Welcome to the fifth installment of act three of author Ted Scofield’s series on everybody else’s biggest problem but your own. If you missed one or more of the previous installments, the entire series can be found here.


Nearing the end of our year-long quest to define greed, today we’re going to explore materialism, a logical result of the phenomena we’ve discussed and debated in Act III: the prominence of narcissistic individualism, the increase in religious “nones,” the build-a-god mentality of personal spirituality, and the rise in moral subjectivity, even among Christians.

To start, let’s all get on the same page: What exactly is “materialism”? First, according to Merriam-Webster, materialism is “a way of thinking that gives too much importance to material possessions rather than to spiritual or intellectual things.” Second, it is “the belief that only material things exist.” Stuff over intellect and spirituality. A godless universe in which we believe in only what we can see and measure.

These two definitions may seem unrelated but, in reality, they are inseparable. A preoccupation with possessions walks hand-in-hand with the conscious or unconscious fear that this short life on earth is all there is, that death is The End of our story. Author and theologian Tim Keller connects the two facets of materialism:

If you accept the strictly secular assumption that this is a solely materialistic universe, then that which gives your life purpose would have to be some material good or this-world condition–some kind of comfort, safety, and pleasure.


Several commentators have gone beyond linking the two definitions and simply combined them. In 2001, Young & Rubicam declared that “Brands are the new religion. People turn to them for meaning.” Fitch, the global consulting firm, noted that on Sundays people flock to IKEA instead of church, get married at Disney World, and are buried in Harley-Davidson coffins. Professor Stephanie Kaza of the University of Vermont wrote in 2014 that “consumerism is a belief system and culture that promotes consuming as the path to self- and social improvement.”

We’ve all heard the expression “retail therapy.” Many of us labor under the delusion that it actually works. Certainly here in America we are indoctrinated with the transformative benefits of consumption, both at the macro level – our economy – and the personal level – our prestige, happiness and attractiveness. To me it’s not a surprise that materialism’s two definitions have merged into one: Only material things exist, so let’s get our hands on the best material things. By doing so, we can save ourselves and our communities!

A team of Spanish professors recently published a study titled “Brands as New Forms of Religiosity” in the academic journal Trípodos. They concluded:

Institutional religion’s loss of influence runs parallel to the emergence of the sacred in the secular … consumption is acquiring a growing ontological function … brands [are] a new form of religiosity because of their essential role in the lives of individuals and society, beyond their commercial nature, positioning them as constructors of meaning, bringing world views together and making sense of reality … Far from abolishing magic, religion and spirituality, we are experiencing a re-enchantment which sacralises the secular and is visible in consumer behaviour … Rebirth used to be a uniquely divine power, now it is a power of the Market.


Shortly before his death, “Fifth Beatle” George Martin made the same point in a much more succinct fashion: “The church has weakened. People don’t believe in anything apart from money and success.”

Sure enough, as psychologist Matt Rossano noted in “Sacred Brands: Consumerism as Modern Religion,” multiple studies show “that relative to the devout, nominally religious people tend to make trendier consumer choices [and] place greater importance on brand labels.” In other words, if you’re not religious, you’re more likely to be materialistic, to take pleasure and find meaning in Tory Burch and Tom Ford.

Supporting the link between irreligion and materialism, according to an international 2016 WIN/Gallup poll, “China has by far the highest percentage of convinced atheists out of all the world’s countries.” A 2013 global Ipsos survey found that China is also #1 in materialism, with 71% agreeing with the statement “I measure my success by the things I own.” As reported by The New York Times, one commentator from the Liaoning Province exclaimed, “A country without faith, worshiping money and power, is not at all surprising!”

Back in the USA, author and psychologist Tim Kasser wrote in Psychological Science that, when provoked with thoughts of death — the ultimate question religion is intended to address — people report far more “materialistic leanings” than a control group not prompted to think about death. When we were forced to ponder our own mortality, we used to pray, to reassess our priorities, to give thanks for what we have. Now we want to shop.

“Comfort, safety, and pleasure” – Tim Keller’s words take on new meaning in light of the consensus of science. Materialism is more than a desperate fixation on stuff in a godless world; it is a shiny new god, promoted by brand evangelists’ scripture that, according to the Spanish professors, is “a vehicle for spirituality, making increasing use of transcendental semiotics … a message that does nothing to hide its messianic nature.”

Please take a moment to absorb the gospel according to SoulCycle:

Our mission is to bring Soul to the people. Our one of a kind, rockstar instructors guide riders through an inspirational, meditative fitness experience that’s designed to benefit the body, mind and soul. Set in a dark candlelit room to high-energy music, our riders move in unison as a pack to the beat and follow the signature choreography of our instructors.

The experience is tribal. It’s primal. It’s fun. We call it a cardio party. Our riders say it’s changing their lives. With every pedal stroke, our minds clear and we connect with our true and best selves. Through this shared SOUL experience, our riders develop an unshakeable bond with one another.

Friendships are made and relationships are built. In that dark room, our riders share a Soul experience. We laugh, we cry, we grow — and we do it together, as a community.

Wow. And I naively thought I was just burning off last night’s cheesecake.

In a culture of rising religious “nones”, enshrined subjectivity, and cafeteria spirituality, what is the current trend in the new religion of materialism? If you guessed “more,” you are correct.

