’s position lies in the openness of his enquiry. His emphasis on the need for empathy is a characteristic of this. He is also willing to question the traditional categories that define the subject in accordance with the transformations that were taking place in twentieth-century society. His dimensional schema is the consistent means whereby the shape of his studies is retained, in relation to the phenomena being explained (Erricker, 1999: 88). The dimensions therefore provide a useful balance between fluidity and structure. For Smart, each of the seven dimensions not only has a dual name to demonstrate the breadth of the concept, but is also related to every other dimension on the list (Cox, 2006: 164). The point of the seven dimensions is to provide ‘a balanced description of the movements which have animated the human spirit and taken place in the shaping of society, without neglecting either ideas or practices’ (Smart, 1998: 21).
2.4 Smart’s seven dimensions of religion and their application to capitalism
In this section I aim to analyse Smart’s seven dimensions and then apply some examples specific to capitalism to each of the dimensions. It is important that the reader notes that my interpretation of Smart’s dimensions of religion are to be understood in a fluid manor. Indeed, this is how Smart wanted the dimensions to be used. As a result, the examples I give may fit appropriately into more than one dimension, despite the fact they are presented under one specific area. Furthermore, I am also analyzing both capitalism itself and the effects capitalism has on wider society. The reason for this is simple: one cannot begin to understand a religion without looking at the social and cultural effect it has on people.
1. The Practical and Ritual Dimension
Smart explains that ‘Every tradition has some practices to which it adheres – for instance regular worship, preaching, prayers and so on. They are often known as rituals’ (Smart, 1998: 13). Often these do not refer only to ‘formal or explicit rites of religion’ but also to ‘practices’ that develop ‘spiritual awareness or ethical insight’ (Smart, 1998:13). This dimension could be applied to capitalism in various ways. For example, when one thinks of the opening ceremony of the NASDAQ Stock Exchange (www.nasdaq.com) there are certainly ritualistic elements. Every morning the markets are declared open by the ringing of a “sacred” bell, often by some prominent figure or celebrity who may possibly be seen as some form of figurehead for capitalism. Furthermore, there is the obvious example of the transformation of Christmas in the twentieth century. Christmas has now become for many the ritual celebration of consumerism and excess.
Television: a ritual powered by capitalism?
One can find the creation of ritual communitas (Turner, 1969: 96-7) through the various television programmes that have become capitalist icons in modern society. From one perspective television within consumer culture can generate a sense of festive occasion and group solidarity. Television shows such as ‘Big Brother’ and ‘X Factor’ reveal the tip of the iceberg. Larger televised events such as the American Super Bowl and ‘Band Aid’ often create a sense of global communitas and a feeling of global unity to many of the audiences sharing in the experience.
The space race – a triumph for capitalism
The challenge between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s to be the first nation into space, and later to initiate the first lunar mission, is an example of the power of capitalism as a religion. Indeed, within the space race itself one can see many of Smart’s dimensions evolving, as well as the sense of communitas that the lunar mission created among the capitalist nations in the world. In simplistic terms the space race was a competition between capitalism and socialism. On 20th July 1969 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon it was ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for capitalism’ (paraphrasing Armstrong). Capitalism was almost universally proclaimed victorious (www.thespacerace.com).
Retail therapy – the shopping pilgrimage
Smart’s ritual dimension involves activities such as ‘worship, meditation, pilgrimage, sacrifice, sacramental rites and healing activities’ (Smart, 1996: 10). One can see many of these aspects in modern capitalist consumer society. For example, many people go on ‘shopping pilgrimages’ to New York, London, Paris and other ‘capitals of capitalism’. Through ‘retail therapy’ individuals’ daily worries can be shopped away, implicating some perceived ineffable healing aspects achievable through the act of consumption.
2. The Experiential and Emotional Dimension
The experiential and emotional dimension comprise Smart’s second category, and point to ‘the emotions and experiences of men and women on which other dimensions of religion feed… It is important in understanding a tradition to try to enter into the feeling which it generates’ (Smart, 1998: 14). This perhaps more than any other dimension fully applies to capitalism, since it generates important experiences and meaning to the lives of the majority of people in the world. If one can see capitalism as a religion it would surely be the most successful religion ever to develop in numerical terms. The ideology of capitalism and consumerism has now spread to almost every corner of the world. Indeed, the Coca Cola and McDonald’s corporations claim that their trademarks are now more globally recognized symbols than even the Christian cross (www.brandchannel.com). Like an all-powerful missionary project, very few places are left lacking in the experience of capitalism and American ‘cultural imperialism’.
The globalization of capitalism
One can argue that globalization is one of the most prominent experiences of capitalism. ‘Globalization is the process by which a new social order comes about on a global scale, bringing culturally distinct communities into interaction with each other. It is the process of the institutionalization of a global (social and cultural) order’ (Lechner, 1991: 269). Through globalization and the power of capitalism it is possible to argue that today we are facing a single ‘global system’ (Luhmann, 1997: 75). Indeed, to a large extent globalization has become a cultural icon in itself. Salamon argues: ‘Ethnic and cultural fragmentation has not prevented the systematic spread and homogenization of capitalism across borders and continents’ (Salamon, 2001: 150). According to Wallerstein, the worldwide reach of capitalism was established relatively early on in the modern period: ‘Capitalism was from the beginning an affair of the world economy and not of nation states’ (Wallerstein 1979: 19). In a similar way Giddens argues, ‘Capitalism has been such a fundamental globalizing influence precisely because it is an economic rather than political order; it has been able to penetrate far-flung areas of the world which the states of its origin could not have brought wholly under their political sway’ (Giddens, 1990: 69). Indeed, Giddens later argued: ‘No one can entirely ‘opt out’ of the transformations brought about by modernity’ (Giddens, 1991: 22). I would argue that capitalism and modernity have become largely synonymous. It appears that globalization has enabled the spread of capitalistic religiosity.
Many have noted how global perspectives are determined by those in power. For example, the global media is controlled by a relatively limited number of people, such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation (www.newscorp.com). As a result there can be no denying the power imbalance and the unequal cultural flow involved in the spread of global capitalism (Welch, 2004: 364). Furthermore, I would argue that the current political and economic structures encourage, and even demand, private worldviews to integrate with consumerism (Frisk, 2001: 36). To a large extent, it is globalization that is the driving force behind the development of capitalistic religiosity. There is little doubt that capitalism represents the most far-reaching experiential dimension.
