Religion and spirituality can fulfil a beneficial role in our success-obsessed culture, says university lecturer in psychology of religion Hanneke Schaap. The age of tall stories and ideologies may be past, but only being concerned about yourself does not give satisfaction. When all’s said and done, people want to be part of a greater whole. On 15 November, Schaap will be giving a public lecture on this subject at the University of Groningen.
We are living in a success-obsessed culture, states Hanneke Schaap. When we are not tweeting or adjusting our image on Facebook, we’re on the way to a plastic surgeon or the gym. ‘We’re constantly wondering what impression we’re making on others and doing our best to match up to an ideal image we have of ourselves. And when we realize that we’re not going to achieve this, burnout and depression are just around the corner.’
Is the need to ‘make a mark’ an intrinsic part of being human? Is the success-obsessed culture a new phenomenon? ‘Not at all’, Schaap qualifies her statement. ‘In fact there’s nothing new under the sun.’ Individualization of society goes back to the Enlightenment, the period when people learned how to think for themselves and ask critical questions of the authority of worldly and religious leaders. ‘In the meantime, our entire culture has become imbued with it’, says Schaap. ‘The individual is not only central to politics and the legal system, but also to our upbringing. From a very young age we teach our children that they are unique. Little girls are princesses and little boys are pirates who want to conquer the world.’
However, Schaap has also observed a new trend in individualization. ‘People no longer just want to succeed in the eyes of others, but also in their own eyes. More than ever before, we are obsessed with the ideal me.’ The psychologist of religion sees a link with the rise of Twitter and Facebook. The social media were born from a need for individual expression and to make contacts, but have begun to be a world in themselves, with users having complete control over how they appear to others. As a result they illustrate the danger of individualism gone too far, according to Schaap. The behaviour of fraudulent scientist Diederik Stapel is a good example of this, she thinks. ‘Performing well was not enough for Stapel. He had to match the image of the ideal scientist that he had in his head, and lost sight of reality.’
In principle, self-valuation does not have to be negative at all, Schaap hastily adds. ‘As young children we learn to become attached to others on the one hand, and on the other to stand on our own two feet, be autonomous. We need both of these aspects.’ Young children owe their feeling of uniqueness completely to the recognition they get from others, but after a while they will learn that they can give themselves that feeling too. And there’s nothing wrong with that either, because a healthy self-valuation can lead to major achievements. Schaap: ‘Self-valuation only becomes problematic if it is no longer in relation to your attachment to the world around you, if you have the feeling that you have to permanently excel and that the whole world revolves around you.’
Religion and spirituality can fulfil a beneficial role in our success-obsessed culture, thinks Schaap. ‘Naturally religion is not separate from that culture. There are plenty of people who regard religion as a consumer item, who ask themselves what’s in it for them and who put time and effort into a church community only in order to be seen.’ However, when religion and spirituality enable people to experience being part of a larger whole, that is beneficial and liberating, according to Schaap. ‘There are several ways this can be done. It can be very concrete, as when you minimize your awareness of self and body through meditation, or more abstract, when you become convinced that God accepts you as you are and you are allowed to fail.’
Should communities of faith thus try to win souls via Facebook and Twitter? Should our individualized society once again believe in an overall story? Schaap: ‘No, there’s no point in trying to turn the clock back fifty or seventy years. I’m not going to pretend to church boards that their churches will soon be full again. But it’s quite clear that cultures show a pendulum swing over time. I suspect that the huge emphasis on the individual that we now take for granted will decline. Things will run their course. Perhaps we’re slowly becoming aware that the individual is indeed important – but only as part of a larger whole.’
Hanneke Schaap-Jonker (1977) studied psychology and theology at Leiden University and was awarded a PhD by the Theological University of Kampen, now the Protestant Theological University, for research on the meaning of sermons in relation to the psyche of the listeners. She has been a lecturer in the psychology of religion at the University of Groningen since 2010. She is also the coordinator of the Religion and Ideology in Relation to Spiritual Health Knowledge Centre of the mental healthcare institution Dimence.
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