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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • Oz

    Having known many people in retail, I assure you that the name “Black Friday” has a far more ominous meaning than the one you describe. Have you ever been in a mall on Black Friday?

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    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.

    That’s a pretty good idea. I wish I could get my family to go along with it, but they’re too much of a diverse group to be able to convince them all – especially since Christmas is one of the few things they all do together.

  • Jim

    My family agreed a few years ago to stop the gift giving because of financial hardship in my brothers family and my parents having financial problems. We ended up finding out that we all enjoy the holidays more now that the gift giving madness is no longer a part of it. We do get reasonable gifts for the small children, but we keep them simple and affordable. FWIW I am the only atheist of the bunch, the rest consider themselves Christian, but they are reasonable enough to accept my non-belief. I do think giving to a worthy charity in lieu of gifts is a great idea if you can afford to and I try to do so when I can.

  • Alex Weaver

    I need to print this out for Trish. She, unfortunately, has been rather thoroughly suckered by advertising equating sentimental “keepsake” type items with sentiment itself.

  • http://franksatheisticramblings.blogspot.com frank

    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

    We should do the above so that people can have below

    money and possessions do not increase happiness, beyond what is needed to secure the most basic comforts and needs

    There are many who do not even have the mosts basic comforts and needs this holiday season.
    Excellent post.

  • http://inserttitleblog.com Steve

    This is so interesting; historically, the Christian Right has rebelled against the consumerism of Chrismas. I guess they obey the old adage: “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

  • http://www.sentient-entity.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/ Steve Pells

    “Must Have” (noun) = “Don’t need”

    For a few years now, I have not watched TV, or rather, only have my TV hooked up to a DVD player and computer. Not seeing adverts represents a remarkable improvement in quality of life.

    s.

  • Stephen

    I think that stopping giving gifts altogether is going too far – other than in cases of financial hardship, of course. We still give gifts in our family, but on a modest scale. As a result I have made the acquaintance of numerous fascinating books and pieces of music that I had never heard of, and I believe that I have often successfully reciprocated for other family members. Making the effort to find something that friends and family will enjoy is still a worthwhile activity.

    But of course I entirely agree with the main thrust of this post. (And now I think about it, I have rarely, if ever, bought a Christmas present that I had seen advertised. My father used to say “if it needs a lot of advertising it can’t be any good” and there is surely an element of truth in that.)

  • ceetar

    I agree with Stephen that giving up gift-giving is not a necessity to avoiding rampant consumerism. Rather, it should be the meaningless gifts, the gifts motivated by advertisements or hype rather then the idea that the receiver will enjoy or benefit from the gift. Gifts for the sake of gifts should be avoided whenever possible.

    It’s a catch-22 type situation i think. Stores hype up products, advertise like crazy, open longer. Customers in turn start shopping more, and bigger. Rewarded with money for hyping up the holiday season, the stores get crazier and crazier.

    Take the Nintendo Wii. Some stores decided to hold back stock until this past sunday. This way they got to advertise in their flyers that they would have Wii’s available. And they attracted many more people into the stores(Most of whom, given that you had to wait outside for hours before opening to get one, didn’t get a Wii) for the last big weekend before Christmas.

  • Christopher

    While I find the church’s acceptence of consumerism as being against biblical teachings (remember the money changers of the temple?), I’m not surprised that they went down that road: consumerism is the best way to make a quick buck.

    I am a consumer, and I see no shame in purchasing extra comforts while others experience lack: there will always be a poor class among us and there’s nothing we can do about it. Giving them money and supplies may relieve their suffering for a time, but their situation doesn’t change in the end.

  • http://atheistrevolution.blogspot.com/ vjack

    Excellent post. I’m starting to think that American Christianity abandoned the teachings of Jesus a long time ago. Sure, they still use his name in an attempt to give their real mission the appearance of moral worth and credibility. What is their real mission? I think we are seeing an American civil religion that has big business consumerism at its core and is surrounded by the trappings of Christianity.

  • Alex Weaver

    There will always be some people who have more wealth than others, but there is no legitimate reason why anyone must live without adequate food, shelter, education, or medical care. Plausible sociopolitical and technological mechanisms by which this might be remedied have already been proposed in broad outline, and in many cases we as a species already have the capacity. As Darwin said of the eye’s evolution, the problem of how to alleviate and eventually eliminate this sort of crushing poverty, while insuperable to the imagination, can scarcely be considered real. What is mainly needed is the willingness and the commitment to making these changes. You, frankly, are not helping.

  • Christopher

    Who says that I intend to?

    Some problems are, by there very nature, unsolvable. So why even try?

  • http://nesoo.wordpress.com/ Nes

    Some problems are, by there very nature, unsolvable. So why even try?

    Because of starfish:

    A young man is walking along the ocean and sees a beach on which thousands and thousands of starfish have washed ashore. Further along he sees an old man, walking slowly and stooping often, picking up one starfish after another and tossing each one gently into the ocean.

    “Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?,” he asks.

    “Because the sun is up and the tide is going out and if I don’t throw them further in they will die.”

    “But, old man, don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it! You can’t possibly save them all, you can’t even save one-tenth of them. In fact, even if you work all day, your efforts won’t make any difference at all.”

    The old man listened calmly and then bent down to pick up another starfish and throw it into the sea. “It made a difference to that one.”

  • Alex Weaver

    If I’m understanding Christopher’s position correctly from his statements here and elsewhere, the problem with the parable is that he isn’t a starfish.

  • Ben Ostrow

    Christopher, why must there be poverty? Nothing must be. Science finds all that is, only is.