The development of hyper-consumption
Consumerism can be seen as the ultimate social expression of capitalism and, therefore, fits into Smart’s experiential and emotional dimension. Indeed, consumption as a set of social, cultural and economic practices, together with the associated ideology of consumerism, has served to legitimize capitalism in the eyes of the majority of the population of the world. Even if people cannot afford to buy the goods they see portrayed in the media they can and do desire them. Whether it is a desire for jeans, television sets or cars these are things that people who are in contact with western media come to wish they could purchase, as long as the basic necessities are available to them. Consumption, therefore, has progressed (or regressed) to be based on desires rather than needs (Bocock, 1993: 2-6). No longer do people work to stay alive: rather they now work in order to afford to buy consumer products. ‘Consumption has taken off into an almost ethereal, or hyper-real, symbolic level, so that it is the idea of purchasing, as much as the act of purchasing that operates as a motivation for many in doing paid work’ (Bocock, 1993: 50). This desire to become consumers has changed world history, not to mention creating the global explosion of debt. I would argue one of the reasons why communism failed is because it could not deliver effectively on the desire for consumption. To be a consumer of capitalism’s products, therefore, entails learning a specific set of cultural symbols and values (Bocock, 1993:53-4). This learning process can be seen as the conversion to the capitalist religiosity. Quite simply the world is trying to keep up with the Joneses.
Lau points out how in the West’s consumer culture, identities become commodities to buy, and like other commodities, there are competing identities on the market (Lau, 2000: 13). Indeed, consumer goods are part of the way in which people construct a sense of who they are: creating their sense of identity through the use of symbols in consumption patterns (Bocock, 1993: 51-2). An example of the move to hyper-consumption can be seen in the way female bodies are portrayed in many fashion campaigns, music videos, films and advertisements, often presented as just another object available to consume. The portrayal of women in the media shapes the identity of women in society. The fashion industry represents a further example, as the ‘right’ kind of clothes and accessories to be sold are decided upon seasonally by the people behind the powerful brands. People are informed what the latest fashion is and encouraged to keep up with it. This drives the fashion industry, which constantly renews itself in order to ensure further growth. The powerful brands behind the fashion industry are in many ways worshipped by certain people. Interestingly, the 2006 Selfridges winter sale reinterpreted ‘cogito ergo sum’ as: ‘I shop therefore I am’ (www.selfridges.com). Ultimately, people gain an element of meaning and develop their worldviews through their experience of consumer products.
The Internet has developed over the last decade to become the ultimate tool for capitalist consumption. People can now consume twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week if they wish. No longer are geographical boundaries an issue. The Internet has made the process of globalization more efficient. People can exchange goods easily with no need for personal contact: only a desire for consumption.
3. The Narrative and Mythic Dimension
‘Often experience is channelled and expressed not only by ritual but also by sacred narrative or myth. This is the third dimension - the mythic or narrative. It is the story side of religion’ (Smart, 1998: 15). This dimension can also be seen clearly in the case of capitalism. There are popular myths such as the idea that it takes more money to be happy, the myth of the ‘American dream’, and the myth of the hidden hand of the market. Each of these may be present within this dimension of capitalism. Carrette and King argue: ‘Through the development of neoliberalism in the late twentieth century, the primary ideological rationale for maintaining capitalist domination has become the mythology of ‘the free market’ and the spread of democracy’ (2005: 25). Furthermore, there is no lack of historical and contemporary figures to look to for inspiration and provide the stories that give meaning to people’s experience of capitalism.
Celebrity and idol worship
Modern capitalist society has developed the fascination, bordering on idol worship, with celebrities. I would argue that celebrities have been raised to the status of demi-gods in the capitalistic narrative. Rock and film stars and anyone with money or otherwise in the public eye, are eligible for “worship” and awarded the status of a sacred personality. Perhaps celebrities such as Paris Hilton or ‘P Diddy’ would be perfect figureheads for the twenty-first-century phenomena of celebrity worship, or even the ‘saints’ of capitalism. The phenomenon of ‘gossip magazines’ such as Hello! and Heat, develop this celebrity worship in popular culture. It is revealing that celebrities get more press coverage in the popular media than events in war zones such as Darfur. Celebrity stories provide many people with a face or personality that gives meaning to and develops the capitalistic world.
Corporations are communicating images and stories through the development of increasingly powerful brands. Indeed, Jesper Kunde in his book Corporate Religion argues that companies need a brand ethos or belief system to be effective and efficient. ‘Brands will become religions and some individuals, who are seen as an expression of their brands, will themselves become religions’ (Kunde, 2000: 6). Such corporate religions include Virgin, Microsoft, Nike, Walt Disney and the Body Shop. Certain brands are on a corporate mission on the high street as if it was imperative to ‘indoctrinate’ every citizen in the country with a loyalty to their brand; the Tesco Clubcard provides an interesting example of this form of brand loyalty (www.tesco.com/clubcard).
Business leaders as religious leaders
Furthermore, key people from within the business world are also sanctified as the twenty-first-century saints. Richard Branson, for example, is the representative of everything in the Virgin group. Other examples include Bill Gates, Donald Trump and Alan Sugar. Kunde argues that: ‘Bill Gates is an outstanding example of a spiritual leader who uses the media to control both his company and the business area in which Microsoft operates’ (Kunde, 2000: 8). Gates sells the consumer something more than just computer software. If one looks carefully, charismatic business leaders are themselves beginning to look like religious leaders. One could make an interesting comparison between Weber’s presentation of the charismatic religious leader with the stereotypical view of the charismatic business leader. Smart argues: ‘each religion has its stories’ (1996: 10). Indeed, the business leaders, popular brands and celebrities provide the stories behind capitalism and, more specifically, consumerism.
4. The Doctrinal and Philosophical Dimension
‘Underpinning the narrative dimension is the doctrinal dimension’ (Smart, 1998: 17). Doctrines refer to beliefs and ‘come to play a significant part in all the major religions, partly because sooner or later a faith has to adapt to social reality and so to the fact that much of the leadership is well educated and seeks some kind of intellectual statement on the basis of faith’ (Smart, 1998: 17). In a similar way to the great narrative religious traditions, capitalism also has a growing base of historical literature. Examples of these capitalist “bibles” are books such as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776), which presents the idea of the invisible hand of the market. This invisible hand represents market forces that are unexplainable and relatively out of human control. I would argue these areas represent the philosophical dimension of capitalism. A further example is the idea of ‘free’ trade. This philosophical idea presumes that free trade means that both parties are mutually beneficial in the process of exchange. Unfortunately, in developing countries this is certainly not the case. Examples of free trade often make the rich richer and the poor poorer due to the purchasing power the rich have over the poor. This point is demonstrated by the fact that ninety percent of the world’s resources are held by ten percent of the world’s population (www.overpopulation.org).
