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Selling Nature in the Spiritual Supermarket

by Michael York (Bath Spa University College)
Paper presented at the 2001 International Conference The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century, organised by INFORM and CESNUR (London, April 19-22, 2001)


This paper seeks to outline the civilisation debate formulated by Freud (Civilization and its Discontents) and delineate the religious consumer market as a forum of competing gnostic, pagan and mainstream notational commodities. Does nature, like religion or religions, become one more item on offer? Or, does the question of a viable terrestrial nature engender a refutation of the consumer market? Within the context of globalisation, the electronic communication/information age, dwindling natural resources and industrial/environmental pollution, this paper shall explore the reasons behind the growth of spiritualities that centralise the tangible and natural.


In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930, 1961), Freud (1991:284, 286) considers civilisation to be the replacement of individual power by community power and, as such, a construct founded upon renunciation of instinct. [1] Freud presents nature as something that civilised humanity seeks to subdue, dominate and utilise for its own benefits. In other words, in the Freudian conception civilisation is understood as that which protects us against nature (Freud, 1991:278). It constitutes the various activities and resources employed for making earth useful, and in as much as it is founded upon a renunciation of instinct, civilisation is - or represents - a community superego. There is an irony here, however, because, according to Freud, whatever success humanity has had over nature, it has not lead to increased happiness (1991:276).

In the contemporary emergence of popular forms of spirituality, the conflict between nature and culture is often a - if not the - central issue. This conflict may be understood in the terms of Freud’s `Civilization Thesis’. Freud’s pitting of civilisation against nature becomes the foundation of the current debate in the west and of any efforts toward a reinterpretation. While Freud (1991:340) recognises that human success in controlling nature also allows the possibility of total mutual extermination, he nonetheless perceives the super power of nature as a major source of human suffering (274). However, another source of anxiety and discomfort is civilisation itself - that which seeks to bind humanity together despite humanity’s primary mutual hostility. In other words, the greatest hindrance to civilisation is, according to Freud, natural human aggressiveness and self-destruction. With the internalisation of natural aggressiveness through the frustration of instinct, the superego develops as a controlling mechanism within the individual. But there is also a community "super-ego under whose influence cultural development proceeds" (Freud, 1991:335). Civilisation and guilt, therefore, are intimately connected - with guilt arising through fear of both authority and the superego.

Freud (1991:278) understands the first acts of civilisation in the use of tools, the domestication of fire and the construction of dwellings. It is certainly the gaining of control over fire that comes in the long run to separate humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom. Nevertheless, though Freud does not mention this, it is also the human propensity to symbolise and eventually to develop written language that allows civilised culture and the human race’s disconnection from the natural world.

Consequently, the individual for Freud "can only defend [himself/herself] by some kind of turning away from … the dreaded external world" or, collectively and "with the help of … science, going over to the attack against nature and subjecting her to the human will" (1991:265). The options are simply to attempt to hide from nature or to attempt to subdue it. But for Freud becoming a "member of the human community" means that "one is working with all for the good of all" (ibid.) Nature then becomes a resource and something to be exploited as well as tamed. But, unforeseen by Freud, in the `march’ of civilisation, nature is not only becoming conquered, but, as the growing awareness of industrial pollution and technological fallibility increasingly reveals, nature - or at least an ecologically balanced and sustainable earth - is being destroyed. It is without doubt this so-called `loss of nature’ as well as of a planet capable of supporting a rich diversity of living forms including the human that constitute the immediate focus behind the contemporary emergence of `nature religion’ as a distinct spirituality.

This emergence of `nature religion’, along with the perception of a planet under increasing ecological threat and loss, occurs against our current times variously understood as functional and modern or as consumeristic and postmodern. Both the modern and postmodern as analytic tools applicable to the social conditions of contemporary times consist of multiple interpretations and disagreements. I am employing these designations here in the sense of the modern drive toward utilitarian uniformity based on rational and empirical decision and the postmodern inclination to challenge the modern and seek diversified gratification through choice based in addition on intuition, emotional impulse and even transcendental concern. In our late modern/postmodern/possibly post-postmodern times, this last translates above all into the rampant consumerism of western society and its consequent tendency to recast all pursued ends in terms of commodification.

