Coming Soon to Your Age of Economic Inequality: Radical Spirituality

Why ecstatic religious movements coincide with economic inequality.

The United States is rapidly becoming an economically polarized place. While everyone recognizes economic inequality’s obvious effects — more poverty, less social mobility — one likely outcome of the growing wealth gap could surprise you: wilder, more intense religious movements.

A recent report shows that the top 1% of U.S. earners take home 20% of all the nation’s income. Other studies, such as French economist Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, make it clear that it’s becoming harder for the working and lower-middle classes to advance in the ranks. This growing economic stratification is so bad for the country that even writers at Forbes magazine — not exactly a hothouse of revolutionary populism — agree that wealth inequality is harming the nation’s long-term outlook.

But the future effects of rising inequality aren’t limited just to the economic sphere. Studies show that as social stratification worsens, ecstatic religious movements might start booming.

By “ecstatic religion,” I mean high-energy, charismatic movements such as Christian Pentecostalism or Haitian Vodou. Members of such groups might not be thrilled about being lumped together in one category, but there are enough clear similarities to make the comparison a useful (if not completely unproblematic) one. For instance, ecstatic religious practices often include an element of possession, in which participants’ bodies are temporarily taken over by external, spiritual beings – the Holy Spirit, for example, or the god Damballa in Vodou. They also feature wildly expressive worship or ceremonies, typically powered by intense music and dancing. Ecstatic religious movements are richly somatic practices, involving the whole body in energetic, participatory experiences that make Lutheran services look like still-life paintings.

The flowering of ecstatic religious movements is . . . a hint that times are growing hard.

Cultures all over the world have similar, colorful religious rites that revolve around possession by spirits. These institutionalized, “controlled possessions” differ from the type of possession Americans are most familiar with — demonic possession a la The Exorcist — in that the spirits or gods are welcome into the bodies of mediums. The people who allow the supernatural to enter their bodies are usually practiced experts who have worked hard to develop the skills of ecstasy. In many cultures, controlled spirit possession is even used for healing.

But not all cultures have this sort of ecstatic spirit possession. In the 1970s, the respected anthropologist Erika Bourguignon conducted an ambitious study of more than 450 different cultures from around the world. After completing a statistical analysis, she concluded that spirit possession was significantly more common in complex, hierarchical cultures where institutionalized inequality was pervasive, but was relatively rare among simpler, more egalitarian societies. For instance, cultures with ecstatic spirit-possession traditions were more likely to have slavery, polygamy, and bride-purchasing — each of which is characteristic of rigidly unequal social structures.

Similarly, the sociologist I.M. Lewis drew a distinction between “central” and “peripheral” religious cults. Central religions, Lewis claimed, tended to be male, official, state-sanctioned, and relatively sedate. Peripheral religions, meanwhile, were ecstatic, female-dominated, and antagonistic or subversive to the official social structure. Although Lewis’s thesis has been roundly challenged by scholars, it’s also been profoundly influential for people who study spirit possession. In part, this is because it helps make sense of religions such as Brazilian Candomblé, Korean shamanism, and North African and Iranian spirit possession cults — all of which are female-dominated spirit possession movements in highly stratified, socially rigid cultures.

But why would spirits prefer stratified societies over egalitarian ones? One answer, advocated by I.M. Lewis, is that spirit possession gives impoverished and powerless people an avenue for expressing their frustrations — for “getting it out of their system.” Think about a Friday-night barroom, where working-class stiffs drink beers, talk loudly, and blow off steam built up from the workweek — and then add wild, rhythmic music, religious overtones, and supernatural spirits instead of liquid ones. In this model, ecstatic religious movements are a natural reaction against the stresses of living under social oppression.

To be a moral society, we need to avoid pushing of entire groups of people to the margins of power.

A parallel theory suggests that when a person is possessed by a spirit (or by the Holy Spirit), he or she experiences a sense of agency that is otherwise unavailable to the powerless. The spirits have power — they can change things, influence people, heal the sick. It’s hard to do these things when you’re at the bottom of the pecking order in a stratified, hierarchical society. If you’re a member of a seriously disadvantaged group, embodying a supernatural being during an ecstatic religious ceremony offers an experience of agency and power that may otherwise be beyond your reach.

These suggestions don’t exhaust the potential explanations of spirit possession. But they underscore that ecstatic religion, an important worldwide phenomenon, is disproportionately connected with rigidly stratified, inegalitarian cultures. Pentecostalism, which is spreading like wildfire in many of the most unequal and impoverished parts of the globe, got its start among down-and-out African-American communities at the end of the last Gilded Age, shortly after Herbert Spencer had ushered in the era of respectable social Darwinism. In the 1970s, Pentecostalism became the go-to religion for black South Africans at the height of apartheid. Even today, American Pentecostals have lower average incomes and are more likely to lack a college degree than Catholics or members of mainline Protestant denominations. Where there is dispossession, the Spirit gathers.

This historical and ethnographic evidence suggests that if wealth inequality continues to rise in the United States, ecstatic religious movements may become more and more commonplace — particularly among the least-advantaged groups, those who have no formal access to the levers of power. These groups won’t necessarily all be Pentecostal, either. Times of intense social pressure have a way of inspiring religious creativity; charismatic leaders may crop up with new teachings, new visions, and some of them may gather enough followers to start full-fledged movements. It’s hard to say what those movements will look like, but if the American economic landscape continues to grow more rugged, we can bet that many of them will be rich with ecstatic trances, music, and spirits that enter participants’ bodies.

I’m not saying, “Oooh, we’d better get our economy fixed up, or we’re going to have a wave of spirit possession cults!” No: the societal ill to be avoided here is profound inequality, not ecstatic religion. To be a moral society, we need to avoid pushing of entire groups of people to the margins of power.

The flowering of ecstatic religious movements is more an indicator than a symptom — a hint that times are growing hard, and people are reacting to that harshness in a uniquely human way that combines the spiritual and the bodily, giving cathartic expression to life’s pains and aspirations. Ecstatic religions are not platforms for gloom and suffering; they’re often remarkably joyful, somatic methods of encountering something beyond the mundane, a world that lies hidden behind the everyday. Perhaps when the everyday isn’t particularly heartening, other, hidden worlds beckon more strongly. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing everything we can to fix the world we can see.

Connor Wood
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  • SaskatoonMark

    This was a fascinating article. The US has always been the birthplace of many nontraditional religious traditions, and the creation of nontraditional religions seems to come in spurts at times of turmoil or societal instability. I came of age during the Vietnam War era when the US was split by a cultural war worse than today’s, and when I began college, our campus was saturated with recruiters/missionaries of Hare Krishna, Unification Church, the Children of God (now Family International), charistmatics/pentecostals, and others. I can well believe that we are entering a similar era today.

  • Sabio Lantz

    The flourishing of orthodox religion is an indicator of solidification of status quo power. And, as you say, “The flowering of ecstatic religious movements is more an indicator than a symptom — a hint that times are growing hard . . .” We know that religion in general prospers as insecurity (physical, economic or social) increases.

    And I think we agree that monopoly of power usually results in oppression, coercion and forced, huge inequalities. And we agree that if religious forms can be invented to help people overthrow these, great! But if they are only tools to help them passively endure them, I hope religion-free people continue to help people see through their self-deceptions.

    Congrats on your new posting site, Connor

  • Y. A. Warren

    Your expressions of your thoughts are well-balanced. I enjoy your writing very much. Thank you, Connor.