Doctrines such as free markets, free trade, the idea of sustained economic growth and economic globalization are all seen as essential tools for maximizing the development of market capitalism. These ideas have been promoted so effectively by corporate economists, bankers, and the world’s politicians that they are no longer contested in establishment circles. Market capitalism is presented as the only way to solve economic and social problems. Korten argues ‘these tenets have become so deeply embedded within our institutions and popular culture that they are accepted by most people without question, much as the faithful take for granted the basic doctrines of their religious faith. To question them openly has become virtual heresy and involves the risk of professional censure and career damage in most institutions of business, government, and academia’ (Korten, 1996: 184). In a similar way to the Christian Crusades, a major goal of capitalism is to suppress or eliminate any deviance from the authority of the model (Roberts, 2002: 20). There is the example of the car bumper sticker saying ‘America – Love it or leave it’. There is no room for options in the capitalist system. One must love it in order to get on in life.
Capitalist religiosity in the work place
Increasingly, corporations are using religious terminology and philosophy to publicize their work. Statements such as ‘the soul of the corporation’ and ‘corporate beliefs’ are often being used to describe a new phenomenon: religiosity in the workplace. In the USA an estimated four billion dollars is being spent annually by companies on transformational trainings (Heelas, 1999: 62). Through this development, the modern manager is imbued with ‘new’ qualities and virtues, which certainly represent Smart’s philosophical dimension. The significance of work is transformed in that it is conceived as providing the opportunity to ‘work’ on oneself. This development in business management can be understood as implicitly religious, involving a search for meaning and significance based on existence and social experience that does not necessarily draw directly on religious beliefs (Bell and Taylor, 2004: 5).
As capitalist religiosity develops in the workplace many scholars have argued that the ‘nature and meaning of work are undergoing a profound evolution’ (Martin Rutte, cited in Salamon, 2001: 153). Values based management, as many have called it, is making workplaces and business management wiser, more spiritual and ethically principled (www.spiritatwork.com). Research suggests that the ‘Self-work ethic’ can be highly effective in motivating employees. ‘The general life of employees must be in harmony with the communitas of the corporation to which they belong’ (Salamon, 2001: 161). Elmar Burrack advises his readers: ‘When the inner self connects to one’s work, work and the inner self seem to know no limits’ (Burrack, 1999: 284). Additionally Carrette and King point out how corporate capitalism begins to operate according to the traditional role of religious institutions in providing meaning and order. ‘Capitalism in effect is the new religion of the masses – the new opium of the people – and neoliberalism is the theological orthodoxy that is facilitating its spread’ (Carrette and King, 2005: 138). The appropriation of religious style and language by corporations therefore shows how capitalism itself has actually attempted to develop sacred qualities around the process of work.
The doctrine of Western secularization and Americanization of the world
‘Seldom,’ observes Serge Halimi, ‘has the development of the whole of humanity been conceived in terms so closely identical and so largely inspired by the American model.’ As Halimi notes, the American model is not confined to matters of free trade and private enterprise but includes moral and political dimensions; prominent among them is the doctrine of secularism (Halimi, 1998: October). One can see Western secularism as a central doctrine in the development of global capitalism. For example, American or Western secularism arguably works as a force in the field of foreign relations to globalize human rights. Through the media one is presented with an idea that ‘freedom’ and ‘America’ are virtually interchangeable words and that American political culture is (as the Bible says of the Chosen People) ‘a light unto the nations’. Hence, ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’ and ‘being free’ are integral to the universalizing moral project of the American nation state – the project of humanizing the world – and an important part of the way many Americans see themselves in contrast to their ‘evil’ opponents (Asad, 2003: 147).
In an article on American global power, Ignacio Ramonet, chief editor of Le Monde Diplomatique writes: ‘The faithful gather to worship the new icons in malls – temples to the glory of consumption. All over the world these centres promote the same way of life, in a world of logos, stars, songs, idols, brands, gadgets, posters and celebrations. All this liberty is accompanied by the seductive rhetoric of freedom of choice and consumer liberty, backed by obsessive, omnipresent advertising (annual advertising expenditure in the US alone exceeds $200 billion). Marketing has become so sophisticated that it aims to sell not just a brand name or sign, but an identity, it is all based on the principle that having is being’ (Ramonet, 2000: May). This doctrine of ‘having is being’ is the doctrine or the philosophy which shapes the way capitalist populations give meaning to their lives. Indeed, as many scholars have noted: ‘One might almost say that the secular is sacred’ (Fitzgerald, 2000: 14).
5. The Ethical and Legal Dimension
‘A religious tradition or sub-tradition affirms not only a number of doctrines and myths but some ethical and often legal imperatives’ (Smart, 1996: 11). Smart combines ethical and legal dimensions to construct his fifth dimension of religion. Once again, this dimension certainly applies to capitalism. Smart saw that over time religions develop legal and ethical structures that inform practitioners on how to live their lives. In the same way capitalism has developed various ethical standards and legal or regulatory bodies such as the FSA (Financial Services Authority – www.fsa.gov.uk) in the UK. Traditionally it is the role of the government to set the laws. However, after years of a laissez-faire approach it is often the more powerful corporations that are setting the ground rules (or lack of them). Incidents such as the scandal at Enron (www.enronmovie.com) only produce temporary criticism of free market capitalism and the power of corporations. Indeed, daily life has been largely framed by the corporate world and its ideologies.
The multinational corporation
The most striking feature of the ‘brave new world’ is the emergence of large multinational corporations. Business firms, especially transnational corporations, wield immense economic power, and have the capacity to influence political parties in their home bases and elsewhere. The largest transnational companies have budgets greater than those of all but a few nations (Giddens, 1990: 70). ‘Of the 100 largest economies in the world, 51 are corporations; only 49 are countries’ (Report of the Institute of Policy Studies, 2000: www.ips-dc.org). Enormous economic power is being concentrated in the hands of very few global corporations relieved of government constraints to their own growth. Current neoliberal policy encourages firms to merge with or acquire competition that creates ever more powerful concentrations to strengthen their position in global markets (Korten, 1996: 26). Furthermore, corporations have enormous political power, and they are actively using it to reshape the rules of the market in their own favour. Unelected organizations, such as the World Trade Organization (founded in 1995), remain intent on promoting a global deregulation of markets, which they call ‘free trade’, as well as implementing an ideology of unfettered global consumption, which they call ‘continued economic growth’ (Carrette and King, 2005: 7). However, the development Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) provides an interesting opportunity for capitalism as many businesses are taking the ethical lead in their respective markets. In the same way that religion’s over time develop ethical and legal structures, the capitalist market appears to be developing legal structures and setting certain limits on trade policy and business practice.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)
There appears to be a renaissance of values within the workplace as corporations and businesses commit themselves to becoming more socially responsible, more supportive of employees, and more humane in their approach to the marketplace (Roof, 1999: 98). Individual business leaders, in partnership with consumers are making ethical demands on the market. These demands are being taken up by the CSR pioneers and, slowly, the ethical market tide is rising, which is leading to fiscal incentives and legal demands on corporations. I would argue that the situation of capitalism as a religion is developed even further when it is the corporate players that begin to shape the laws that they must abide by. CSR provides an element of hope that the capitalist market will set its own laws and ethical demands at an appropriate and sustainable level.
