Humanistic Psychology and Privatisation of Spirituality

In 1950, the Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport advanced the privatisation of religion in his work The Individual and His Religion. In attempting to develop a positive religious sentiment, Allport upheld the American values of democracy and freedom of choice to create an engagement with religion that allowed a rejection of tradition and the cultivation of individual personality as a new religious space. Developing the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher, William James and Rudolf Otto, Allport rejected institutional religion in order to develop a subjective religious attitude.

The key part of Allport’s project was a gradual erosion of the traditional institutions of (‘immature’) religion to be replaced by a private (‘mature’ and ‘healthy’) religion. Psychology provided the ‘scientific’ legitimation for translating the religious world into a concern for individual health and maturity. This shift away from institutional religion was not just a method of approach as it was for James, it was now fast becoming a question of pathology. The privatisation of religion was the shift in power from the Church to the state apparatus of psychology. The force of religion was taken away from the religious institutions and given over to market forces. Allport was another point along the road to a privateTM spirituality, which would flourish in a consumerist climate. Allport gives priority to ‘individual’ meaning, as he states:
to my mind every supporter of democracy must hold: the right of each
One underlying value judgement flavours my writing. It is a value that   
individual to work out his own philosophy of life to find his personal niche in creation, as best he can. His freedom to do so will be greater if he sees clearly the forces of culture and conformity that invite him to be content with a merely second-hand and therefore for him, with an immature religion. It is equally essential to his freedom of choice that he understand the pressures of scorn and intimidation that tend to discourage his religious quest altogether.
(Allport, 1962: vii–viii)
The greatest shift towards private spirituality, however, can be seen in the work of Abraham Maslow, particularly as his work was picked up by the 1960s Hippie culture and dovetailed with the psychedelic world of Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary. In this atmosphere, ‘spirituality’ became a product, like a drug, to change consciousness and lifestyle and provide happiness amidst the economic boom of North American life. Maslow’s work did more for ‘New Age’ spirituality products and their capitalisation than most psychological theories, principally because he created a new terminology for ‘religious experience’, which effectively divorced it from ‘religious tradition’. His ideas of ‘self-actualisation’, ‘peak-experience’, ‘Beingcognition’ and ‘transpersonal psychology’ have all played a key part in the creation of capitalist spiritualities. His language facilitated a clear break of ‘spirituality’ from its institutional moorings, and opened the space for spirituality to be seen as a ‘secular’ rather than an especially ‘religious’ phenomenon.
Maslow reinforced the private, intense model of religious expression that James had constructed half a century earlier. Conducting his analysis of experience according to his already developed model of ‘spiritual’ experience and sampling disillusioned college graduates, Maslow would ask his interviewees about their ecstatic and rapturous moments in life, not realising that religious insight often came fromTM experiences of suffering and denial. This feel-good spirituality of the self was part of the wider process of turning the social ideals of exploration can be seen in the framing of his questions:
religion into the interiorised world of the self, what we have called the ‘psychologisation of religion’. The predetermined nature of Maslow’s
I would like you to think of the most wonderful experience or experiences of your life; happiest moments, ecstatic moments, moments of rapture, perhaps from being in love, or from listening to music or suddenly ‘being-hit’ by a book or a painting, or from some great creative moment. First list these. And then try to tell me how you feel in such acute moments, how you feel differently from the way you feel at other times, how you are at the moment a different person in some ways.