    There exists many a thing in Human society that people find unfortunate, or even terrifying or repulsive. But these things are a part of the human condition. They are all manifestations of a certain part of human nature, all corollaries of a basic requirement. Prostitution, Rape, Violence. The former, blind lust and man’s mammalian procreative heritage. The latter, ignorance and thus, fear and hatred. And anger, indignation, hopelessness, despair: These are not sustainable feelings for any individual. He or She will be broken of mind, of spirit, eventually. After this, crime, born of desperation, comes easy. Even Poverty falls in this category. These individuals may have been subject to the dark side of man themselves, or may have succumbed to it. Many may only need an initial boost to rise from destitution. A shower, a suit. These may not lead to much, but the act itself gives back a sense of worth, of humanity. I often ponder how a single, well intentioned person could alter the course of another life.

    The reckless, subversive and counterproductive impulses I have spoken of, can be controlled and modified. They are a product of an uncaring and often systematically hypocritical social context.

    These tragedies of human nature need only Christopher’s apathy to persist.

  • Polly

    This is a pretty old thread, so hopefuly, I can just rant about what’s been bugging me about hyperconsumerism, especially recently.

    I cannot say how much I DETEST all the shop til you drop bullshit that I see all around me. All my life I watched my parents (who each made a multiple of the median family income) spend themselves deep in debt just to buy more crap. I don’t think my father has ever owned a car for more than a couple years.

    Both of them watch, actually WATCH, HSN (the Home Shopping Network) and QVC. Seriously, who could ever have imagined a channel devoted to simply one long running string of commercials? Aren’t commercials the things we try to avoid watching on other channels? They have tons of stuff, and they keep buying! Sometimes buying the same thing multiple times. If you have 2 or 3 TVs, I guess it only makes sense to have 2 or 3 DVD players and DVRS and VCRs, right?

    Oh, and let’s make sure we can watch DVDs while on the go. So, they buy those 7″ portable players, cause the screens are bigger than those tiny little iPod screens.

    Once you buy a Lexus you need to spend a few thousand to put TWO LCD TV’s in the backseat so the people (who? I wonder) can watch TV. Oh, and now there’s an even nicer model of Lexus out. Let’s sell this old (1 year?) piece of junk and buy that one. GAAAAAAK!

    I see co-workers who I know don’t make what I do (and I’m not rich) driving into the lot with brand new cars whose sticker price would give me a heart-attack.

    I noticed that people were actually camping out in front of a freakin’ Best Buy! PATHETIC. All to get a good deal on some gadget that no one needs in the first place. I made up my mind that I was not going to buy any more gadgets a while ago. Very easy to stick to. My goal is to stop buying anything but absolute necessities…except books. I guess that’s MY downfall. But, I will not be buying the latest gadget to read them – not the Kindle or the Sony Reader. Tempted though I was. They’re just waaay too expensive.

    Houses in my neighborhood, where I grew up, and wherein I now rent, are going for 700-800K!! These same houses were 100K when I was young. They’re little houses, not worth nearly that much. But, people kept buying and completely priced us out of the housing market.
    My wife, in exasperation, would ask me “Well, how come THESE people can afford it?” I would always respond, “They’re in debt up to their eyeballs. I refuse to be a debt-slave.”
    Lo and behold, a few years later, we have a foreclosure crisis, with a credit card crisis still looming. All because people seem to be driven to live a lifestyle that is beyond all reason and beyond their ability to pay for.

    Sheeple.

    The more you spend the more you HAVE to work. When you can’t afford to stay out of the workforce because you’re saddled with debt, you’ll pretty much take whatever you can get. Consumer credit was allowed to expand with interest rates pushed so low that people could buy way beyond their means. All this was for the purpose of stimulating business growth. But, I could see that it was unsustainable from several years ago.

    How unhappy these people seem. The whole society seems frenetic and anxious. Everyone seems to be rushing toward…I don’t know what. They just keep buying more junk. I don’t even know where they’re putting it all. In their garages, I guess, judging by all the Audi’s and Infiniti’s parked outside, in front of the houses.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    I have to respect a rant like that. :)

    The attitude you describe so well, Polly, used to be found only among a few reckless people. When it’s rare, capitalism can deal with that rapacious greed, and even channel it into productive avenues. But in the past few years, it’s come to afflict a significant percentage of society in general, and the result is our current economic crisis. This situation is the inevitable result of a mentality that teaches people that they are entitled to every material luxury regardless of their financial status, that you can afford anything just by going deeper into debt, that there will always be a bigger fool. Well, we’ve run out of bigger fools, and the entire gigantic bubble has burst; and we’re going to have a long, hard, painful slog ahead of us to put the pieces back together.

    The worst part is that everyone who’s to blame for our situation made the decisions they did for reasons that seemed perfectly logical at the time. When real estate prices are soaring, it makes sense to buy a home on credit and then hope to pay down the mortgage by extracting equity from the property. When all your competitors are making a fortune on subprime mortgage CDOs, it makes sense to get into that market as well. When the spigots of cash are flowing, it makes sense to stretch yourself and buy or merge with companies that would have been beyond your financial reach. And if you’re an advertiser, it makes sense to encourage poor people to buy things they can’t afford on credit, making handsome profits and consoling yourself that you didn’t force them to make any unwise decision. The logic of individual selfishness, in the aggregate, leads to group disaster: it’s the Prisoner’s Dilemma breaking out on a planetary scale. And the government, whose normal role it is to prevent such situations from arising, was just as unprepared as they were to keep the peace in Iraq or evacuate New Orleans.


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