6. The Social and Institutional Dimension
Smart notes: ‘The dimensions outlined so far – the experiential, the ritual, the mythic, the doctrinal, and the ethical – can be considered in abstract terms, without being embodied in external form. The last two dimensions have to do with the incarnation of religion’ (Smart, 1998: 19). Because every religion ‘is embodied in a group of people’, students of religion need to understand ‘how it works among people’ (Smart, 1998: 19-20). Indeed, all descriptions of institutions and ideologies require an analysis on how they relate to the wider society. In this way one cannot begin to understand capitalism through a definition, one must understand it through the effect it has on people and cultural institutions. Indeed, capitalist society is made up of a variety of institutions and organisations all working for a mutual goal: to increase consumer spending and market growth. Like any religion, in the case of capitalism there are a variety of groups of people and industries that have different roles in embodying the capitalist faith. An example of one group is the direct selling social phenomenon that has developed across the world. David Bromley describes American direct selling firms, such as Amway, Mary Kay Cosmetics and Tupperware, as quasi-religious corporations that promote a family business and community ethic (Bromley, 1995: 135).
The advertising industry
A further example of an institution of capitalism would be the marketing and advertising industries. One could even go as far to call the people that form these institutions the priests of capitalism. The ideology of consumerism is spread through the promotion of products that you need in order to make your life more satisfying and these ideas are surreptitiously spread by advertising institutions through the vehicle of the mass media. The media can be seen as the choir of capitalism; it sings a constant hymn to consumerism. Interestingly, Young & Rubicam, one of the world’s largest advertising agencies, have come up with a slogan: ‘Brands are the new religion’ (Puttick, 2005: 143). Similarly, Jean Baudrillard stresses that it is not the object that we buy as a result of advertising; rather, we buy into the ideology of the advertisement (Baudrillard, 1996: 175).
Education and knowledge of capitalism
Education has become the machine of capitalism, and ‘knowledge’, as Tony Blair declared in the October 2003 Labour Party conference speech, ‘is human capital’ (www.labour.org.uk). When knowledge becomes a form of ‘capital’, one begins to see how the language of the market is infiltrating all aspects of human life. When employees become ‘human resources’ they too become forms of ‘capital’, which can be exchanged, exploited and retrained according to their utilitarian usefulness for the global economy.
Smart assumes that we can apply the word ‘religion’ to both Buddhism and Taoism because each has a monastic organization and religious specialists. However, to some extent capitalism has pockets of monastic organizations and certainly emphasizes the role of specialists. Goldman Sachs, one of the premier investment banks, provides beds within their offices so that their employees are now able to eat, sleep, work and live all under their one roof. I would argue sleeping in an investment bank bears an uncanny resemblance to a religious monastery. For this reason it is intriguing how one often hears of people ‘selling their souls’ to large corporations, such as Goldman Sachs.
7. The Materialistic and Artistic Dimension
The ‘social or institutional dimension of religion almost inevitably becomes incarnate in a different way, in material form, as buildings, works of art and other creations’ (Smart, 1998: 21). It is obvious that capitalism fits into this dimension, as capitalism directly seeks to develop materialism and consumerism. Carrette and King argue: ‘God is dead but has been resurrected as ‘Capital’. Shopping malls have become the new altars for worshipping the god of money, and consumerism is the new esoteric knowledge’ (2005: 23-4). Artistic and materialistic expressions of capitalism have arguably reached every corner of the world. Indeed, this is so much the case that one could even go so far as to argue that the only real ‘world religion’ is capitalism, due to its success in proselytizing its cause across the entire planet. Through the development of global capitalism even the environment has become a commodity; indeed, carbon is traded across national borders on the grounds that environmental damage has a price.
Smart asks: ‘How indeed could we understand Eastern Orthodox Christianity without seeing what icons are like and knowing that they are regarded as windows onto heaven?’ (1998: 21). In a similar light, but in relation to capitalism, Walter Benjamin argues: ‘Capitalism is a purely cultic religion, without dogma… Compare the holy iconography (Heiligenbildern) of various religions on the one hand with the banknotes of various countries on the other: The spirit speaks from the ornamentation of banknotes’ (Benjamin, 2005: 260). Indeed, money may well be the greatest artistic expression of capitalism. This can be seen in the head of Adam Smith, one of capitalism’s greatest prophets, being printed on the new twenty pound banknotes. The worship of money is an obvious example of one of the ways capitalism can be seen as a religion.
The worship of money
As the saying goes, ‘money makes the world go round’; the worship of Mammon appears to be a global phenomenon. Marx has argued that the religion of money is a result of capitalism: ‘Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has therefore robbed the whole world – both the world of men and the world of nature – of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and experience, and this alien essence dominates it, and he worships it’ (Marx, 1975: 239). Indeed, Marx does not need to suggest that ‘man’ believes in hoards of money in order to worship it. The worship of money is a determinate social practice, outside of the subjective sphere of belief, which relates to the way in which values are established in practice (Goodchild, 2002: 85). Capitalism, the religion of money, consists simply in the practice of trade ‘for the appropriation of ever more wealth in the abstract’ (Marx, 1976: 254). To a large extent, success and greatness is measured by bank balance in capitalist culture. It is interesting that in most countries it is illegal to burn money. In a similar way to a country’s flag, money represents something more than the paper it is printed on. I would argue that money could be seen as the flag or totem of capitalism.
Furthermore, payment and credit cards represent a new abstraction of economy. Vast amounts of money circulate between people and institutions without anyone ever having to hold a banknote in their hands. Mikaelsson has likened money to an invisible stream of energy in the world. ‘Money, in its unpredictable, fluent, global and abstract shape may be a more potent, religious symbol for our global world of multiple systems than God the Father in his stationary, pre-modern heaven (Mikaelsson, 2001:108). It seems that the flows of money in currency fluctuations and the various stock markets around the world are a mystery to the vast majority of the world. In this way money has developed a degree of mystery and transcendence, in a similar way to the Christian idea of the Holy Spirit.
2.5 The seven dimensions as a working definition
Although Smart does apply the seven dimensions to secular worldviews; he never mentions capitalism in his analysis. Furthermore, he is cautious about concluding that secular worldviews can themselves be regarded as religions, even if they fit into the model. Despite Smart’s personal stance on the state of secular worldviews, in this case, in order to achieve my aim of implementing a working definition of religion, I am satisfied in using Smart’s seven dimensions. In this way, Smart himself argues that ‘if our seven-dimensional portrait of religions is adequate, then we do not need to worry greatly about further definition of religion’ (1998: 22). Simply, from this point forward I am satisfied that religions can be established in a categorical form through the extent to which they can fit into the seven-dimensional model as put forward by Smart. It has been shown that capitalism fits into Smart’s seven dimensions more than adequately. From this standpoint, therefore, one can begin to view capitalism, in certain circumstances, as a religion. My argument is not that capitalism is necessarily always religious in nature, but at times and with particular practitioners capitalism does demonstrate clear religious qualities. In this way capitalism can be seen as a religion for some, but not all people.
