Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
Poll after poll demonstrates declines in religious observance in the United States today, especially in the Millennial age cohort. Some faiths and denominations are declining more quickly than others, with a few holding steady. Are people ceasing to believe any higher powers, or is something else at work? Tara Isabella Burton examines this issue in her new book, Strange Rites – New Religions for a Godless World, just out within the last week. Ms. Burton makes the argument that while adherence to traditionally recognized faiths (particularly Christianity) has declined precipitously, human beings still have a need to believe that the world is “enchanted” and human beings still need the community that shared rituals can offer. So even as adherence to particular faiths is declining, new religions are emerging to fill spiritual longings. Ms. Burton terms this the “Fourth Great Awakening.”
However, these new spiritual practices are at once radically different from anything that gone before, and yet radically American in their forms and ethos. They are also radically self-centered. Her basic thesis is this: the internet provides access to information on practically anything imaginable, and quickly connects like-minded people over any niche interest, allowing us to pick and choose our friends beyond the limited physical circles we have been limited to in the past, but this also allows us to concentrate ourselves, our interests, and our desires, creating a world of information and practice uniquely tuned to ourselves. In short, we can each pick and choose our own practices, rituals, and relationships, creating “remixed” faiths, and it is the “Remixed” whose worlds Ms. Burton illuminates.
This book is, in large part, about charlatans. It’s about capitalism and corporations and the new cutthroat Silicon Valley of spirituality. It’s about people who want to sell us meaning, brand our purpose, custom-product community, tailor-make rituals, and commodify our very humanity. It’s about how the Internet and consumer capitalism alike have produced experientially satiating substitutes – many, though not all of them, poor – for well-developed ethical, moral, and metaphysical systems. It’s about the denatured selfishness of self-care, and the way in which “call-out-culture,” at its worst, serves as the psychic methadone, providing us with a brief and illusory hit of moral belonging…
[The book] is about the Americans who don’t know if this is all there is, or what all means, or there, or even is. It is about our quest for knowing, for belonging, and for meaning: the pilgrimage none of us can get out of. (p. 13)
The book begins with an examination of what constitutes religion. That concept by itself has been much argued about for centuries, and Burton posits four things that a religion must do: provide meaning, provide purpose, provide a sense of community, and provide ritual, described as
“the solemnized, formal occasions by which, through activity and participation, adherents achieve collective effervescence, reifying and reaffirming their role in the community and their sense of purpose in the grand narrative religion provides, while communally marking the passage of time.” (Page 32)
What makes today’s customized religions categorically different is that they are syncretic. Burton explains:
While not every new religion in this book fulfills all four criteria, they no longer have to: today’s mix-and-match culture means that the Remixed can get their sense of community from one place (an intense fandom, say), and their sense of meaning from another (social justice activism, or techno-utopianism). They can practice the rituals associated with wellness culture while seeing their purpose as primarily political. (ibid.)
But these new religions all share in common one element: they are all based on personal intuition and feeling, while rejecting outside structure or rules as oppressive, and even evil. “Most of these new religions share, too, the grand narrative that oppressive societies and unfairly narrow expectations stymie nature – and sometimes even divine – human potential.” (Page 33) The internet has certainly allowed us all to craft our own cults based on what seems right to us, but Burton spends a great deal of time tracing how the intuitional cult of the divine self is actually quite deeply embedded in American spirituality, and our politics.
Theosophy, Transcendentalism, New Thought, and sundry other spiritualist cults, movements, and fads all receive their due as ancestors of today’s individualistic Remixing, as does an overview of the rise and fall of the mainline Protestant denominations, which reached the pinnacle of their own prominence in the 1950s and early ’60s. The uncanny eagerness of entrepreneurs to make money off of these movements seems also something especially American, as Burton notes how even mundane consumer goods are increasingly sold as having spiritual and moral meaning (Nike’s moral alliance with Colin Kaepernick, or Chick-fil-A’s fans and enemies being prime examples). Even personal fitness is advertised as filling some spiritual void in the way it is advertised (yes, Crossfit included).
Burton spends a great deal of time exploring the realm of fandom too, particularly in how it presaged the formation of “tribes” – devoted fans of different movie, TV, or book series, as well as sports teams, who have banded together to jointly share in their fandom and participate in a given universe. Fandom often provides both the community and the ritual needs once filled by religions. But again the internet has changed how fandom works and what it seeks. Burton has an entire section on Harry Potter and how Potter fandom has been, in effect, waging war over the very ownership of that universe with Rowling, and deeply resents her additions if they fail to match their own fan imaginings. The “woke” among the Potterverse fans, in particular, despise Rowling herself for still exerting control over her property, for they often credit Harry Potter almost as their proto-gospel of social awakening, and demand the right to remake that universe in their own image.
From fandom Burton pivots to chapters on Wellness Culture, Witchcraft, and Sexual Kink, showing how each of these realms has come to take on functions and duties that fulfill religious needs. SoulCycle, for instance, essentially sells itself as a form of exercise meditation, and some session coaches Burton interviews describe themselves almost in pastoral roles. But the emphasis is always on various forms of self-empowerment, self-fulfillment, self-pampering, and essentially self-worship.
