DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Consumerism & Religion
1. Miller emphasizes just how ingrained these consumer habits are in our lives when he says he made 50 consumer choices before he left his house one morning. How many do you think you've made in the last few hours?
2. According to Miller, with all this practice, we end up applying these consumer habits not just to traditional consumer goods but also to other spheres of life, such as online dating, politics, and religion. We shop for a date, a political party, and a religion in the same way that we shop for groceries. Can you give examples of how we might apply consumer habits such as (a) – (c) above to dating, politics and religion? So do you agree with this first claim?
3. Miller's second main point is that these habits, while well-suited to consumer goods, are less well-suited to these other spheres, and to religion in particular. What are some of the reasons he gives throughout the interview for thinking so?
4. One reason Miller gives for thinking religion ought not to be reduced to a commodity is that habit (c) is totally false in the religious case. Far from religions "giving themselves to us rather quickly" as commodities do, it "may take a lifetime" to understand any one religious tradition. Do you agree? What do you see as some of the dangers of over-simplifying one’s understanding of a religion, for oneself, and for the religion?
6. Is one problem with a consumer mentality about religion that it prevents us from entering into a respectful relationship with God and religious communities -- that it treats them as a means to our ends, versus an end in themselves?
7. Is Miller's claim not just that religion is not a commodity, but, deeper, that we should thus not approach religion as a consumer? If yes, can we really escape making a "consumer choice" between religions (or not) as we come to an authentic personal commitment about religion?
8. Are there examples in your life in which you have encountered religious communities marketing their religion to you? If yes, what are they? Does that prove Miller's point that we are approaching religion with a consumer mentality?
9. Miller thinks that one of the advantages of church-shopping is that it can result in more intentional commitments to a particular religious community. But he believes that it also erodes "inter-generational formation and wisdom" since families no longer stick with the same community for generations, and it creates church communities comprised of "evermore like-minded people," since critics can just leave for another congregation. Do you agree with Miller about these positive and negative outcomes of church-shopping? Can you think of other pros or cons? How might we distinguish between good and appropriate reasons for looking for a different religious community and poor reasons that simply further the commodification of religion?
10. Do you think, as Miller does, that the Pope and the Dalai Lama function as "religious celebrities" -- people whose authority we respect but whose message we distill to a sound bite? Why or why not? In what ways does it help or hurt a religion to have a celebrity at its helm? Is some other kind of leadership better?
11. Miller makes the surprising point that, at least today, consumer desire is "very much like" religious desire since both feel infinite: in the same way that we continually hunger for God and are filled and then hunger again and are filled again, etc., so also we hunger for a laptop and are filled for a week or two and then hunger again and are filled next with an iPad, etc. Miller concludes that this endless succession of consumer desires is either satisfying or at least distracting enough to keep us from religious desire, "from ever asking the more ultimate questions about what life is about." Does this seem true? Wouldn't this make us expect less religious commitment in wealthier countries where good marketers and wealthy consumers can create such infinite chains of consumer desire?
12. As a spiritual practice of mindfulness, Miller recommends finding out where a product that is important to you comes from, what kind of labor it requires, and what sort of impact it has on the earth. Would you be willing to try this, and, if so, for which product? Do we have an obligation to consider a product's impact before buying it?
13. In closing, what are the two other practical things Miller says religious communities can do to confront the consumer mentality in religious life? Do you think they would help?