Meaning-making is a growth industry.” That’s how Harvard researcher Casper ter Kuile put it in a 2018 interview for Vox. He was commenting on the explosive popularity of extreme fitness regimes like CrossFit and SoulCycle, noting how the overt spirituality of both programs allowed them to function almost as secular churches.
At the time, ter Kuile’s words may have sounded like the sort of exaggeration that effortlessly attaches to exercise fads. Two years later, it appears he understated matters considerably.
The fitness industry, of course, has plenty of company in the field of contemporary spiritual entrepreneurship. If you want to sell Americans on razors these days, don’t talk about follicles—talk about toxic masculinity. Don’t pitch your hotel as luxurious—pitch the enlightening potency of self-care. If “sex sells” used to be Madison Avenue’s favorite maxim, today it might be “meaning sells.” Righteousness, too.
It is no coincidence that the person sitting across from ter Kuile was journalist (and recent Christian convert) Tara Isabella Burton. Over the past several years, Burton has brought unparalleled savvy and precision to her work tracing the undulations of American religiosity, in both its conventional and secular expressions.
Burton has compiled her findings in Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (PublicAffairs), a volume that fascinates and dismays in equal measure. It is an essential work for anyone interested in understanding—or addressing—our rapidly transforming cultural and religious landscape.
On one level, Strange Rites is a book-length refutation of the conventional narrative of religious decline invoked with increasing carelessness to explain the rising numbers of “nones.” Americans, it would appear, have become not less religious but differently religious. But the form these new faiths are taking represents a deep and troubling departure from historical Christianity.
Diving into the numbers and stories of the spiritually unaffiliated, Burton coins a new term: the “Remixed religious,” or the Remixed for short. The Remixed may check “none” (or “spiritual but not religious”) when the census asks about religion, but that’s only because no other label really fits (and they abhor labels to begin with). In reality, the Remixed approach spirituality in the same way they manage their social media presence: They curate. This used to be called “cafeteria religion,” but it’s hardly a cafeteria anymore when the buffet line goes on for miles.
Just as the printing press fueled the rise of Protestant denominations, the Remixed owe much of their traction to the internet. With the help of Harry Potter, Burton illustrates how the bespoke tribes found online can morph into bespoke faiths. In her view, all that’s needed are four components: meaning, purpose, community, and ritual—preferably a type of ritual that fosters what sociologist Emile Durkheim called “collective effervescence.”
Yet like the technology that fuels their evangelism, the Remixed are hardly monolithic. Lacking a common object of worship, they share a mode of meaning-making, relying fully on intuition and eschewing institutions at all costs. Burton takes great care in the opening chapter to illustrate how American religious experience has swung between these two poles, defining intuitional religion as any spiritual expression in which “the locus of authority [rests] on people’s experiential emotions” rather than “outside structures or rules,” which are regarded as “oppressive, and even evil.”
The bulk of the book is spent exploring pockets of the Remixed in unflinching detail. Burton begins with fan culture—in particular the aforementioned Harry Potter fan culture, from which she weaves a beguiling if somewhat tenuous web of connections. In her telling, those books marked an inflection point in the development of internet tribes. (If you didn’t know what a Snapewife was before, you’ve been warned.)
Up next is the behemoth known as Wellness Culture, with its ubiquitous hashtag #selfcare. What began as a statement of personal dignity on behalf of minority women has, in the hands of Instagram influencers, become both a moral imperative and a license to self-indulgence. As Burton observes, “Self-care has become a marketing slogan, one designed to lend legitimacy to behavior that might, in other moral systems, be considered merely selfish.” Needless to say, Gwyneth Paltrow and her Goop product line do not come off well.
Then we come to a more unfamiliar region of Remixed spirituality, which Burton calls the Magic Resistance: a mixture of feminist politics, New Age curiosity, and self-divinization. (There are more witches in the United States, it turns out, than Jehovah’s Witnesses.) From here it’s a fairly straight line to a squirm-inducing chapter on sexual utopianism, which Burton sees as the logical outcome of an intuitive spirituality that exalts personal authenticity.