While the latter may be seen as an original product of the former, it is also emerging - at least in part - as a refutation of a modernism increasingly understood, on the one hand, in globalisation, and, on the other, in industrial pollution and diminishing planetary resources. In other words, with the augmentation of these two aspects of modernity, there is for the consumer less choice, less range of possible selection. Globalisation, by which is increasingly meant Americanisation, may have a positive side in that it results in a market-oriented world for which war becomes a disruption and hindrance to increased sales. But its more negative side I would characterise as a form of `gobble-ism’, the time of the multinational - competing institutions that continue to merge or consume, i.e., gobble, each other up. Ultimate decision-making and control come into fewer and fewer hands. The recent `American electoral coup’ may be seen as itself a product (as well as a means) of this narrowing consumption. As an aside, perhaps we should reserve the term `globalisation’ for those mechanisms that promote an interconnected and balanced world which will function as a positive and viable community and use `gobble-ism’ for the unwanted tendencies in global Americanisation and its toady allies. But terminologies apart, what is more and more certain is the western drive toward uniformity and, concomitantly, a steady decrease in the range of goods on offer to the ubiquitous consumer.

At the same time, of course, the rampant diminishment of the planet - through toxic waste production, the greenhouse effect, expansion of the ozone holes, over-fishing, the spreading of disease through inadvertent human assistance, and environmental manipulation whether through the building of dams, logging of forests, genetic modification or relentless urban spread - is increasingly seen as a further consequence of a civilisation that pits itself against the `natural order’. Inasmuch as this `civilisation’ is a product of human effort, an innate sanctity of what in Freudian perception is understood as its enemy or target becomes more and more revered. This, rather romantic, construct is nature - a nature perceived as independent of human tamperings and transformations. In the emerging affiliations of what are loosely called `nature religions’, nature has become a dimension of space-time measurement that transforms either spontaneously or at least organically. In other words, nature now refers to change that happens without human involvement.

The social question that faces us today in this consideration is whether this understanding of nature is valid, feasible or even realistic. Is it constructive to separate humanity from nature as a world in itself and as an innate state of being? The fact that we do is a product of the early twentieth century Freudian world-view that has been articulated in Civilization and its Discontents and The Future of An Illusion. More and more, the nature religions of today seek to reintegrate the individual into nature as perhaps the most evolved member of the animal kingdom but nevertheless as an animal and not some kind of entity that has `transcended’ his or her animal origins. Consequently, such nature religions as paganism and Wicca adopt a radically new theological perspective vis-à-vis the position of the traditional Judaeo-Christian western mainstream. Replacing the notion of a transcendent deity as creator of a human being whose essential nature is also transcendent, modern nature religions find divinity as something immanent within the world and humanity as a product of that world. James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis has come to be re-interpreted as the affirmation that the cosmos itself is a living organism in which all its component parts are interdependent and interconnected. In other words, the sanctity of life which is exalted in the Judaeo-Christian traditions has been extended to encompass the inanimate world as well let alone the extensive animal and vegetable realms that we know at least on this planet.

But while this rapidly growing collection of nature spiritualities involves itself in road protest camps, protection of ancient woodland areas and archaeological sites, anti-animal experiments, anti-nuclear activity and even inter-faith effort and contemporary theological forums, the commodification market that it opposes may also be the very thing of which this collection is a product. On the one hand, we have the real concern for the future welfare of the planet on which we live, but, on the other, is the nature that the nature religions of today promote and revere simply another commodity on offer within the contemporary spiritual supermarket? We might respond to this question by asking does it matter? But if nature has become simply another item on offer, there becomes an implicit danger that the range of `goods’ to be `purchased’ or selected on the spiritual consumer market has no intrinsic value apart from that market. In capitalism, profit becomes the highest authority. The ancients called this Mammon and made him into a supposedly rejected god. The irony of Mammon’s durability and perseverance aside, capitalism produces no higher god than Mammon - the making of profit. We now could ask whether our late modern/postmodern times represent the final triumph of Mammon? Do the current nature religions represent a sectarian movement that has emerged to protest against the hegemony of Judaeo-Christian capitalism, or are they themselves a product and consequence of that very spiritual-economic alliance? Has nature - even a Luddite nature devoid of urbanisation and/or human civilisation - simply become a conceptional icon from which to make a profit?

