Wealth Creation as the New American Religion

On sites such as Hacker News, Quora, Medium, and Reddit, posts, threads, and discussions about wealth creation always go viral. Everyone is obsessed with wealth, economics, finance, and money, but why, and what does this say about society?

My own take is, in the past, society was more collective–and family, civic participation, and organized religion were the bedrock of American culture, but in recent decades, and especially since 2013, society has become more atomistic and individualistic, as families have become smaller, church attendance and religious affiliation has declined, and culture celebrates individualism and quantifiable individual merit as embodied by the likes of Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates. The celebration of wealth and individualism has become the new ‘religion’ in America. A religion, that unlike theistic ones, is objective and quantifiable (as in measured wealth, social media followers, and status), not abstract things such as deities, morality, virtue, and heaven. To get an idea of how pervasive this trend has become, just do a Google search for any semi-famous person and very often the two most common ‘search prompts’ are the net worth and house of said individual. Yes, apparently more people interested in Richard Dawkins’ “net worth” and the size of his home than his writings on evolution.

Salvation in America’s new religion is through quantifiable exceptional individual achievement and results, not in the collectivist belief in a deity or being an unexceptional ordinary person of good moral character. We aspire to be like Mr. Money Mustache, the pseudonym of a blogger whose rugged individualism and self- determination has made him a millionaire and whose writings on personal finance and wealth creation has made him something of an internet celerity and sensation, read by millions. Or like James Harris Simons, a physicist and the billionaire founder of Renaissance Technologies, one of the most successful hedge funds ever, combining the two things most prized in post-2013 society: wealth and intellectualism. Or Jack Boggle, the inventor of the Vanguard index fund, and beloved by the millions of people who adhere to indexing with a zeal and commitment of a religion.

America’s new religion is hard. Whereas organized religion and politics are inherently collectivist and thus, by definition, have low barriers to entry and don’t highlight the individual, our new religion exalts financial independence (such as Mr. Money Mustache) as well as the accomplishment of difficult individual intellectual feats (such as physics, mathematics, and coding) that bring respect and prestige to the individual. And instead of being ‘holier than thou’, now it’s who has the most followers on social media, the most money in his or her bank account, the most academic citations, the most Vine loops, the most YouTube subscribers, or the most Twitter followers – again, all highlighting the individual and generally being difficult things to accomplish, versus going to church, supporting a political cause, or being a decent, moral person, all of which, comparatively speaking, are easy.

And instead of going to mass every Sunday or reading the Bible before bed – now everyday we check our computer to see how much our stock accounts have risen or fallen. And instead of revering saints, we turn to the Forbes 400 list for inspiration, displayed on smartphones that have become as ubiquitous and indispensable as Bibles a century ago.

Holiness and virtue were once inseparable, and people sought to become closer to God through personal sacrifice such as going to church often, charity, community service, or raising a family. But nowadays virtue is measured by wealth and achivement, and millennials are living a similar monastic, minimalist lifestyle – but not to serve God or to become closer to God, but to enrich themselves and become financially independent at an early age by saving money and investing instead frittering away money on material possessions or on family. An example of a modern, secular ‘monk’ is the popular blog Early Retirement Extreme, run by a retired 40-year-old physicist who for the past decade has been able to live on a meager $7,000 a year, and thanks to his investments and minimalist lifestyle, never has to work again.

The American obsession with wealth is not new, going as far back as the Gold Rush, and later, popular game shows such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, but what makes the recent obsession different is how wealth is seen as an ends in and of itself, not a means or a stepping stone to something else – be it raising a family, going on vacation, buying a car, donating to a cause, or just good ol’ fashioned hedonistic debauchery. In the case of debauchery, money is still being used to achieve an end rather then being accumulated for the sake of accumulating money – that’s the distinction. This probably has to with with economic uncertainty, and young people specially are stockpiling money for a future of fewer social safety nets as both the US population and national debt continues to swell. Trump’s proposals for defense spending, stimulus, and tax cuts will increase the national debt and make funding social security more difficult.

Karl Marx wrote that economics, not religion or culture, is what defines and drives society – and now – whether it’s online debates about wealth inequality to the obsession with wealth creation, his words ring true. The stock market perpetually making new highs, as well as headlines about multi-billion dollar web 2.0 valuations, has made everyone acutely aware of his or her own position on the financial and social pecking order. In the past, people had FOMO over not going to heaven. Now it’s FOMO over missing out on the housing or stock market boom, or fear over not having enough money for retirement. We fear falling behind of our peers who are richer and more successful in quantifiable terms. The poor aspire to be like the middle class, who aspire to be like the upper-middle class, who aspire to be like the wealthy, who aspire to be like the ultra-wealthy, who aspire to become immortal through life-extension technologies rather than through God. We’ve become slaves to numbers, such as the number of dollars in the bank account, the number of followers on our social media accounts, or the amount of money in our stock accounts, or as victims of wealth inequality or stratification, where people are reduced to numbers that fall somewhere on a wealth distribution. The alt-right could be seen as an secular revival or insurgency to return or restore America to a more theistic, holistic, or idealist worldview where hard-to-quantify things like ‘identity’ and ‘nationalism’ replace what is easily quantifiable. It’s not just about taking back America but also about taking back our identities.