It’s a theology, fundamentally, of division: the authentic, intuitional self – both body and soul – and the artificial, malevolent forces of society, rules and expectations. We are born good, but we are tricked, by Big Pharma, by processed food, by civilization itself, into living something that falls short of our best life. Our sins, if they exist at all, lie in insufficient self-attention or self-care: false modesty, undeserved humilities, refusing to shine bright. We have not the merely inalienable right but the moral responsibility to take care of ourselves before directing any attention to others… Others, after all, are potential enemies. (Page 94)
Burton presents multiple examples of this, and its corporate capture, with the market’s natural abilities to sell us products that flatter our own vanities. Of all of the chapters in Burton’s book, this section is among the most damning in its examination of the modern cult of Self that permeates the culture.
For all its claims to positivity, wellness culture is, at its core, nihilistic. (page 112)
While wellness culture is nihilistic, Witchcraft and Sexual Kink are meanwhile deeply antithetical to tradition as a whole, and competing religions in particular (with Christianity being directly declared the mortal enemy). Witchcraft, magic, satanism, and other related subcultures give their practitioners meaning and a feeling of power over the world. Sexual kink claims to liberate the human soul. These are also, like fandoms, sources of tribes and places of belonging. They are also deeply selfish, jealously guarding personal fulfillment and practice against any claims of loyalty, duty, or morality to anyone else. Magic offers claims of power over the world, and spiritual self-improvement, sexual license offers liberation. And again, corporations have bee quick to capitalize on all of it to sell people the witchcraft kits and kink gear – personal liberation at an easy price.
The final chapters of the book delve into Social Justice Warriors and Techno-Utopians, as well as the Alt-Right. It is well nigh impossible not to see the current riots and marches in cities as religious expressions of the SJWs – the chants, the mantras, the rituals, the “sins” to be cleansed are all on display. Social Justice activism certainly fills many of the needs of a religion:
The post-206 success of social justice culture is in part due to the fact that it encompasses not merely opposition to Trump, but an explanation for him…
The historical narrative of social justice – that America, despite its lofty political ideals of freedom and justice for all, is at its core a country built on white supremacy, repression and hatred – became for many on the political left, an etiology at once reassuring and unsettling… Seen through this lens, Trump’s election becomes not a disruption of American liberal ideals but rather their natural and inevitable conclusion…
[A]t its core, the social justice movement’s rendering of America isn’t merely a history. It’s also a profound theodicy capable of explaining the evils of 2016 with a recourse to a wickeder past. (pages 175-176)
It has its own eschaton too:
These utopian visions of the future, in 2019, now envision a radical reframing of human nature: an earthly kingdom in which kindness and love take the place of avarice and power lust.
The Techno-Utopians likewise have their own explanatory religion, a sort of Ayn Randian futurist objectivism that seeks to liberate humanity from its physical frailties and demands. It could be described as a sort of extreme religious expression of Libertarianism.
Techno-utopianism, unlike other intuitionalist traditions, has no room for nebulously comforting ideas of energy or divinity in order to legitimize its expansionist vision of human freedom. According to techno-utopian theology, we should act in accordance with our desires and needs and wants not because there is an innate spark of the divine within us… but because there isn’t. The only transcendence comes from waht we can create ourselves: the technology that makes us more than human. We, and we alone, are divine. (page 194)
Burton ends by delving into the reactionary form of the competing new theologies: the atavism of the Alt-Right. Many of these groups resemble nothing more than distinctly masculine expressions of the Wellness movement, while others (like Jordan Peterson) teach what we would recognize as being more classically liberal, even as he offers his own form of civil religion.
[Peterson] has, in detailing the pitched battle between order and chaos, created a modern, nontheistic myth that renders the world meaningful. His followers, in standing up straight and cleaning their rooms and purchasing lobster T-shirts, transform themselves from disaffected Internet dwellers marginalized (in their own minds at least) by political correctness into cosmic-level heroes, braving the forces of darkness every time they make their beds or say something potentially offensive on Twitter. (page 219)
But others offer darker theologies – The Black Pill. “Blue-Pilled” is to have (so red-pillers argue) sold oneself out to remain in societal good graces and (sexually speaking, as a male) to be deferential to women even if they ruin your life – to be a Beta, or even a Gamma. “Red-Pilled” is to (as the red-pillers argue) have seen through the fraud that is the modern feminist society, taken charge of one’s life and health, attained mastery over oneself, and (again, sexually speaking as a male) to be a dominant Alpha Male. “Black Pillers,” by contrast, see both of the above as fatally flawed because society is so corrupt and so broken that any participation in it, either as Alpha, Beta, whatever is to still have not truly escaped. Rather, it is all hopeless, and we are all doomed for enslavement and destruction unless it is all burned down. For Black-Pillers, society itself must be utterly broken before it can be restored. Black-Pillers are nihilists: they worship Chaos and destruction as the only way to purge the world and make it right.
Strange Rites is not a long book. It is at times, however, both frightening and very sad. It is also a compelling read. Tara Isabella Burton is a terrific writer, and empathetic with the people she interviews, even as she understands the new paganism which all of these rites ultimately represent. Tara herself was once among them, practicing occult rituals and trying to find meaning and spiritual enchantment in the world, until she hit a breaking point and entered into the Catholic Church. As such she is well placed to see these new syncretic selfish and self-deifying religions for what they are, and to recognize how ultimately lonely they are too.
If you truly want to understand what drives Wokes SJWs, why Cross-Fitters often act like cultists, and why Harry Potter, Star Trek, or Riverdale fans sometimes seem like religious acolytes, and battle as fiercely as evangelists, then I cannot recommend Strange Rites highly enough. Its only weakness is in its very timeliness, for the book was finished early this year and already it seems events are rapidly pulling away. But if you wish to learn how to speak to these people, and to try to bring them out of their lonely and self-imposed silos, Strange Rites is the place to start.Published in