(Maslow, 1976: 67, our emphasis)
Maslow’s psychology was built on the principle of positive motivation towards a healthy realisation of human potential. Like inflation and deflation of the markets, people could reach ‘growth’ motivation in the realisation of love and self-esteem, but much of this echoed the privileges of a wealthy culture, and his famous ‘hierarchy of needs’ was more a hierarchy of ‘capitalist wants’. It reflected a culture where basic physiological needs were excessively fulfilled and even of secondary concern, allowing for the ‘higher’ expressions of cognition, aestheticism and self-realisation. This partition of expression clearly ignored the rich traditions of other cultures where poverty and denial brought about transformation. This was a spiritual message for a culture of excess and one that rejected the shared expression of communal religious faith. It was the birth of a private religion based on individual ‘peak-experiences’. Thus, according to Maslow (1976: 27–8):
the evidence from the peak-experience permits us to talk about the essential, the intrinsic, the basic, the most fundamental religious or transcendent experience as a totally private and personal one which can hardly be shared (except with other ‘peakers’). As a consequence, all the paraphernalia of organised religion – buildings and specialised personnel, rituals, dogmas, ceremonials, and the like – are to theTM ‘peaker’ secondary, peripheral, and of doubtful value in relation to the intrinsic and essential religious or transcendent experience. Perhaps
they may even be very harmful in various ways. From the point of view of the peak-experiencer, each person has his own private religion,
which he develops out of his own private revelations in which are
revealed to him his own private myths and symbols, rituals and
ceremonials, which may be of the profoundest meaning to him
personally and yet completely idiosyncratic, i.e. of no meaning to anyone else. But to say it even more simply, each ‘peaker’ discovers, develops, and retains his own religion.

(our emphasis)
Religious traditions, according to Maslow, no longer have the exclusive right to talk about unseen worlds and hidden depths of meaning, or even their own intellectual and cultural expression. Maslow extrapolated the insights of religious traditions and reworked them into psychological ideas. In so doing, he transformed an ostensibly ‘religious’ phenomenon into a ‘secular’ product, which survives today in ‘New Age’ magazines and corporate business personal development programmes. After Maslow, spirituality became the new addiction of the educated, white middle classes, something that showed a rejection of the abuses associated with traditional religion but which celebrated freedom and individual expression. Privatised spirituality emerges here as the new cultural prozac bringing transitory feelings of ecstatic happiness and thoughts of self-affirmation, but never addressing sufficiently the underlying problem of social isolation and injustice. In an environment where many experience a lack of meaning in their lives, spirituality offers a cultural sedative providing individual rapture. What is masked behind this addiction to private religion is the way in which it exacerbates the problems of meaning associated with materialism and individualism in the very desire for some kind of escape from the world. Such capitalist spiritualities thereby end up reinforcing the very problems that many of its advocates seek to overcome.
The irony of Maslow’s work, as with Allport’s psychological theories, is that the very rejection of religion and the appeal to aTM private religion relied upon the adoption of another authority and another system of constraint. In the very act of freeing the mind from
embedded in psychology as part of its freedom from social control, the dogma of religion, consumers now entered the thought-control of individualism. As we saw earlier, while many see the individualism
this has prevented them from seeing how individualism is also a key element in the market creation and control of human desires. The assumption that ‘psychological individualism’ provides greater freedom or a more effective means of social organisation needs to be questioned. Once the individual is abstracted from the interrelated needs of the wider community, their individualism becomes a site for political and economic control. Rejection of the Church, the synagogue and the temple is replaced by the new authoritarianism of the market and capital. Spiritual self-actualisation is a marketactualisation, clever for its very concealment. While ‘New Age’ followers dance the gospel of self-expression they service the financial agents and chain themselves to a spirituality of consumerism. While they selectively ravage the feel-good fabric of ancient cultural and religious traditions, their disciplines and practices can easily isolate them from the resources of social justice and community to be found within those same traditions. The ancient religious traditions of the world, of course, are not without their own dark histories of thoughtcontrol, oppression and violence. Nevertheless, what they also offer are ways to overcome the pernicious consequences of individualism, selfinterest and greed throughout history. The illusion of religious free expression in private spirituality is the prison of capitalism, because it fails to acknowledge the interdependence of self within community and the ethical necessity of countering the abuses of power within market societies. It restricts the individual to a unit of consumption rather than a dynamic of relation and creative expression.
Maslow’s idea of a ‘spirituality’ of mutated religious ideas is welcomed by the business world for its motivational qualities. Indeed, at one point Maslow spent time at the Non-Linear Systems Inc. plant in Del Mar, California, and wrote in glowing terms about the effectiveness of his ideas for corporate
forces with the business world. Spirituality, once deeply entwined culture. This application of his work continues today and illustrates how a Maslovian spirituality joins in cosmologies that related the individual to society and the cosmos as a whole, is now dissected and decontextualised for corporate capitalism. The silent takeover of religion is accomplished through this psychologisation and, through this process, market forces encroach upon yet another area of human life. As Deborah Stephens (2000: viii) poignantly notes:
the reason Maslow matters today, nearly three decades after his death, is precisely because of places like Silicon Valley . . . As we embrace innovation and human capital as prime factors in competitive advantage, Maslow matters more today than when he lived.
