May 10, 2021 - 5:48pm

Sam Byers is an English novelist whose work, particularly his last novel Perfidious Albion, has been compared with Martin Amis. His new book Come Join our Disease tracks Maya, a homeless woman who is offered a new start via a rehabilitation programme run by a tech company. Set up with a new job and a flat, she must chronicle her ‘journey’ on social media, inspiring her audience as she becomes a polished and productive member of society. The programme emphasises health via a rigorous schedule of yoga classes and wellness retreats, and her new boss takes a personal and directive interest in “Project Maya” — the remaking of the self.

The second part of the novel — in which Maya rejects the demands for health, cleanliness, optimisation and ‘authenticity’ in favour of a deliberate descent into sickness and filth, has garnered more attention, but personally I found the set up much more sinister. Rarely have I perceived so clearly the way in which spirituality has been coopted by market forces and sold back to us. The wellness industrial complex which holds such sway in tech, investment and start up circles is keen on practices and concepts taken from religion, but only in so far as they can improve our productivity. As Byers points out in an accompanying essay: “disciplines such as yoga and meditation, which once took as their goal the dissolution of the self, are pressed into the service of a bolstered ego and enhanced productivity.”

This plundering reflex — where the secular raids the spiritual for booty — has been noted before. In Susan Sontag’s essay Piety without Content, the great critic derides the tendency of intellectuals to vaguely pick and choose spiritual and religious ideas without actually committing to any of them:

This is piety without content, a religiosity without either faith or observance
.for the modern post religious man the religious without walls; he can pick and choose as he likes, and be committed to nothing except his own reverent spectatorship.
- Susan Sontag

Still, living in the largely non-religious west, I have sympathy for those who will take sources of meaning and belonging wherever they can get them. There are riches in religious traditions that can be life-giving elsewhere, and striving to be healthy and productive are laudable goals. But Sam Byers’ book made me realise that at worst the use of ‘spirituality-lite’ in service of this goal is a kind of cultural appropriation which severs fruits from roots and leaves you with an armful of dead flowers.

Spirituality which just equips us to be better foot soldiers in a market society characterised by desperate consumption and expressive individualism is not spirituality at all.

Elizabeth Oldfield is the former head of Theos. Her writing has appeared in the FT, Prospect and The Times. Her Twitter handle is @esoldfield