Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World
By Tara Isabella Burton
Public Affairs, 320pp, £20/£28
Religious revivals are a frequent occurrence in American history. Some, like the so-called Second Great Awakening that largely took place in New York state during the 19th century, saw thousands clamour for charismatic spiritual experience, whether through traditional Protestant teaching or through communes, diet fads, occult rituals or tent meetings. A century later, the country saw a more buttoned-down religious revival marked by high church attendance rates and an increase in mainline Protestant political influence.
Now would not seem to be one of those times. By any conventional measure, American religiosity is in a nadir. Church attendance is low and declining, while more people than ever identify themselves as belonging to no religion in particular. But despite appearances, Tara Isabella Burton argues in Strange Rites, Americans have not abandoned religion but “remixed” it. Ours, she says, is a time as full of bizarre spiritualisms as was the mid-19th century. Americans today combine elements of different religious traditions or recast their hobbies as spiritual experiences. Burton estimates that at least half of Americans are involved in some form of religious “remixing.”
Today, if someone’s looking for a spiritual experience, he or she need look no farther than the internet. Many online subcultures have acquired an intensity that can only be understood through a religious lens. Whether through pop-culture fandom, alternative sexual lifestyles, wellness regimens, coordinated witchcraft, or (as very often happens) some combination of such eclectic New-Age practices, religiously unaffiliated Americans find community and build meaning-laden rituals entirely online.
Burton, an excellent tour guide through this virtual landscape, contributes to a growing literature challenging the “disenchantment thesis” – the idea that as the world develops economically and technologically, it leaves spirituality behind. Information technology and the consumer marketplace both play a role in the continued “enchantment” of the world. Convinced “that our lives can and should be customised to our personal interests and wants”, “remixed” Americans have no problem building their religion from commodities. Companies such as the luxury workout brand SoulCycle and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop encourage such spiritual self-fashioning. “Meaning, purpose, community, and ritual,” Burton writes, “can all – separately or together– be purchased on Amazon Prime.”
All these new religions invite practitioners to curate their own spiritual experience, but Burton identifies a few common threads. Many promote vague ideas about good and bad “energy” exhorting adherents to avoid the “toxic” people or chemicals that keep them from happiness and health. Some involve “sacred texts” (Harry Potter books, more often than not) over which readers claim authorship by writing their personalised fanfiction. Most rely on consumption of certain products for the purposes of self-actualisation, the chief liturgy. All of them place the individual in the position of both worshipper and deity.
Today’s new religions do not exist only as internet subcultures. They have grown into political theologies that now vie for power in America and elsewhere. Burton names three: the social justice of the progressive left, Silicon Valley’s techno-utopianism, and the reactionary nihilism of the alt-right. Each is non-theist and fully materialistic. They “value disruption” and “valorise the self as the location of both improvement and authoritative perception”.
Burton approaches all her subjects (except, understandably enough, the nihilistic far right) with sympathy combined with well-applied sociological knowledge. But taking the “remixed” at their word is a double-edged sword. Strange Rites risks presenting faith in positive energy, self-fashioning, and ritual consumption as spontaneous outgrowths of a primitive spiritual sense, which the internet and marketplace take up ex post facto. But the market probably plays a more active role. Perhaps the plethora of advertisements telling people that spiritual enlightenment can be bought and personalised – a message far older than the internet – is in part responsible for what Burton calls today’s “religions of the self”.
Strange Rites is right to affirm human beings’ fundamental religious impulse, but there are risks as well as opportunities in spiritual “openness”. There is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in the philosophy of the disenchanted, but adherents of online cults and wellness fads may be subject to manipulation by celebrities, corporations, politicians, or something far more sinister. One online devotee of a cult dedicated to the Harry Potter character Severus Snape reported a disembodied entity (which she believed to be her “Master” Snape) shoving her to the ground and forcing her to kneel.
Burton makes a compelling case that much of American popular and political culture is a new guise for age-old religious impulses. To argue online about the latest instalment of Star Wars or cast a hex on Donald Trump is to strive for “a sense of meaning in the world and personal purpose within that meaning, a community to share that experience with, and rituals to bring the power of that experience into achievable, everyday life”. Liberal politics, economic prosperity, and advanced communications technology have not banished spirituality. If anything, they have only made it stranger.
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