Studies reveal 5 ways faith matters in the struggle to place spiritual before material goods

You really want to show her you care for her? A new television campaign urges you to buy not one but two diamonds as symbols of love and friendship.

You want to make it a “December to remember?” Wrap a red bow around an expensive new Lexus, preferably so all the neighbors can see.

The pressure from these and other popular advertisements present substantial challenges to stay on message for the nation’s largest religious group as it prepares to celebrate the birth of Christ.

But it is not just Western Christians in this Advent period who are tempted to ignore their faith’s warnings to focus on spiritual rather than material goods.

New studies are revealing the ways members of different global faiths may transcend – or fall prey to – consumer cultures willing to co-opt even their most sacred festivals to move merchandise.

So, for example, many Buddhists in Singapore are finding their identity in luxury cars and expensive homes. And Hindu gods are being used to sell products in India.

The spiritual struggle with materialism is not just a matter of individual happiness and life satisfaction, the studies find. It also has consequences for the greater good in areas from volunteering to protecting the environment.

Here are five sometimes surprising findings from recent studies that help reveal how the faithful cope with consumer pressures, and the ways believers may best equip themselves to resist defining themselves by their possessions.

Attention, Buddhist shoppers: Forget the stereotypes.

Researchers analyzing data from nearly 1,500 face-to-face interviews in religiously diverse Singapore expected to find Buddhists low in materialism because of the faith’s emphasis on non-attachment to physical goods.

What they found, however, was that Buddhists were significantly more likely than Christians to say they like to own things that impress people and that they admire people who own expensive homes and cars.

Christians, however, were more interested in status seeking than Hindus.

A faith that grows, or a faith for show: Religious individuals who say faith is an important part of their lives, who put a priority on prayer, who believe God watches over them and feel a deep sense of responsibility for reducing pain and suffering, were less likely than less devout followers to be concerned with seeking social status or impressing people with their possessions, the Singapore study found.

In the area of consumer ethics, a separate study of more than 1,000 adults in Indonesia and Australia found individuals who try to live out religious values were more likely to reject negative consumer behaviors.

In contrast, those who go to worship to socialize and pray mainly for their own needs were more likely to say it was OK to profit from unethical consumer activities.

Does that new Mercedes buy happiness? It doesn’t look that way, according to a study of more than 1,000 individuals in Malaysia divided among ethnic groups with majorities of Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus.

Individuals who said religion was an important part of their lives were both less likely to exalt consumer goods and more likely to report greater psychological and emotional well-being. In part, that was because religion appeared to decrease the negative impact of materialism.

“The more religious people are, the happier they are with their life compared with their less religious counterparts,” the researchers said.

Getting more vs. giving back: Increased religiosity was associated with a greater likelihood of volunteering, including giving money and raising funds for charity, the Singapore study found.

Among faiths, Buddhists were less likely to volunteer than Christians.

How big is that carbon footprint: Religion also appears to play a major role in sensitizing followers to how their consumer behavior affects the environment.

In the Singapore study, religious respondents were more likely to engage in sustainable acts such as paying more for products that are friendly to the environment and to stop buying their favorite brand if they knew the company producing it was a source of pollution.

GlobalPlus: Religion and the environment

The pressure to shop until you drop ethical and theological concerns may be a global phenomenon transcending faith lines.

But, overall, the study results on religion in a material world suggest faith groups may take some hope that while battling consumerism may at times seem like an uphill battle, they can and are making a difference.

Religious leaders and communities can play an influential role in ethical decision making by “emphasizing the importance of religion and committing it to their daily life beyond receiving perks and benefits of joining a religious community,” said researchers in the Australian-Indonesian study.

How can religious individuals make this a December to remember? The answer may lie in taking time to develop a deep interior prayer life and connection to their faith, the studies indicate.

Diamonds and luxury cars, the research suggests, are not a religious believer’s best friends.

Related story: When sex doesn’t sell: How faith influences what we buy

Image by 143d ESC, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]
Image by paul bica, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]
Image by jean-louis Zimmermann, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

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