Is the Market the new God?

Harvey Cox has been at the forefront of divinity studies for over 50 years. But when he turned his attention from the Bible to the business pages, he realized our relationship with the market has all the markings of a religion.
Wall Street's Charging Bull in stained glass. From the cover of The Market God by Harvey Cox.
This September in Montreal, acclaimed theologian Harvey Cox stood in front of a room full of the world's greatest minds in religion and told them about a conversation he'd had with a friend. 
Harvey Cox speaking at the 3rd Global Conference on World's Religions in Montreal, QC. (Eva Blue)

"A few years ago a friend of mine said to me, 'You spend a lot of your years studying religion, studying theology and all of that. But if you want to know what's really going on in the world you want to read the Wall Street Journal and the business pages of the New York Times. Because that's where the real decisions are made. That's where things really happen.' So... I did."

Harvey Cox has been at the forefront of religious studies for over 50 years and is Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University. When he took his friend's advice and turned his attention from the Bible to the business pages, he realized our relationship with the market has all the markings of a religion.

"It occurs to me that we now have, among the religions of the world […] the great powerful growing religion of Marketism."

In his new book The Market as God, Cox describes the underpinnings of what he refers to as the "deified market". He points to correlations between religious institutions and market capitalism to explain how consumerism is the new religious order.

Why is the Market the new god?

  • At the core of the Market is a controlling narrative (you must consume to be fulfilled)
  • The Market has a set of rituals (shopping)
  • It has its own cathedrals and houses of worship (shopping malls)
  • The Market has missionaries and priests who spread the word (advertisers, business executives, etc...)
    "We often think about how Christian and Muslim missionaries or others have reached out the whole way around the globe. These missionaries are parochial in comparison with the enormous efforts and penetration of the missionaries of the Market God. There isn't a village anywhere in the world now -- I defy you to find one -- that hasn't been touched by the Market missionaries." - Harvey Cox
  • The Market has its own prophets, those who are engaged to look into the future, tell us what will happen, and tell us where to invest our funds
  • The Market is omnipresent: it is everywhere. The use of Market values has permeated courtship and family life (such as paying children to do the dishes), medicine, and academia (Cox points to the way students are now viewed as customers). The ads on our computer screens and the telemarketers in our phones are more evidence of this omnipresence.
  • The Market is omnipotent: we trust in the ultimate wisdom of the Market. Even after the financial crisis of 2008, which revealed the market's fallibility, Cox argues people continue to have faith in the market as a self-correcting deity that eventually will restore order. Cox responds, "The poor are still waiting."
  • The Market makes use of parables. Cox describes how rabbis traditionally teach through parables and argues, "Every commercial is a mini parable":
    Act 1: A person is troubled by something (restless legs, blemished skin). 
    Act 2: Somebody holding a bottle or a package promises a solution (get some today, do it now!)
    Act 3: Happy resolution. Problem solved.

Is it fair to say these qualities make it a religion?

 To answer this question, Cox paraphrases anthropologist Clifford Geertz's widely accepted definition of religion:

Religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and longstanding moods and motivations. It formulates these in terms of a worldview that influences human behaviour over the long run.

Cox says, "This is exactly what the Market God is doing. It's a system of symbols, stories, narratives [...] It has its own rituals, its own temples, its own priesthood, its own prophets. It is a complete system. And it has established -- and is establishing -- long lasting moods and motivations, the objective of which is to get us to buy things."

Click LISTEN to hear Harvey Cox's full lecture as recorded at the Third Global Conference on World's Religions After September 11 in Montreal.