In the attempt to understand religion from a ‘scientific’ psychological point of view, with all the restrictions upon its methodology, psychology has produced a new ‘religion’ of the self (Vitz, 1977). This religion of the self is effective because of its allegiance to the free market of individual choice. Economists, from Adam Smith onwards, have realised that you need an underlying model of the self in order to facilitate market forces. The political and economic structures allow private forms of spirituality to integrate with consumerism. As the media transmit ideas of private spirituality, so the quest for an individual meaning to be purchased and consumed reinforces the sense that spirituality is indeed private and individualistic. Psychology provides a way for the market to embrace religion through the language of ‘spirituality’ and politically removes its threat to the status quo. In effect, the territorial takeover of religion by psychology (individualisation) is the platform for the takeover of spirituality by capitalism (corporatisation). As we shall see in Chapter Four, this is not a completely smooth transition. Nevertheless, ‘heroic individualism’ is the framework through which the entrepreneurial culture of the 1980s emerged. Psychology makesTM religion into a product for private consumption and, as the fabric of the old institutions crumble, so the alienated masses start to
question of religion or not, ‘but which kind of religion, whether it is one worship at the new altar of capitalism, even when it is dressed in the outer garments of traditional religion. It is not, as Fromm indicates, a furthering man’s development, the unfolding of his specifically human powers, or one paralyzing them’ (Fromm, 1978: 26).
The problems with this psychological-capitalist spirituality are numerous, both in terms of appreciating psychology and its limits and in terms of social ethics. The investment in psychology provided, as we have stated, a framework for governing society, but the values of psychological methods of hypothesis-testing and empiricism have been lost in its enslavement to ideological models of individualism. Psychology can only have value today if it recognises its limits as a science, not by assuming ontological rights over the nature of human beings in its philosophical and political adventures. One of the central problems of psychology has been its adoption of a closed self, which it assumes is scientifically given rather than socially created. Theories of perception, memory and cognition, for example, operate on this notion of a closed system, but such unified models of the self conceal the divided self of social inequality and the multiple selves of our social and linguistic functioning. The illusion of a unified self is the market subject, the consuming agent, necessary for the function of late capitalistic markets. Its illusion is that the self somehow exists in isolation, when it is in fact a product of a complex network of economic, political, cultural and social interactions. Moreover, in its self-description as an objective ‘science’, psychology as a discipline has refused to acknowledge not only its own intellectual debts – namely, the pre-modern cultural heritage that constitutes its formative history, but also its own social location.
One of the problems of private, psychologised spirituality is the way in which it reinforces the idea that the individual is solely responsible for his or her own suffering. It supports a world where meaning is a private reality and where individuals make sense of their lives in isolation – a self-styled and custom-built spirituality purchased in the marketplace – rather than one generated through theTM social and historical lines of transmission within communities. However, the private spirituality supported by psychology is a collective political reality
of ‘isolated individuals’ in the language of free will and choice. When offering an ideology of separation. This ideology of privatisation breaks the social self and conceals, as we have noted, the collective manipulation spirituality is built upon such a model it becomes locked into isolating practices that alienate people from each other and from moral responsibility for the collective good. While not denying the reality of the individual agent, it is important to realise the many and varied ways in which such agency remains intrinsically woven together with that of other human beings in terms of language, culture and identity. To overcome the alienating practices of psychologised spirituality, it is necessary to challenge the boundaries between self and other and to recognise the importance of interdependence. In recent years, following work in social psychology and social constructivism in the 1970s, there has been a group of psychologists who have started to critically examine the discipline and practices of psychology. They attempt to identify the social and political context of psychological thought and rethink the subject according its cultural determinants and its relation to social justice. They even question the foundations and possibility of psychology as conventionally conceived (see, for example, Sloan, 2000 and Carrette, 2001). This approach has become known as ‘critical’ psychology and has allowed for a rethinking of the discipline in terms of the politics of knowledge. It is now possible to see how psychology supports the political regime of capitalism by providing a model of humanity premised upon individualism, privatisation and a closed self. Political ideologies and economic regimes carry with them an underlying philosophy of being human and the correspondence between the history of psychology and capitalism bears witness to such an alliance. The political critique of psychology also results in questioning any simple reduction of individual suffering to our private psychological world and rejects the separation of our sense of self from the contributing social and economic factors. As David Smail has so powerfully demonstrated,
The ills we suffer are not consequent upon our personal inadequaciesTM or moralistically attributed faults; they are the inevitable result of publicly endorsed and communally practised forms of indifference,
greed and exploitation, and require a moral reformation of our public, not our private ways of life.