“Compared to previous generations,” said psychologist and researcher Jean Twenge in 2013, “recent high school graduates are more likely to want lots of money and nice things, but less likely to say they’re willing to work hard for them.” By one measure, Twenge found, today’s grads are 29% more materialistic than Baby Boomers when they graduated from high school in the 1970s. A 2007 Harris Interactive survey found that 74% of teenagers agreed with the statement “I would be happier if I had more money to buy more things for myself,” a marked increase from previous studies.

But forget about the data for a moment. Look at your own community, your friends, perhaps even yourself. Compared to last year or last decade, do you see less emphasis on, and obsession with, money and the stuff money can buy, or more? Does our society place too much importance on material possessions rather than on spiritual or intellectual things, the dictionary definition of materialism?

In August 1945, two weeks after the end of World War II, at the dawn of America’s great economic surge, James Agee wrote in Time that we were “a people already so nearly drowned in materialism.” Today we stand on the shoulders of the Greatest Generation, barely keeping our heads above water but proudly showing off our fashionable Burberry life jackets. We worship our god not at church or temple or mosque, but at the mall. Look around. What do you see? I see the new religion, and I struggle daily not to bow down to its god. Needless to say, I often fail.

unnamed-1“What is perhaps Manhattan’s best-known former house of worship will be reborn this spring as the Limelight Marketplace, with 35 upscale boutiques and restaurants within its lancet-windowed walls on Avenue of the Americas in Chelsea.”

The New York Times, March 16, 2010

So how’s it working out for us, as a nation and a culture, this adoption of materialism as a replacement religion? Are we unearthing “our true and best selves”? Are we developing “an unshakeable bond with one another”? In his HuffPo column “Sacred Brands: Consumerism as Modern Religion,” psychologist Matt Rossano concluded, “I remain to be convinced that the world is a better place if increasing numbers of people bow at the altar of Gucci, Gap and Lexus rather than Jesus, Allah and Vishnu.” In 2012, Nobel laureate and agnostic Mario Vargas Llosa asked:

If this life is the only one we have and there is nothing after it, and we will be dead for ever and ever, why don’t we try to make the best possible use of it even though this might mean bringing about our own ruin and strewing the ground with the victims of our unleashed instincts?

Unfortunately but undeniably, innumerable studies across multiple academic disciplines confirm Rossano’s and Llosa’s fears: Collectively we are indeed unhappy victims of our materialism-as-religion belief system.

In a 2013 article titled “Materialism: a system that eats us from the inside out,” The Guardian summarized the science: “Materialism is both socially destructive and self-destructive. It smashes the happiness and peace of mind of those who succumb to it. It’s associated with anxiety, depression and broken relationships.”


Delving into the specifics, let’s first look at one of the most important bonds we humans seek out, a life partner. Writing in Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy in 2011, a team of researchers found that “materialism had a negative association with marital quality, even when spouses were unified in their materialistic values.” In other words, even when partners agree to prioritize stuff, their marriages are weaker than marriages with spouses who do not. “Marriages in which both spouses reported low materialism were better off on several features of marital quality when compared to couples where one or both spouses reported high materialism.”

In a New York Times article titled “Materialism is bad for you, studies say,” psychologist and couples therapist Aline Zoldbrod described a typical scenario:

A husband and wife no longer connect. They are so exhausted from the pursuit of “nice things” – a big house, private school for the kids, fancy cars – that they are time-starved and depleted.

Life is luxurious but unsatisfying and simply no fun.

“Materialism is bad for the soul,” the Times concluded. “Only in the new formulation,” that is, in a culture that rejects the soul as supernatural silliness, “materialism is bad for your emotional well-being.”

A series of studies published in 2006 in the journal Motivation and Emotion demonstrated “that as people become more materialistic, their well-being (good relationships, autonomy, sense of purpose and the rest) diminishes. As they become less materialistic, it rises.”

Piling on, in his book The High Price of Materialism, Tim Kasser presents copious research showing that materialistic people report greater unhappiness in relationships, poorer moods and more psychological problems, including depression and anxiety, than people focused on more spiritual or intellectual pursuits. Finally, and I could go on and on, from the U.K.’s University of Warwick, Dr. Stephen Joseph writes “research shows that too much materialism in our lives can be terrible for happiness.”

What’s going on? Why has materialism failed us so miserably? The data are clear. Anecdotes are legion. Our own experiences confirm it.

Surely, all we need do is communicate the truth to, well, ourselves, and we’ll change for the better. People just need to understand the sad reality of trying to find their authentic selves in stuff, right?

Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert is skeptical.

Let’s try. Let’s give them the data. Let’s shout it from the mountaintops. But let’s not be too surprised when all the people in the valley nod their heads knowingly and then go on to covet a Porsche and a new home and tickets to the Super Bowl.

Why? I’ll speak for myself. I’m convinced I am the exception to the rule. Materialism may be a hollow and futile and selfish lifejacket for the other guy, but for me surely it will keep me afloat. My wife will be happier if I can afford to buy more stuff, so I do. My friends will be more committed to me if I have more stuff to give them, so I shall. My peers and competitors and colleagues will envy me because of my stuff, so I must. I do, I shall, I must. Everyone is doing it. Today, tomorrow, forever. I do, I shall, I must. How could my materialist pursuit of stuff possibly make me anxious, depressed or unhappy? That’s crazy. That’s old-school, narrow-minded, unenlightened. That’s insane.

Hold on. That’s my psychiatrist calling. I think I missed my appointment. She’s the best, by the way, which she should be for $400 an hour. Want her number?