3.1 Smart’s distinction between religion and worldviews
Smart recognizes that some ‘religion-like’ systems, such as nationalism, Marxism and scientific humanism exist (1998: 22). In a similar way to my treatment of capitalism, Smart applies nationalism to his seven dimensions. After this process, Smart concludes: ‘In all these ways, then, the nation today is like a religion… It is, then, reasonable to treat modern nationalism in the same terms as religion. It represents a set of values’ (1998: 24). However, for Smart, to treat nationalism, or in this case capitalism, in the same terms as religion is not the same as calling them (secular worldviews) religions as such. It is on this dilemma that Smart opts out of commenting any further. In the final analysis, nationalism does not meet the requirements to be called a religion. For Smart, Islam is a model of a real religion, but nationalism and other secular ideologies (such as capitalism), are nothing more than ‘religion-like’ (Smart, 1998: 26). He therefore avoids entering this methodological debate and even avoids being drawn into complicated problems entailed in defining religion (Cox, 2006: 164).
‘To a greater or lesser extent our seven dimensional model may apply to secular worldviews, it is not really appropriate to call them religions’ (Smart, 1998: 26). To some extent it is out of respect for the ‘secularity’ of secular worldviews that Smart refrains from calling them religions, or even ‘quasi-religions’. However, it is here that Smart opens his dimensions model up to criticism, as why it would not be appropriate to call secular worldviews religions if they fit the model? Smart suggests one of the reasons for this ‘inappropriateness’ is that calling secular worldviews religions would denote them ‘below the status of ‘real’ religions’. It would enforce a standard for understanding human responses to the world in a graduated way with real religion at the top and religion-like worldviews somewhat in-authentically positioned below them (Cox, 2006: 165). This point is granted; however, it is in fact no reason to refrain from calling secular worldviews religions. The question of whether capitalism is more or less of a religion than, for example, Christianity, does not influence the debate on whether capitalism is itself a religion.
3.2 Criticisms of Smart’s separation of religion and worldviews
One must ask the question ‘what really separates the ‘real’ religions from the secular religions?’ Smart has been heavily criticized for his separation of religion and religion-like worldviews. Even though he constantly upheld that the seven-dimensional model could be applied to both, he could never quite ‘go all the way’ to call a secular worldview a religion. I am in agreement with Timothy Fitzgerald that Smart ‘presupposes that the defining characteristic of a religion is belief in gods or the Transcendent’ (Fitzgerald, 2000: 58). This point becomes apparent with the example that both capitalism and Buddhism are amenable to dimensional treatment, but only Buddhism, for Smart, would qualify as a religion as it is focused on the transcendent. Smart’s approach of ‘methodological agnosticism’ (Smart, 1973: 62) is simply a form of liberal theology due to his refusal to comment on truth claims and focus on the transcendent as the defining characteristic of religion (Cox, 2003, Lancaster conference).
Fitzgerald contends that, as non-theological scholars of religion, the object of our inquiry is not a transcendent referent, since that cannot be investigated using methods that are open to the natural human sciences. The object of our study is ‘culture, understood as the study of values, and the interpretation of symbolic systems, including the ritualization of everyday life’ and ‘the legitimation of power’ (Fitzgerald, 2000: 20-21). ‘Methods unique to religion do not exist, unless scholars of religion either surreptitiously or unwittingly smuggle into their agenda theological motives’ (Cox, 2004: 261).
3.3 Wittgenstein’s family resemblances model
Smart uses Wittgenstein’s model of ‘family resemblances’ to link vastly differing categories created by his dimensions model as well as to construct the category ‘religion’. For example, Theravada Buddhism in Asia may look so vastly different from Indigenous Australian traditions that it is difficult to see how the two could both be labelled ‘religions’. In order to overcome this issue, in terms of what can and cannot be called religion, Smart argues that what the differing traditions share are in fact family resemblances. In Concept and Empathy Smart gives an example of family resemblances between games. ‘Though patience and hockey have no common item of content, or at least none which would help define ‘game’, they are both called games. To call something a game is to place it in a family rather than to ascribe it some complex essence’ (Smart, 1986: 47). In a similar way, religions may have very little in common but can still be placed under the same category of religion (Aldridge, 2000: 31). For Smart the appeal to family resemblances has two main advantages, firstly, it discourages attempts to define ‘religion’ in an essentialist manner and, secondly, ‘it allows a sort of disjuncture account of religion’ (Smart, 1986: 47).
3.4 Criticisms of the transcendent family resemblances model
The family resemblance model is supposed to save the concept of religion from an ‘essentialist’ type of definition, but this has also been widely criticized by scholars. Most notably, Fitzgerald argues, ‘even if there is any legitimacy in treating religions as a family, the family is so enormous and diverse and so indistinguishable from other families such as ideologies, symbolic systems, and worldviews that it loses any special analytical focus that it might have had’ (Fitzgerald, 2000: 58). The only point that ‘family resemblances’ seems to establish in practical terms is that the word religion can be, or rather is, used in many different contexts and does not require an essence to give it meaning – except the sacred or transcendent in Smart’s case. Furthermore, many things that in basic terms resemble each other may in fact be profoundly different (sexual intercourse and rape for example); and many things considered to belong to one family can look entirely different (adopted members for example). Indeed, as Fitzgerald has argued, families are not defined by resemblances at all. They are in fact defined through cultural and legal institutions. (2000: 88-9) Can we therefore make a legitimate distinction between religions and ideologies or worldviews, such as capitalism? Indeed, Jefner suggests that religions and ideologies are not merely close neighbours but ‘members of the same family’ (Jefner, 1988: 50).
3.5 Capitalism as a relative of Christianity
Through Wittgenstein’s family resemblances model one can connect vastly differing traditions as ‘cousins’, in some way related. One can progress the idea of families further; I would argue that capitalism is a closer relative of Christianity than merely a distant cousin. Indeed, as Weber has pointed out, capitalism is a child of Protestant Christianity. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904) Weber traces the historical and ideological relationship between Calvinistic Protestantism and capitalism (Sharpe, 1986: 177). His bold claim was that the development of capitalism was rooted partly in religious developments at the time of the Reformation (Hamilton, 2001: 165). Weber points out how society changed from being sceptical about traders and financiers to viewing positive ethical and religious value in their work, and how people began to see the wealth in which it resulted as God’s blessing on their mode of life. The participant in modern capitalism became a believer in the ethic of hard work, of frugality in personal consumption, and of individual rather than collective responsibility in economic life (Scharf, 1970: 133-4). Through Weber’s sociology of religion one can therefore see how capitalism has come about as a direct result of Protestant Christianity and has over time developed its own ‘secular’ identity once it had separated from its parent tradition.
