The Most Successful World Religion

Richard C. Foltz
Associate Professor
Dept. of Religion
Concordia University
1455 de Maisonneuve W./O., R-302
Montréal (Qc) H3G 1M8

For ten years now scholars and pundits have been debating the thesis advanced by Samuel Huntington in his book The Clash of Civilizations, that the Western world (and specifically the United States) are on a collision course with the world of Islam. More generally, Huntington posits an impending conflict between “the West and the Rest”. Huntington draws a fundamental opposition between the “traditional” worldviews of non-Western societies and the “secular” worldview said to prevail in the West.

To point out that “secularism” itself can be considered a kind of religion, would only serve to shift the discussion away from the critical issue at hand: the worldview and consequent behavior of the dominant culture today is founded upon a way of thinking that is essentially religious, though in a way that deliberately obfuscates its true nature.

If the partisans of al-Qa’eda (or the Muslims Brothers, or countless other “anti-western” organizations) seem above all to be reactionaries claiming to act in defense of their own religious tradition, it may be that they themselves are mistaken in believing themselves to be struggling against the “non-religion” of Western secularism. In fact the hegemonic forces which they feel to threaten their own traditional systems are driven and sustained by a vision every bit as “religious” as that of the Arab conquerors of the seventh century or the Catholic inquisitors of fifteenth century Europe, carrying with them their “civilizing mission” and demonstrably ready to shed blood in the course of bringing the entire world to their notion of salvation.

Another notable similarity is the financial, political and military support of the state. But here too one risks misinterpretation resulting from an overly narrow definition of “the state”. We are not speaking simply of the government of the United States, or of European nations, or even of “Middle Eastern despotisms”, though all of these are deply implicated. In fact what we are seeing today—even if relatively few people recognize this explicitly—is the emergence of a system of world governance in which national governments are subordinating their powers and their resources, for the most part willingly, to the demands of the global market and the organizations which represent it. This merging of “sovereign” national governments with transnational financial interests—which corresponds closely with the way Benito Mussolini preferred to define fascism—is spreading throughout the world today to a degree never before seen in history.

When global citizens today demonstrate by the thousands against the WTO or outside closed session for the negotiation of free-trade agreements, it may be a sign that many now sense at least intuitively that they are facing the same threat feared by Islamic militants, Third World farmers, and others, namely, the negation and elimination of their own voices and agency. If Greenpeace and al-Qa’eda differ dramatically in their choice of tactics, the forces motivating their resistance surely bear something in common. They resist for the same reason Native Americans resisted Christianization: they saw in it the eventual disappearance of their way of life, their values, their very livelihood, in the face of an ideology which served only the interests of the rich and powerful. Today, the debate is not simply over tastes and preferences; for many, it is a struggle for survival.

The dominant religion throughout the world today, and which has enjoyed a more dramatic rise and spread than any religion in history, is neither Christianity nor secularism, but a religion so rarely recognized as such that it doesn’t yet have a name. For the time being, then, we may follow the lead of Buddhist philosopher David Loy, and call it “the Religion of the Market.” We are not talking metaphor here, but reality; the religion of the market is a religion in every operative sense of the word. It possesses the complete ecclesiastical apparatus, including the neo-classical economists who function as its priests (and who alone know the mysteries of the faith), the advertising agencies who serve as its worldwide missionaries, and the shopping mall which is its church. (A quick comparison of attendance at these two institutions, even on a Sunday morning, will quickly reveal which religion currently boasts the greater number of adherents.)

The religion of the market teaches that salvation and spiritual fulfillment are to be found only in the consumption of products. It preaches an ethical system in which the highest virtue is to shop. All are called to practice the faith publicly, or be perceived as outside the community: one need only recall the words of George W. Bush soon after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when he instructed the American people to respond to this assault on their way of life by going shopping. In case there be any room for doubt, the American president was quick to assert that “You are either with us or against us.”

The rituals and dogmas of the religion of the market are not hard to find. Every evening the national news programs tell us of the state of the economy, always showing the latest stock market figures even though most people don’t own stocks and are not therefore directly affected by this “news” (unlike so much other news which does affect them, and which goes unreported). We are also daily shown the ritual of the stock market closing, where some (usually unrecognized) important businessman is given the honor of pounding the gavel to signal the close of the day’s trading.

These same news broadcasts will never raise substantive questions regarding the faith which it is their sole duty to propagate. To the contrary, they speak unendingly of “economic growth” as if it could (indeed, must) continue forever, never of natural limits. Similarly, they speak of the GNP as the sole measure of prosperity and social well-being, never noting that much of the economic activity it measures—health care costs, pollution clean-up, legal fees associated with divorces and lawsuits—are actually negative social indicators. Nor is it ever pointed out that overall economic growth figures hide the fact that disparities between rich and poor are growing, and that wealth is being concentrated upward to an ever-smaller group of global elites while half the earth’s human population languishes in worsening poverty. For the mass media, not to remark on these evident facts amounts to permanent self-censorship.

An honest analysis, on the other hand, would reveal that the religion of the market does not and cannot keep its promises of salvation, redemption, and earthly paradise for all humans willing to accept the conditions of the market. The emptiness of these promises results from the simple fact that the dogmas of this religion are based on lies.

Let us take for example the idea that if one gives advantages to the rich, the poor will prosper as well through some kind of ‘trickle-down” effect. The falseness of this self-serving claim is amply demonstrated by the statistics of the past thirty years which show the opposite to be the case. Or the promise that everyone on earth can hope to one day achieve a level of consumption equivalent to that currently enjoyed by North Americans. Ecologists have made the calculations: it would require seven times the resources of the planet earth to sustain the present human population of six billion at such levels, not to speak of the fact that this population is growing. And as for the notion of perpetual economic growth, how do our pundits manage to avoid the obvious point that unlimited growth in a world of finite resources is a logical impossibility?
In reality, what is referred to today as the “global economy” is nothing more than a vast pyramid scheme. It rests on virtually no material support whatsoever, at least in relation to the trillions of dollars of transactions which take place every day. These transactions are no longer founded—as was the case in the past—on the exchange of actual, tangible goods and services, but solely on the confidence of investors, that is to say, on faith alone. It is easy to understand the hysteria of the neo-liberals when one speaks of slowing consumption or living more simply: they fear the total collapse of the system would result. The global economy, like all faith systems, exists only by virtue of the beliefs of its faithful. If people stop believing, the system crumbles.

It is therefore erroneous to characterize those resisting certain aspects of globalization as being simply opposed to secularism (the accusation most often leveled at islamists) or as being nothing more than anarchists and luddites (as is said of western protesters). It would be more appropriate to speak of a generalized global resistance expressing itself in various localized ways, in opposition to the often violent imposition of a hierarchical, unjust, anti-democratic, and deceitful ideology supported by a belief system that is inconsistent with the needs of the majority of the people and with the limits of the biosphere.

In the interest, then, of preserving our rights and our autonomy, of working for a more just, livable world for all, as well as ensuring the continuity of the natural systems upon which we depend, we must all learn to recognize the religion of the market in all its forms, and for the false religion it is. In its place, we must seek alternative value systems which are consistent with our respective cultural traditions and with the functioning of the ecosystems which make our continued existence possible.