 (Smail 1998: 152)
The psychologised forms of spirituality that have developed over the last century attempt to locate meaning within the individual according to a selective valuing of intense experiences within the self and a closed system of cognition. Practitioners within the mental health field, for instance, often appeal to the need of western societies to appreciate the spiritual side of patients and clients in a world where materialist and rationalist judgements prevail. They believe that this search for the ‘spiritual’ within each person will counter the abuses of a wider instrumentalism and materialism. However, while there are important and valuable dimensions to such ‘holistic’ approaches in providing personal integration, meaning and a sense of value, the privatised and individualistic aspects of such practices can often conceal the social and political realities that are carried forward in its palliative, pastoral message. Spirituality, in this way, can easily become a virtuous, if somewhat deluded, attempt to deal with the ‘whole’ person, but still in rather isolated terms. In a similar way, ‘New Age’ groups argue that traditional religions have failed and new forms of spirituality should be embraced to unite people to the earth, to the cosmic reality and to hidden mystical powers. Unfortunately, this appeal is misguided if it fails to understand the political forces behind the will-to-power of psychological ‘truth’. As ‘New Age’ followers and healthcare practitioners uphold ‘spirituality’ as a way out of oppressive material worlds, they can paradoxically reinscribe the forces of isolation by focusing upon the individual. The isolation provides, as Parker (1997: 133) has identified, the basis for ideologically shaping the individual:

Our experience of ourselves as separate and isolated from other people means that we have particularly hostile and fearful relationships with others, and these feelings are exaggerated when we relate to those in authority. The beliefs that we have deep down about    our own nature and about those lesser and greater than ourselves are forms of ideology.
sense of emptiness that consumerism promises, but intrinsically Late capitalist societies operate upon the mechanisms of social isolation. They create a social vacuum and an individualized fails, to satisfy. In such a situation, salvation through the spirituality market covertly provides new resources for sustaining the materialistic culture that they are ostensibly seeking to resist.
The introduction of ‘private’ models of spirituality can be a dangerous move, especially in the helping professions and pastoral care. In the very desire to cure the addictions of modern living, patients are offered models of ‘spirituality’ to provide greater meaning in an empty world. This capitalist spirituality, however, only increases private consumer addiction. It offers personalised packages of meaning and social accommodation rather than recipes for social change and identification with others. In this sense, capitalist spirituality is the psychological sedative for a culture that is in the process of rejecting the values of community and social justice. The cultural hegemony of this kind of spirituality grows as market forces increase and as neoliberal ideology is unhindered in its takeover of all aspects of human life and meaning. The desire for more diverse forms of spirituality to counter the ideology of consumption increases with the everperpetuating production line of new ‘spiritual’ products. The vacuous nature of the ‘spiritual’ marketplace creates a greater demand and need for some kind of ‘real’, ‘pure’ or ‘authentic’ spiritual experience, always just out of reach, like the inner contentment that consumerism promises but never fulfils. The consumer world of ‘New Age’ spirituality markets ‘real’, ‘pure’ or ‘authentic’ spiritual experiences, but these are manufactured worlds that seek to escape the ‘impure’ political reality of spirituality. The problem is always to identify which ideology is constructing and informing the idea of spirituality at any particular point in history. Capitalist spirituality only raises the desire for ever-new versions of spirituality that reinforce our private and isolated worlds. In the end, such spiritualities are too easily co-opted by the desiring machine of consumerism. Writing in 1970, Erich Fromm (1995: 67) had already appreciated that

Man [sic] is in the process of becoming a homo consumens, a total
consumer. This image of man almost has the character of a new religious vision in which heaven is just a big warehouse where everyone
can buy something new every day, indeed, where he [sic] can buy everything that he wants and even a little more than his neighbour. This vision of the total consumer is indeed a new image of man that is conquering the world, quite regardless of the differences of political organisation and ideology.