On the protest side, we see now in the United States the opposing camps coming to be even more clearly divided. While President Bush seeks to have Congress ratify his `charitable choice’ legislation that will increase the role of the federal government in faith-based social service programmes, believers in earth-based faiths deplore any efforts to diminish the constitutional separation of church and state. The fear is that religious legitimacy will become determined by bureaucratic fiat. Some religions will be cleared for government funding. Others need not bother to apply. From the Druid Order of the Whiteoak, American Priestess Ellen Evert Hopman claims that "If you follow the debate in the news what you hear is that within the religious groups there seems to be a hierarchy of who is 'deserving,' … The Nation of Islam and Wiccans seem to be surfacing as the scapegoats." [2] Bush's "charitable choice" initiative is tied to several bills that have been introduced in Congress in the last few years and are now pending.
If signs from the American President are any indication of legal recognition of the nature religions, despite the Pentagon's official position that paganism should get the same treatment in the ranks as any other religion, Bush told ABC's Good Morning America in 1999 that he does not think `witchcraft’ is a religion. [3]

But if nature religion, druidry and contemporary witchcraft are under attack by conservative American political thought, they also receive short shrift from other critics of `eco-mysticism’ such as we find in the social-ecological writings of Peter Staudenmaier, Janet Biehl and Murray Bookchin. Seeking clear-sighted social and ecological inquiry and action, these writers object to the `mystical’ elements in Deep Ecology and the Neo-pagan dimensions of contemporary environmentalism. This objection centres on the historic associations between a late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century pagan revival and the Ariosophie and Volkstumbewegung developments of Germany with their notions of racial purity and eugenics. The link between anti-modern romanticism and totalitarianism, however, is not to be found in the emergent nature religions of the present-day since these last invariably assume a democratically liberal stance that seeks peaceful, democratic politics established upon individual rights and toleration of a diversity of viewpoints. [4]

The question remains whether the perception of nature as sacred precedes environmental activism or whether perception of nature under threat gives rise to the perception of nature as holy. As sociologists we cannot answer that question. We can instead best observe and witness those groups that are rising in our times who claim motivation in what they perceive as ecological and environmental threat. Some, but not all, place their concerns within a framework that understands the tangible, physical world as inherently divine, and consequently their efforts may be interpreted as acts of worship centred on a particular material concept of godhead. But within an industrial and urban world whose future horizon appears evermore dark and bleak, it should not be surprising that the most rapid growth and appeal of nature religiosity is to be found among the young. What we may say is that in the 1960s the reverence of nature arose with and within countercultural experience, and then followed the realisation that nature was in trouble. Nevertheless, adjudicating between the validity of nature religion spirituality and the spiritual beliefs and positions of more mainstream and traditionally established religions remains beyond the scope of sociology. But we sociologists can see the emergence of these newer forms of spirituality as a spontaneous part of religious change and spiritual protest. While the newer orientation can be traced to or at least connected with the real changes occurring in the living conditions on this planet, to the degree that we in the west are increasingly living in a world of choice - one encompassing both tangible goods and spiritual options, the re-sanctification of nature (Weber’s re-enchantment of the world) is also part of the growing commodification process that has become characteristic of the modern/postmodern west.

Paradigmatic New Age leader William Bloom has recognised the New Age as itself an age of information based on electronic communication and the increasingly rapid exchange of information. Two consequences from this development are (1) the alleged opening of the formerly restricted preserves of esoteric knowledge for public consumption, and (2) the situation within this glut of knowledge in which the individual becomes his or her own authority. The modern/postmodern person in the west no longer tolerates being told what to believe and what to do. At the present juncture in historical development, we are not simply conditioned by the religion into which we were born but have instead an increased range of familiarity with different spiritual understandings. The contemporary spiritual supermarket that consists of traditional mainstream religious offerings as well as Gnostic/theosophical/New Age, nominal and generic pagan, and galactian/ufological additional choices is simply the current state of affairs for a western world in which the possibility for experiment and innovation is increasingly restricted to the spiritual domain. To the degree that any religion in the west of today must compete on the open market, nature religion is certainly a part if not also a product of capitalism’s entering the marketplace of spiritual commodification. To the degree that contemporary nature religion might challenge that very process and re-institute a possibly saner and ecologically balanced world, only time will tell.

