Today value is often thought of in terms of money. In many circumstances the two are undoubtedly related, however they are distinct concepts. Too often the two concepts are conflated. People mistakenly think that the value of an item or activity is determined by how much it money it earns or costs. Job opportunities are often weighed out with considerable attention to pay. Expensive luxury items are ogled and highly sought after while simple items are often taken for granted. There are many real world examples of this confusion, many of which illustrate the damage that can occur when value is equated with money. For this article I will focus on how this mistake plays out in the realm of religion and spirituality.
I think the connection between value and money has negatively affected religious participation and the spiritual growth of many in the Western world, specifically Americans. Religious or spiritual activities such as prayer, meditation or acts of kindness have no material benefits or compensation. Time spent on these activities does not earn one money. The benefits are more subtle.
Attempts to become closer to the divine force us to focus on the ‘big picture’ and put the taxing things in our lives into perspective. The tools often used to do this such as prayer, meditation or ritual have great psychological and physical benefits. But not monetary benefits, per say. It could be argued that such activity reduces stress thereby increasing productivity. This could have an indirect effect on one’s earning capacity. But this is not the point. The point is the direct benefits that have nothing to do with money, yet are very valuable such as happiness or peace of mind.
These are things people certainly desire, but it is hard to say what these things are worth. A dollar figure is impossible to attach to these intangible things (though advertisers try relentlessly). Due to the gray area around their worth in dollars, qualities such as these are devalued by society, along with the activities or belief structures that foster them. Individuals can still recognize the importance of qualities like happiness and peace of mind and want these things in their lives. But it is difficult to do so when society rejects the legitimacy of the truly effective means to obtain these qualities. Instead false, quick fixes are promoted that often serve capitalist notions. As a result, people’s peace of mind and level of happiness suffers while the religious and spiritual traditions that develop these go by the wayside.
Even among the religious, society’s conflation of value and money is present. As discussed in my article, “Church Survival Through Innovative Means”, individuals are reluctant or do not feel it is their place to take on responsibilities within their congregation or community because those activities are perceived to be the job of the priest. They are paid to provide services that foster community and spiritual growth, so it becomes solely their responsibility to do so. With this attitude, the faithful are unlikely to participate in extra activities to cultivate their spirituality because such activities are unpaid and are therefore seen as unimportant or at the very least unnecessary.
There is a reason people say, “The best things in life are free.” There is a lot of truth in that statement and most people recognize and are willing to admit that. Here we can see that value and money are two separate things. The principle works both ways as well, the best things in life are free and some of the best things we can do earn us nothing in the way of money. It is not a new or novel idea, but it is one quickly forgotten in the daily grind. Some conscious effort to remember this is all it would take to undo what equating money to value has done.