The Gospel of Consumerism

In the United States, the day after Thanksgiving is often called Black Friday, both because of the chaos it engenders and because it is the day when many businesses are “in the black”, in other words able to show a net profit, for the first time of the year. Both reasons are because Black Friday marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping season and is one of the busiest shopping days of the year. It is becoming increasingly common for retailers to open in the very earliest hours of the morning on that day, and even those are often met with huge lines the moment they open their doors.

Especially in stores that offer deep holiday discounts, mob scenes and pandemonium are becoming an increasingly common part of Black Friday and the Christmas shopping season in general, as the following all-too-typical article attests:

An elderly woman and nine other bargain hunters were injured Friday in a rush for gift certificates dropped from the ceiling of a local mall.

Some 2,000 shoppers rushed for 500 falling prize-filled balloons at the Del Amo Fashion Center, leaving nine with minor wounds and sending an elderly woman to the hospital.

…The mob began pushing and shoving after the balloons were dropped. One teenage boy hopped two picket fences and kicked a package in the mall’s holiday display as he tried to escape the melee.

While retailers share some of the blame for this state of affairs by creating promotions that are tailor-made for this sort of thing to occur (dropping gift certificates from the ceiling into the middle of a crowd?), the larger problem is a more general one: the consumerist mentality of our society, especially apparent around Christmastime, that subordinates nearly everything else to the senseless urge to acquire and possess. Every year, the media stirs up the frenzy by chattering excitedly about this holiday season’s latest big-ticket fad, the “must-have” item (and what does that term say about our society?) for which people are willing to wait on line for hours in the frosty cold or stampede over each other; and advertisers contribute by promoting the idea that we can feel good about ourselves and achieve happiness in life though the purchase of material possessions.

The tricks are so obvious, when you see them for what they are. Almost every advertisement attempts to bypass the rational mind altogether and create an irrational, emotional association between the product and some positive mental state, hoping that this subconscious mental link will encourage you to buy the product when next you see it, in an unconscious attempt to recapture that pleasant feeling. Put this way, it seems incredible that anyone would fall for such a transparent tactic – but we can and we do, in huge numbers.

Regardless of what advertisers would like to think, the ceaseless and frenetic drive to buy and consume adds nothing to our lives. Studies have repeatedly found that money and possessions do not increase happiness, beyond what is needed to secure the most basic comforts and needs. Buying gifts for our friends and loved ones was at one point a mere thoughtful gesture, but it has been exaggerated almost beyond recognition into a burdensome obligation, as if buying expensive frivolities for people around us was necessary to demonstrate affection. It may increase corporate profits and fuel the culture of greed, but it does not improve our lives in any real way.

But what is especially bizarre is that organized Christianity is now helping this trend along. Though the Bible contradicts itself in many places, one of the things it is consistent about is its warning that love of money leads to disaster. It is thus incredibly ironic that, for a religion whose scriptures so frequently warn its followers about the perils of consumerism, the Christian right is becoming one of the primary forces accelerating the commercialization of Christmas. Yes, you heard that right. As reported by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Counsel is this year compiling a list of businesses that do or do not use Christmas in their advertising, and is encouraging its followers to buy only from the former (source).

I find this so shocking that it bears repeating, so let me say it again: The religious right is explicitly insisting that businesses use Christmas as an excuse to sell things, and urging a boycott of stores that do not commercialize it enough. They are not just accepting, but actively demanding that retailers invoke one of their most sacred holidays in an effort to make money (an example of mixing God and Mammon if ever I heard one). If I did not know that this was really happening, I would think it was a joke from one of Stephen Colbert’s parodies. What more evidence could a person possibly ask for that the Christianity of Falwell and his kin has become a hollow shell whose only remaining purpose is as an excuse for them to flaunt their imagined superiority over others?

We should learn to resist the mentality of the consumer culture. Buying small, useful gifts is well and good, but there are many equally good ways to show that we care for each other. (Personally, I agree in advance with friends and loved ones not to buy each other gifts so that we can each donate the money we would have spent to a worthy charity.) In much the same way, though positive sentiments like love and family often find expression through religion, this does not mean that religion is the only way to achieve them. The things that matter, both in this season and throughout the year, do not come from a store or from a church.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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