Although framing his talk in a more traditional understanding of a "sacred trust between mankind and our Creator," in his BBC Radio Four address on May 10th, 2000, Britain’s Prince Charles echoed the salient features of current nature religion sentiment. The Prince spoke about the need for "a sacred stewardship of the earth." He deplored "the prevailing approach which seeks to reduce the natural world to a mechanical system," and he recognised that modern science is forced to rule out the existence of the sacred as a nuisance that can be evaded or at least manipulated. Instead, we need, in place of the science of manipulation, a science of understanding - one that sees science as a part of nature and not something opposed to it. The Prince proclaimed that "We need to rediscover a reverence for the natural world and to understand the reciprocity between God, man and creation." This must be founded upon "humility, wonder and awe over our place in the natural order." Since "the earth is unique, and we have a duty to care for it, … we must restore the balance between the intuitive and the rational scientific mind."

Prince Charles’ appeal speaks to an emergent form of popular spirituality that we find not only in nature religion, New Age and goddess spirituality but also in more innovative developments across the Christian mainstream. The central chord in this appeal and the emergent spirituality it reflects is a denial of a civilisation and nature opposition. Culture is to be situated within the natural and not as antagonistic to it. In face of the shifting imperatives behind human survival, culture in its original sense of cultivation or even reverent cultivation is perhaps the only solution for an endangered planet. Freud (1991:262) himself refers to Voltaire and how "he ends Candide with advice to cultivate one’s garden." But rather than consider this a deflection to the pains, disappointments and impossibilities offered by life, the emergent perspective in today’s world is to regard our planet as itself a garden that must be cultivated. In the art, science and religion of gardening, civilisation and the magic of nature can be combined in sustainable development. We might have then what we could label a culture of nature - a nature-culture that either excludes the spiritual supermarket or itself is something that is bought and sold on that market.

I realise, of course, that I am unable to determine whether nature is separate from the religious consumer market or something that has become essentially an item on offer within that market. However, if the notion of profit upon which any modern market is based centres on the gain implied through the Latin origins of the term (prôficere), namely, `advance’, `progress’, `success’, then even the sale of nature might lead to the sale of a good that satisfies an increasingly educated and aware public consumer demand.


Catherine L. Albanese (1990), Nature Religion in America from the Algonkian Indians to the New Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Zygmunt Bauman (1992), Intimations of Postmodernity (London: Routledge).

Kieran Flanagan and Peter C. Jupp (1996), Postmodernity, Sociology and Religion (London: Macmillan / New York: St. Martin’s).

Sigmund Freud (1991), Civilization, Society and Religion: Group Psychology, Civilization and Its Discontents and Other Works, The Penguin Freud Library 12 (London: Penguin).

Michael York (1995), The Emerging Network: A Sociology of the New Age and Neo-pagan Movements (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield).


[1] Das Unbehagen in der Kultur was first published in 1930 and translated into English as Civilization and its Discontents in the same year. The Standard Edition was released in 1961. I have used the Penguin Books printing first published in 1985 by Pelican Books and reprinted in 1991. This is a reprint of the Standard Edition version with some editorial modifications. [back]

[2] Forwarded email from JoAnn DiLorenzo via Laura A. Wildman (22.2.2001). See www.geocities.com/gaias_song/willow.html [back]

[3] Downloaded from http://www.newmassmedia.com/nac.phtml?code=wma&db=nac_fea&ref=14912 (no longer available) [back]

[4] Gus diZerega: http://www.dizerega.com: in the ecology section, diZerega’s essay `Deep Ecology and Liberalism’ and in the Spirit section, `Nature Religion in the Modern World’. [back]

The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century

April 19-22, 2001

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