What we are calling, respectively, individualist/consumerist and corporatist/capitalist spiritualities devalue embodied communities by increasing the self-importance of individuality (or the corporation) and placing the pursuit of individual (and/or corporate) wealth above social justice. These forms of spirituality are the result of a failure to recognise that individuality is born out of community and that ‘spirituality’, as a psychological reality, is a hidden form of social manipulation of the same order as oppressive forms of thoughtcontrol associated with religious traditions in previous eras. More importantly, what such forms of spirituality leave behind in their distillation of the spiritual from the religious are the resources of social conscience and community identity that those traditions provided for humanity.
Socially engaged forms of spirituality do not eradicate a concern for the individual, but rather reject the idea that the individual is a separate entity to be measured for the purposes of social control and consumption. As some forms of ‘critical psychology’ have emphasised, the individual is always social. The individual sense of self reflects and shapes the social world, either in the negative form of isolation or in a positive form as social integration. Socially engaged forms of spirituality recognise that the sense of self must be built on social networks, not on private separation and individual consumption. As Stanczak and Miller (2002: 24) have identified in a recent report on Engaged Spirituality: ‘spirituality only becomes enacted for social transformation when the spiritual experiences find personal resonance with motivations and available patterns ofTM action for bringing about social change’. Such engaged approaches locate spirituality and individual identity within the social fabric, and
possession. When the individual self is seen as a node in a web of recognise that our sense of personal worth is grounded upon social value and relationship, not upon private gratification and individual social relations, one can see the need for pastoral care, ‘New Age’ healing and the helping professions to become politically informed activities that seek personal health through social justice and social amelioration. Individual mental health can only be established through socially embedded structures that seek justice for all and not gain for the few, because individuals depend upon each other and evolve together and not in isolation. Individual dis-ease is always in part a dis-ease of society (especially when it comes down to the allocation of social resources). In this respect, a ‘spirituality’ that is separate from questions of social justice is a sedative for coping with an oppressive and difficult world.
In 1932 at the Alsatian Pastoral Conference at Strasbourg, Jung (1958: 334) recognised that his patients were suffering from a lack of religious perspective. It now seems that individual suffering, loneliness and isolation are themselves consequences of a ‘capitalist’ spirituality that has lost its social ethic. The full consequences of this production of spirituality are as yet unknown, but what becomes clear is that psychological spirituality hides its political allegiance to a consumer world. As long as spirituality operates according to the dictates of global capitalism it will continue to contribute to the breaking up of traditional communities and the undermining of older, indigenous forms of life around the world. Capitalist spirituality, however, can be overcome by consideration of the forgotten social dimensions of ‘the religions’, by rescuing and developing alternative models of social justice, and by contesting the corporatisation and privatisation exemplified in such contemporary forms of spirituality.
In conclusion, we have seen how the history of psychology is bound up with capitalism through the privatisation of human experience. When psychology ideologically reshapes religion, it creates the possibility of a spirituality for the marketplace. In this context, it is vital, as Helen Lee (2001: 155) has argued, that ‘contemporary notions of spirituality, however conceived, are not romanticised as ideal and accepted unquestionably as the way forward in the twenty-
the process of privatising religious experience has also been carried first century’. While much of the discussion in this chapter has focused upon the transformations of the inner world of western Christianity,
forward in relation to other traditions. Indeed, as we shall see in the next chapter, the very assimilation of Asian traditions and culture into the marketplace of religions has occurred precisely through this reorganisation of experience in the terms set by psychology.

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