Weber also believed that religion would gradually fade in social significance as a consequence of the rationalization of modern social and economic organization (Northcott, 1999: 201). If Weber’s thesis is correct, one might expect that the culture of Protestantism would have left an enduring legacy in values that still remain visible today (Norris and Inglehart, 2004: 161). Indeed, Weber argued that the ghost of Protestant Christianity is still present within capitalism. Perhaps this is why one could argue that capitalism is not entirely secular but is imbued with various sacred elements. Furthermore, I would disagree with Weber that the influence of religion has declined in society. If capitalism can be seen as a religion, unlike Weber’s predictions, religion has merely changed in its focus. As Benjamin has argued: ‘Christianity in the time of the Reformation did not encourage the emergence of capitalism, but rather changed itself into capitalism’ (Benjamin, 2005: 261). Instead of being focused on the personal God, what has now developed is a ‘popular religion’ that has shifted in focus onto the development of the individual person and capitalist society.
3.6 The secular sacred dichotomy
It would certainly be wrong to assume that even in Western countries the distinction between religious and secular institutions is self-evident, despite the constitutional separation between church and state. As I have endeavoured to show, Smart himself has pointed out the strong parallels between United States nationalism and those entities that he calls religions. The inherent political complexities of the secular sacred dichotomy are therefore important to note. There may be no pure homo religiousus but there is also no homo oeconomicus despite the increasing dominance of the economic as an apparent indicator of fundamental human motivation and action. Indeed, the secular space of modernity, that which is deemed to exclude the religious, is itself a product of a particular ‘religious’ history and the Enlightenment reaction to it (Carrette & King, 2005: 15). The secular sacred dichotomy is at the heart of the issue of what can and cannot be called a religion. It appears that currently Western society is peculiarly predisposed to see religion, economics and politics as separate domains of the social world. It is, therefore, important to note that this is a gross oversimplification.
3.7 Smart’s ‘Focus’ of religion
Smart agues that there is a ‘Focus’ in religious traditions which transcends the doctrines, myths and ethical practices and defines it as that to which the dimensions of religion point or refer (Smart, 1973: 62). The dimensions of religion express adherents’ faith in the Focus, but at the same time the expressions affirm that the Focus has manifested itself in various ways within human experience (Cox, 2006: 161). What Smart terms the ‘real’ Focus is ineffable, beyond description and at the level of faith or human aspiration. The way the transcendent Focus manifests itself for religious people remains, for Smart, the core defining element of religion, and also distinguishes ‘real’ religions from secular worldviews (Cox, 2006: 166).
I would, however, suggest that this element of Smart’s argument is highly debatable. I see no reason why secular worldviews cannot also have some ineffable Focus, or, further, why they have to have an ineffable Focus in order to fit into the heuristic ‘religion’ category. One can see with the case of capitalism that there are many aspects that are seen to be unexplainable, such as the idea of the hidden hand of the market. Indeed, if one could say there is a Focus within capitalism I would argue it would be consumerism. It is in consumerism that the ideology of capitalism manifests itself and becomes most obvious to the observer. Quite simply, for capitalism it is consumerism that is the Focus of faith. Despite scientific facts, people still believe that by consuming more products they can achieve greater happiness. Consumerism may therefore be seen to be the greatest expression of capitalism.
The dimensional model of religion, and Smart’s use of a phenomenological approach, while avoiding any Durkheimian identification of religion with society, was intended to free comparative religion from its theological associations and to achieve scientific objectivity. However, as Fitzgerald argues: ‘his concept of religion depends on a metaphysical reification typical of liberal ecumenical theology’ (Fitzgerald, 2000: 58). Quite simply, Smart’s approach has a hidden theological agenda. This point is demonstrated in Smart’s need to find the Focus of faith in ‘real’ or ‘proper’ religions. One can move forward by recognizing this hidden agenda and choosing to remove it from the model. By doing this we do not need to distinguish between ‘true-religion’ and ‘religion-like’ ideologies. Membership to the heuristic category ‘religion’ can be merely constructed by fitting appropriately into the seven dimensional model. Therefore, as Cox argues: ‘Smart’s dimensions can be employed, but without carrying forward his essentialist idea of religion as transcendentally focused’ (Cox, 2004: 263).
4.1 The history of the comparison between capitalism and religion
The comparison between religion and capitalism is in fact nothing new. Scholars have long noted the alliance between the two, from Weber’s famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), to Richard Robert’s Religion, Theology and the Human Sciences (2002). Such debates are important landmarks for understanding the relationship between capitalism and religion. Some scholars are prepared to argue for the existence of a seamless link between capitalism and Christian belief. Some even argue this reflects the Bible’s priorities. Bagot notes that: ‘The Bible teaches us many things in the area. The theme of money recurs 2,312 times, while the theme of love is only mentioned 600 times’ (Bagot, 2003: 50).
Furthermore, comparisons between capitalism and religion have occurred from outside the academic field of the study of religions. Walter Benjamin, for example, argued: ‘One can behold in capitalism a religion, that is to say, capitalism essentially serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish, and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion… Capitalism is a pure religious cult, perhaps the most extreme there ever was. Within it everything only has meaning in direct relation to the cult: it knows no special dogma, no theology’ (Benjamin, 2005: 259). The religious quality of contemporary capitalism has also been well articulated by the former Labour MP Tony Benn: ‘If I look at the world today it seems to me that the most powerful religion of them all is the people who worship money… the banks are bigger than cathedrals, the headquarters of the multinational companies are bigger than the mosques or the synagogues. Every hour on the news we have business news – every hour – it’s a sort of hymn to capitalism’ (Benn, 2002).
Many scholars have appreciated the changing nature of the capitalist mode of production and the development of the modern consumer culture. The seeds of capitalist religiosity arguably were planted around the time when Adam Smith, writing the Wealth of Nations in 1776, declared that: ‘consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production’ (Smith, 1976: 179). Other scholars have noted the changing nature of religion. For example, Julian Huxley, writing in 1940, maintained that humanist religions were destined to replace theological religion (Huxley, 1941: viii). There is an interesting debate on whether religion itself has been commodified by the capitalist finance economy. Goodchild (2002: 248) argues that religion itself has entered as a competitor in the market economy. I would certainly argue that culture has become an industry and religion has taken on aspects of a commodity. Indeed, religion has developed marketing strategies, ways of advertising itself, and distribution networks. Quite simply religion has to sell.
Despite the variety of authors comparing capitalism to religion, to my knowledge this dissertation is the first time that capitalism has been systematically applied to Ninian Smart’s dimensions of religion. Furthermore, in the application of the dimensions of religion this study may well be the first to question whether, perhaps, capitalism is itself a religion.
