Business Spirits: Contested Terrains of Trade Models and Religious Value

Photo: Creative Commons

Can we talk about religion and economy without the ‘and’? In other words, can we analyze religion and economy without assuming that these are two a priori distinct fields of action whose combination leads to either juxtaposition (religion and economy) or category collapse (religious economy or corporate religion)? To overcome this binary, we consider McLaughlin et al.’s 2020 manifesto for more attention to the corporate form of religion, which is “simultaneously religious, corporate, familial, public, profiteering, and virtuous.” How does the corporate form of religion help us understand the prevalence of neoliberalism in post-1970s spirituality? How do religious and business ventures vie for shared spirits of trade and value that remain contested by normative interpretations of religion and economy?

Hosted at the Centre for Contemporary Buddhist Studies, this conference will consider these questions with three larger aims in mind. First, to draw historical parallels between contemporary spirituality and formative precedents, such as the Theosophical Society, Masonic associations, and Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. By the start of the twentieth century, these organizations already experimented with a variety of financial models to accommodate their fusion of esotericism and transnationalism. Second, to broadly consider shifting scholarly paradigms for theorizing religion-legal entanglements with multi-level marketing, seminar companies and other frequently criticized business models. What does this tell us about the strategies and trajectories of contested business models associated with spiritual services? Last, to draw from ethnography to deepen our understanding of how spiritual entrepreneurs and their clients understand how services are rendered and products are transacted. How are the experiences of providing and consuming spiritual products variable within and across different sociocultural contexts?


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Léo Bernard (IFRIS and Cermes3) Henri-Charles Geffroy (1895-1981) and La Vie Claire: exploring the religious dimension of the health and wellness market
Stephen Christopher (University of Copenhagen) Like Nobody’s Business: Esotericism and the Modern Mystery School
Susannah Crockford (University of Exeter) A School for Self-Realization? The Serious Business of Spirituality in Sedona, Arizona
Maren Freudenberg (Ruhr-Universität Bochum) Religion and Economics from a Social Differentiation Perspective: Bringing the “And” Back In
Ioannis Gaitanidis (Chiba University) “Bad religion” or “bad business”? Shared moralities and the illegality of “spiritual sales”
Kira Ganga Kieffer (Boston University) Take Your Pills: Joseph Mercola, Herbal Supplements, and Conspiracy Culture
Tim Rudbøg (University of Copenhagen) Organisational success under the guise of popularity: The Theosophical Society as a pioneering global spiritual enterprise