In Conversation

Finding the religious in the secular with Kathryn Lofton

A graphic of Professor Kathryn Lofton and the cover of her book “Consuming Religion.”

For Kathryn Lofton, professor of religious studies, American studies, and history, many moments in her most recent book, “Consuming Religion,” were informed and inspired by her interactions with Yale College and graduate school students and by inviting her students to think about how their values emerged through their consumer choices, career decisions, and voluntary commitments. This book “is a meaningful testimony of what it is to be a professor at a non-profit institution built to change the world. There is not a chapter that was not affected by the positive fact of being at this institution, and it feels very personal to me in that sense,” Lofton says.

Consuming Religion” is a series of essays focusing on topics spanning soap, cubicles, the Kardashians, Britney Spears, binge-watching serial television, and in the last chapter, the culture of the Goldman Sachs Group. It is, she says, an ethnography of being at a university like Yale.

I take subjects that for many people are not obviously religious,” says Lofton. “We tend to think religious things are to be hallowed or condemned. And I want to make religion a much more bracing, and more everyday way of talking about social identity and commitment to social identity. I want to try to solve the problem of who we are in a secular age.”

The title of her book, notes Lofton, refers to the act of consuming as being both bad and good for you. “The idea is that we are all always consuming — whether it is oxygen, space, or a coffee,” says Lofton. “What are you free to consume and what do you become through consumption?”

YaleNews recently spoke with the Yale scholar about some of the surprising moments that she encountered while researching her book, how she is able to mix the religious and the secular, and the “strange trip” she took while writing this book.

What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

What led you to write the book?

This book came out of thinking about the problems of consumption and community that came up for me in my first book “Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon.” At first, I didn’t have a book in mind as much as I had a series of examples. I was going to write a commodity trio where I focused on cubicles, crackers, and soap in order to think about the specific denominational and ritual histories of those American commodities. The book ended up having chapters on two of those planned subjects — on soap and cubicles — but I realized as I was researching them how many other kinds of products I wanted to investigate through the lens of religion.

You devote an entire chapter in your book to Goldman Sachs. How did you come to study this subject, and what did you discover?

As I worked at Yale, I become interested in the history and idea of corporate culture. I pursued the origins of that concept, and found that among its progenitors — social scientists, business school faculty, organizational management gurus — there was an explicit sense of borrowing from religions as groups that effectively kept disparate groups of people unified in common behaviors. A lot of literature on corporate culture reads like theoretical texts addressing the anthropology of religion, focusing as it does on symbolic economies, ritual processes, and the structuring of diversity into collectivities. Maintaining a good corporate culture doesn’t mean kicking out the heretical viewpoint as much as it means capitalizing upon reform itself as a fuel for productivity. I was amazed to realize that the promotion of corporate culture is in part an effort to, in a secular age, create frames of commitment that supersede all others in an individual’s life.

I turned to Goldman Sachs as a specific instance in this research because I got to know a Yale College undergraduate who went to work for Goldman Sachs. His brother came to Yale as a freshman, and he took a day off from work to visit his brother at Yale. During our lunch conversation, he mentioned to me that he thought I would love Goldman Sachs as a subject to study because — as he described it — aspects of firm’s internal culture were, in his words, very religious. Indeed, as I later heard from a senior partner at Goldman Sachs, culture is their religion. There was not a single employee at Goldman Sachs that I met — and I interviewed over 40 of them — who disagreed with what this young man said to me. In the study of religion, the word “religion” is controversial, so it was intriguing to see how easy employees of a large investment bank were about it as a descriptor of their working culture.

As a faculty member at Yale, it was equally fascinating for me to realize the numerous parallels between employee culture at Goldman Sachs and faculty life at Yale. That I found myself hanging out with Goldman Sachs employees and realizing how alike we are was the strangest trip that I have taken as a scholar. It has changed how I understand my scholarship, my political commitments, and my excitement about how institutions can be tools of geopolitical change.

How do studying the subjects in your book enhance a Yale student’s education?

When I sit with undergraduates, I often get lost in conversations with them about their extracurricular lives. Invariably at some point, they will interrupt the detailed way they’re describing their social and voluntary work and say something like, “Oh, wow, I guess we should get back to the assignment.” If this book does one thing, I hope it tells them that  the work they are doing observing others and being involved in extracurricular activities — participating in non-coursework Yale life — is as strong an ethnographic and intellectual field of self-formation as the course work they are required to take. They are always being given opportunities to study their own social possibility on this campus, and those engagements are critical spaces to ask “What makes a group work together? What kind of a community do I think is an inclusive or fair one? How do you make useable societies?” You can also see that in a classroom, and we teach in our classrooms all kinds of theories and histories of social life. But the data of each other is special, and the students’ capacity to interpret with generosity and care their communities, their colleges, their secret societies, their a cappella groups — that is meaningful data toward their actualization of a different world.

What are some of the surprising things that you came across while researching the book and thinking about the word “religion”?

Over the past several years my students were reporting more and more that the way they relaxed on weekends was by binge-viewing. I started to think about what the meaning of bingeing is in the history of religions, and I landed in the middle of literature on terrorism and fundamentalism. Scholars of religion have thought a lot about a seeming disproportion of pietism, a disproportion of ritual attention, we often have used the word “fundamentalism” to apply to such apparent excesses. Notably, when you look at the literature on fundamentalism, these are often groups that are themselves vocally anti-technology, even though they may also use media strategically to missionize their particular message. Recent articles about ISIS, for example, focus on how westerners have been compelled to Islam through online media. One of the figures that emerged frequently in this coverage is that of a young woman who goes online and finds a context for intense interchange and seeming intimacy through dialogues about Islam and the Quran. I use this media account of conversion to think about what we want and need to experience intensely as humans. In the first chapter of my book, I argue that binge-viewing is a critical topic for scholars of religion because it allows a way to talk about a kind of intensity that, in the absence of other sectarian commitments, we may choose to access another world. Whether it is an all-night prayer service, binge-watching “Twin Peaks,” or workaholic habits, choosing between intensities becomes a determining feature of how we define ourselves socially in the contemporary period. 

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