4.2 Consequences of seeing capitalism as a religion
In many ways, the argument that capitalism is a religion is somewhat bold. Indeed, many people would say religions are only religions if their adherents see themselves as following a religion. Despite this point several important issues are raised if one views capitalism as a religion. The consequences would be severe: for example, George Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ would in fact be a religious war. I would argue September 11th 2001 represented an attack on capitalism rather than on America or the ‘free world’. The World Trade towers in New York were the most poignant symbol of capitalism. It is highly likely that the people behind the attack had this point in mind. ‘V for Vendetta’ (2005), the Hollywood film about terrorism, argued: ‘Buildings are symbols. Symbols represent people. Blowing up a building is an attack on the people it represents.’ Indeed, September 11th was such an important day not only because of the tragic murder of innocent lives but because it was a highly effective attack on capitalism: arguably the West’s most important source of meaning. September 11th also hit the pockets of the vast majority of the capitalist world. Global stock markets crashed affecting global economies on a mass scale.
In many ways, this dissertation has attempted to think through the eyes of the anti-west and anti-capitalists. Indeed, my personal views of the unparalleled benefits of capitalism have not been expressed in this dissertation. However, the point that capitalism lifts people out of poverty and is arguably the only real way to maximize human talent is irrelevant to this study. The real issue is the extent to which capitalism resembles a religion and whether one is justified in concluding that capitalism is a religion. This is, therefore, a self-reflexive exercise. There have and there always will be anti-capitalists in the world. Perhaps by trying to understand the ways they look at the Western nations worshipping the power of money and consumption one would be one step closer to achieving global understanding.
The ‘global’ has become a twenty-first-century catchphrase. Quite simply the most prominent worldview of our time is arguably capitalism and the ‘free’ market economy, achieved through globalization. Furthermore, I would argue that capitalism shapes all other Western worldviews and ideologies. Ideals such as democracy, freedom and the nation state all depend upon the structure of capitalism. It is ironic that the threat towards capitalism, particularly since September 11th, has begun to limit Western society’s other ideals that depend on the market economy, such as democracy and freedom of speech. When governments go to war without their countries’ democratic consent, when one’s freedom to walk the streets is limited by the threat of ‘terrorism’, when nationalism has become ‘politically incorrect’ one must ask who is winning this ‘religious’ war that has taken many by surprise in the twenty-first century. By taking note of the ways Western worldviews such as capitalism have often been taken for granted, one can begin to understand the way others may interpret the ideologies that are central to Western identity. Indeed, by being self-reflexive about the religious nature of one’s personal worldviews one may learn an important lesson about religious ‘tolerance’ in a world that is quickly becoming intolerant.
‘Religion’ as has been noted, is a heavily contested subject. Indeed, to say what religion is and what religion is not proves to be a highly difficult and controversial task. I find Smart’s seven dimensions a useful starting point in order to understand the characteristics of what a religion tends to look like. However, unlike Smart, I see no reason to limit the seven dimensions by demanding that a transcendental element must be present. I would argue that this transcendental element keeps scholars of religion bound to their theological roots unwittingly or surreptitiously viewing religion as a sui generis category. For this reason I choose to abandon these theological roots in favour of viewing religion as a culturally determined phenomenon that provides meaning in people’s lives. I fully realize and accept the difficulties and ambiguities inherent in this position. However, for the time being this stance appears to be the most appropriate one for understanding the world.
I can therefore conclude, in certain circumstances, it is possible to view capitalism as a religion based on the way it fits into Smart’s seven dimensions of religion. There is no doubt that capitalism provides meaning to many people’s lives; it heavily influences their worldviews and shapes their moral decisions. As this dissertation has sought to demonstrate there are a variety of aspects to capitalism that do resemble those typically found in the commonly accepted religions of the world. I have argued that the reason for this is that capitalism has developed from its Protestant Christian roots since the Reformation, more specifically through the Protestant work ethic. Rather than resembling Christianity as a cousin or some other distant family, it has been argued that capitalism is a child of Christianity. Capitalism has therefore developed to become the new all-powerful ‘popular religion’ of the twenty-first-century, despite the fact that its practitioners do not see themselves as following a religion. Indeed, what Western society labels ‘religion’ remains deeply embedded in worldly institutions and social practices. The sacred secular dichotomy has resulted in a certain mould of what religion should be informing the vast majority of modern society. By appreciating this position and attempting to look at the data in a different light one can develop important insights on the nature of the interactions of different global worldviews. The next question one must ask is what consequences flow from this religious development of capitalism. Indeed, the recent enhancement of the global threat on the capitalist system is in many ways challenging the sovereignty of the nation-state and other ideologies important to Western society.
It is also important to note that there are counter arguments to many of the specific examples I have given, as well as capitalism as a religion generally. However, the aim of this dissertation has been to systematically analyse capitalism as a religion. The counter arguments could be developed in further discussion. This dissertation has, therefore, sought to demonstrate how this ultimate missionary project is developed through the mass media and educational institutions and by the power of advertising in order to create new desires for the latest consumer products. It has been argued that consumerism can be seen as the ultimate expression of capitalism and has grown as a global panacea to people’s individual problems.
Undemocratic and ideologically driven institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and the G8 as well as the powerful multinational corporations effectively govern the world in line with the demands of capital. Society is at risk of the ‘bottom line’ becoming the only line, and the market becoming the main guiding force for all human relationships and actions as a whole. I would argue that an increased awareness of our mutual interdependence, economically sustainable lifestyles and the development of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), may yet prove to be societies best hope of resisting the capitalist excesses of neoliberalism and developing a sense of solidarity and global citizenship in an increasingly precarious world.
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Glossary of key terms
Capitalism – An economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange (Summers and Holms, 2006: 172).
Capitalist – Someone who believes in capitalism (Bookes et al, 2004: 184).
Charisma – Charm or personal power; the ability to inspire loyalty, emotional dependence or even devotion in others (Heywood, 2003: 328).
Colonialism – The theory or practice of establishing control over a foreign territory, usually by settlement or economic domination (Heywood, 2003: 329).
Communitas – The sense of community (Latin word) used by anthropological theorist Victor Turner (Smart, 1996: xiv). First employed by Paul and Percival Goodman (1947) in relation to means of livelihood and ways of life. Victor Turner then appropriated the term and applied it to the ritual process. Turner defined communitas as ‘a relationship between concrete, historical, idiosyncratic individuals’ (Turner, 1969: 113). He sees the communitas aspect of social life as being manifested in various social events and movements. He links communitas to the liminal period of transition rituals and with the notion of marginal states and outsiders (Morris, 1987: 255).
Communism – The principle of the common ownership of wealth; communism is often used more broadly to refer to movements or regimes that are based on Marxist principles (Heywood, 2004: 329).
Cosmology – theory or theories about the composition and development of the universe (Smart, 1996: xiv).