In fact, an unquestioned valorization of personal authenticity rears its head in pretty much every chapter. The Remixed make very little allowance for healthy self-suspicion. On the contrary, they are convinced of their fundamental goodness—and certain that only external forces can frustrate their path to perfection. As Burton explains, the Remixed live to “express [their] authentic selves, and to pursue that self through freedom.”
Finally, Burton transitions into the heart of her analysis, profiling three movements vying to become America’s new, outwardly godless civil religion: social justice culture, Silicon Valley techno-utopianism, and a reactionary alt-right. Burton brings admirable empathy to these movements without glossing over their liabilities and antagonistic attitudes toward the Christian faith.
Each contender offers a totalizing—and in some cases intoxicating—narrative of the world, our place in it, and the wicked forces that need to be rooted out. Radical social justice movements build their cosmology entirely upon “nurture”: the tabula rasa of humanity corrupted by the original sin of Western patriarchy. By contrast, the alt-right leans exclusively on “nature,” declaring that the original sins of political correctness and feminism have obscured certain uncomfortable, biologically grounded realities. And although it claims fewer actual adherents, techno-utopianism—with its promise of bio- and cyber-hacking our way to eternal life—boasts by far the most cash. Not inconsequentially, it also controls the platforms (and devices!) on which its two rivals wage their battles.
While Burton refuses to predict a winner, social justice culture looks an awful lot like the frontrunner at the moment—at least if real-world repercussions (firings, cancellations, statue removals) are any measure of its influence. Burton describes its spiritual appeal this way:
The social justice movement is so successful because it replicates the cornerstones of traditional religion—meaning, purpose, community, and ritual—in an internally cohesive way. It takes the varied tenets of intuitionalism—its prioritization of the self, emotions, and identity, its suspicion of authority, its utopian vision of a better world born phoenix-like from the ashes of the old—and threads them together into a visionary narrative of political resistance and moral renewal.
Strange Rites does not attempt a response to any of these new religions. Burton is more interested in mapping out the territory, drawing its lineage, and allowing proponents to speak for themselves. And, it should be said, she does so brilliantly, packing her account with enough anecdotes, case studies, and curiosities to lend the book a genuinely panoramic feel. The book has stretches where the argument veers into overstatement (and the subject matter into esoterica). Yet, given the rapid pace at which Remixed spirituality evolves, it wouldn’t surprise me if Burton’s descriptions sound relatively tame even one or two years down the road.
The Unifying Word of Eden
So where does this leave Christians? First, as Burton takes great pains to note, we dare not hold ourselves above the Remixed. Often enough, professing Christians assent to similar doctrines, both consciously and subconsciously. Moreover, the ascendancy of the Remixed should move us to ask whether the church has articulated its own story with sufficient urgency, resonance, and beauty. Perhaps we have been too slow in viewing the internet as a legitimate mission field—a place where people actually live most of their lives and make most of their meaning. In that sense, Strange Rites offers not only a warning but an invitation for Christ followers to feed the spiritual hungers of 2020.
If Burton is right, then the old story of the gospel has not lost a shred of potency. To a culture inclined to locate sin and evil out there, we can speak the unifying word of Eden: that “the line separating good and evil,” as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously phrased it, runs “right through every human heart.”
We can present a faith born of love rather than rage, of sacrifice rather than conflict—one that glories in human frailty instead of denying or despising it. We can speak of a God who liberates us from the shackles of self and the never-ending mandate of perfection. We can speak of the Holy Spirit, active and alive in the world, bringing goodness, light, and healing far beyond our capacity or imagination.
Most of all, we can offer the one thing that all these new religions conspicuously lack: an ethic of forgiveness and reconciliation, which is to say, the miracle of God’s grace. In Jesus of Nazareth, we have a way forward for victims and victimizers alike. The Prince of Peace does not turn away the guilty, hypocritical, or addicted. Instead, he brings hope and new life to those whose self-made religions can only leave them defeated.
This Good News might not be a growth industry right now, but just you wait: To those burnt out on saving the world and themselves, all it takes is a mustard seed.
David Zahl is the founder and director of Mockingbird Ministries. He is the author of Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It (Broadleaf Books).
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.