Democracy – Rule by the people; democracy implies both popular participation and government in the public interest, and can take a wide variety of forms (Heywood, 2004: 330). Albert Weale argues ‘in a democracy important public decisions on questions of law and policy depend, directly or indirectly, upon public opinion formally expressed by citizens of the community, the vast bulk of whom have equal political rights’ (Weale, 1999: 14).
Dimensions – The various aspects of belief: notably the doctrinal or philosophical; the mythic or narrative; the ethical or legal; the experiential or emotional; the ritual or practical; the social or organizational; and the material or artistic (Smart, 1996: xv).
Economic dimension – The economic aspect of religion (Smart, 1996, xv).
Enlightenment, the – An intellectual movement that reached its height in the eighteenth century and challenged traditional beliefs in religion, politics and learning in general in the name of reason and progress (Heywood, 2004: 331).
Etic – ‘An approach by an outsider to an inside system, in which the outsider brings his own structure – his own emics – and partly superimposes his observations on the inside view, interpreting the inside in reference to his outside starting point’ (Pike, 1986 – cited in Harris, 1990: 49).
Fiscal policy – Government tax and spending policies aimed primarily at influencing aggregate demand (Heywood, 2004:331).
Free market – A principle or policy of unfettered market competition, free from government interference (Heywood, 2004: 332).
Free trade – A system of trading between states that is unrestricted by tariffs or other forms of protection (Heywood, 2004: 332).
Freedom – The ability to think or act as one wishes, a capacity that can be associated with the individual, a social group or a nation (Heywood, 2004: 332).
Globalism – An ideological stance that endorses globalization as a desirable or irresistible feature of modern society (Heywood, 2004: 332).
Globalization – A complex web of interconnectedness through which life is increasingly shaped by decisions or events taken at a distance; globalization reflects the increasing permeability of the nation-state (Heywood, 2003: 332). The Way institutions and interactions of religious and other aspects of human life become part of the global, rather than regional or local, scene (Smart, 1996: xvii).
Human rights – Rights to which people are entitled by virtue of being human; universal and fundamental rights (Heywood, 2004: 333).
Icons – Christian and particularly orthodox pictures of Christ and he saints: more generally, the religious representation of holy figures (Smart, 1996: xviii).
Ideology – A more or less coherent set of ideas that provide the basis for some kind of organized political action (Heywood, 2003: 333).
Imperialism – The extension of control by one country over another, whether by overt political means or through economic domination (Heywood, 2004: 333).
Individualism – A belief in the central importance of the human individual as opposed to the social group or collective (Heywood, 2004: 333).
Individuality – Self-fulfilment achieved through the realization of an individual’s distinctive or unique identity and qualities; that which distinguishes one person from all others (Heywood, 2004: 333).
Ineffability – The notion that many religious entities (such as God) and experiences (such as mystical ones) are wholly or in part incapable of being conveyed or described by words (Smart, 1996: xviii).
Justice – A moral standard of fairness and impartiality; social justice is the notion of a fair or justifiable distribution of wealth and rewards in society (Heywood, 2004: 333).
Laissez-faire – The doctrine that economic activity should be entirely free from government interference, an extreme belief in the free market (Heywood, 2004: 333).
Liminality – The state of being betwixt and between in ritual processes (Smart, 1996: xix).
Market – A system of commercial exchange between buyers and sellers, controlled by impersonal economic forces: ‘market forces’ (Heywood, 2004: 334).
Materialism – The theory that the whole world is basically or wholly material (Smart, 1996: xx).
Methodological agnosticism – The process of refusing to comment on the realities postulated by religious communities and avoiding any question about truth or value (Cox, 2006: 160). Smart explains: ‘the question of truth is a question not asked, not a question left undecided’ (Smart, 1973: 62).
Modernization – The process of social and political change through which modern industrial societies came about; the emergence of capitalist economic order and a liberal-democratic political system (Heywood, 2004: 335).
Nation-state – A sovereign political association within which citizenship and nationality overlap; one nation within a single state (Heywood, 2004: 335).
Neoliberalism – An updated version of classical political economy that is dedicated to market individualism and minimal statism (Heywood, 2004: 336). ‘Neoliberalism refers to new rules of functioning of capitalism… Its main characteristics include: a new discipline of labour and management to the benefit of lenders and shareholders; the diminished intervention of the state concerning development and welfare; the dramatic growth of financial institutions; the implementation of new relationships between financial and non-financial sectors, to benefit the former; a new legal stand in favour of mergers and acquisitions; the strengthening of central banks and the targeting of their activity towards price stability, and the new determination to drain resources of the periphery towards the centre’ (Dumenil and Levy, 2005: 10).
Phenomenology – (1) The attempt through informed empathy to present others’ experiences and beliefs from their points of view, and involving the suspension of one’s own values (epoche); (2) a morphology or classification of types of religious phenomena (Smart, 1996: xxiii).
Politics – An activity related to the institution of the state or the machinery of government; more broadly, the processes through which social conflict is expressed and possibly resolved (Heywood, 2004: 337).
Postmodernism – An intellectual movement that rejects the idea of absolute and universal truth, and usually emphasizes discourse, debate and democracy (Heywood, 2004: 337).
Postmodernity – A shift form a series of societies structured by industrialization and class solidarities to increasingly fragmented, fluid and pluralistic ‘information’ societies (Heywood, 2004: 337).
Secularization – The move in which societies become less religious in a formal sense, and in which there is greater individualism (Smart, 1996: xxv).
Secularism – The belief that religion should not intrude into secular (worldly) affairs, usually reflected in a desire to separate church from state (Heywood, 2003: 239).
Self-reflexivity – The approach achieved when scholars engage in a study of religion and include themselves as humans in their investigations as well as participants in the communities that they are studying (Cox, 2006: 202).
State – An association that established sovereign power within a defined territorial area, usually possessing a monopoly of coercive power (Heywood, 2004: 340).
Sustainability – The ability of a system to maintain its health and continue in existence; the central principle of green economics (Heywood, 2004: 340).
Terrorism – The use of violence to induce a climate of fear or terror in order to further political ends; a clearly pejorative and usually subjective term (Heywood, 2004: 340).
Theology – A Christian term for systematic thinking about God and the world (Smart, 1996: xxvi).
Transcendence – The mode in which the Divine Being exists beyond the cosmos or distinct from it (Smart, 1996: xxvii).
Transnational religion – A religion stretching over more than one nation or ethnic group (Smart, 1996: xxvii).
Utilitarianism – A moral and political philosophy that evaluates ‘goodness’ in terms of pleasure and pain, and ultimately seeks to achieve ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’ (Heywood, 2004: 341).
West, the – The parts of the world that are distinguished culturally by common Greco-Roman and Christian roots, socially by the dominance of industrial capitalism, and politically by the prevalence of liberal democracy (Heywood, 2004: 341).
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