An American Hodgepodge of Religious Kookery
Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World
By Tara Isabella Burton
Publisher: Public Affairs
Review Author: Jason M. Morgan
Examination of the spiritual state of post-Christian America is a harrowing exercise. I did not know how bad things had gotten until I read Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World. The author of this must-read volume is Tara Isabella Burton, a trained theologian (PhD, Oxford), acclaimed novelist (Social Creature, 2018), and writer for outlets as diverse as National Geographic, City Journal, and The New York Times. Burton, a former religion writer for Vox.com, has applied her academic skills as an anthropologist would, going among the trance-wild tribes of America to find what people are doing these days now that they no longer believe in Jesus Christ.
Burton’s findings are not for the faint of heart. I wish Strange Rites were fiction, but it is straightforward documentary. The Age of Aquarius is a distant memory: America is no longer a faintly ridiculous spaced-out flower child whose post-Puritan eyes have glazed over with the psychedelic immediacy of New Age spirituality. Bye, bye, Miss America high. We have turned into the Gerasene demoniac, possessed by a legion of unclean spirits. Or we are the swine into which those spirits have been driven, barreling headlong toward the cliff.
Strange Rites is highbrow apocalyptana, a searing dose of reality — and it is terrifying.
Burton’s book is divided into an introduction, a conclusion, and nine snappy chapters of tight, pulsing prose. Deploying what might be called an Oxbridge combox style, Burton whips off one-liners and lavishes descriptive phrasing on subjects as incoherent and unattached to any tradition as the Internet itself. Like the online world, Burton’s Bourdieuan religious “field” is a congeries of weird, depraved, vulnerable, chaotic, unhinged, and broken people who are splintering into a million and one “varieties of religious experience.” But Burton manages to condense this swirling wilderness into a portrait of not just a moment but an unfortunate age. We meet a cast of spiritual characters who daily grow more powerful and influential in American life. And yet, this world has remained occulted from the view of the shockable bourgeoisie. Such an esoteric demimonde would be, quite frankly, unintelligible without Burton as a guide. She has dared to enter the unholy places and report on what she has seen.
Burton’s premise in Strange Rites is that “more and more Americans,” and particularly “more and more millennials,” envision themselves as “creators of their own bespoke religions, mixing and matching spiritual and aesthetic and experiential and philosophical” traditions. “We are all Nones now,” Burton writes, referring to the group of Americans who describe themselves in public opinion polls as having no religious affiliation. “Or, at least, eighty-one million of us are.” What is surprising is that Nones are not, by and large, atheists. “A full 72 percent of the Nones say they believe in, if not the God of the Bible, at least something.” Citing a 2018 Pew Research Center study, Burton says 55 percent of the religiously unaffiliated “believe in a higher power or spiritual force distinct from that described in the Judeo-Christian Bible. Furthermore, an additional 17 percent of the unaffiliated said that they believed precisely in the God of the Abrahamic Bible” (emphases in original). In other words, much of post-Christian America does not believe in nothing. Burton’s book is thus a sustained exploration of the granularity beneath the monolithic category of “None.” She finds that “Remixed Americans,” or spiritual DIYers, fall into three groups:
(1) “the spiritual but not religious,” or SBNRs, who shrug at established churches — 14 percent of SBNRs are Catholic! — and approach organized religion the way a bower bird builds a nest. Burton describes a New York yoga devotee who keeps a personal altar at home “filled with objects that have personal significance to her.”
(2) “the faithful Nones,” whom Burton says are like SBNRs but “don’t see themselves as belonging to a religious community or having a religious identity in any way.” Typical of this group is a New York social worker named Iris, a “self-described ‘lax Jew’ married to a queer man whose primary spiritual interest was in the occult.” After his untimely death, “she found herself at a loss for how to best commemorate the life of her husband.” She skipped the Christian memorial service hosted by his family in their hometown and instead “threw an eclectic ceremony in New York: one that incorporated everything from the Jewish mourner’s Kaddish to the theme song from The Legend of Zelda, her husband’s favorite video game.” This approach makes no attempt to fit the eclecticism into an established confessional groove.
(3) “the religious hybrids,” or what NOR readers would call “cafeteria Catholics.” The religious hybrids, Burton notes, adhere to such things as “astrology, reincarnation, psychics, and spiritual energy located in physical objects.” What Burton finds “striking” is that some 60 percent of Christians, according to the Pew poll mentioned above, also believe in some sort of New Age phenomenon, such as reincarnation or Buddhistic meditation. This “bricolage religion” is “inextricably connected to modern consumer capitalism and the room it has created for a robust spiritual marketplace.” The Internet has only accelerated what Harvard Divinity scholars Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston have called “unbundling,” or the “rise of bespoke religious identities.”
These are the baskets into which ad-libbed American spiritual activity falls today.
Strange Rites opens with a glossy-magazine-type description of a British theater company’s dinner show in Manhattan called Sleep No More: a “near-wordless, dance-based, Hitchcock-inflected retelling of Macbeth.” This is a full-interaction fantasy, in which cast members mill around with the audience and buttonhole individual theatergoers into “one-on-ones,” during which religion and superstition — Bible readings with Lady Macduff and salt rituals with the witch Hecate — blend into a sexually charged sensual overload that abolishes the divide between play and reality.
Burton began reporting on Sleep No More in 2012 but got hooked and returned again and again. She met people who have attended the pricey show hundreds of times — a kind of church for the theater crowd. Some have formed online “communities” around their experiences. They came to the theater for therapy, to flirt, confide, and cry. And it was all very lucrative for its creators. True to Burton’s typology, the company built on its tremendous success in creating an “experience” by expanding into advertising, “producing immersive ad campaigns for the beer company Stella Artois, the tech giant Samsung, and, of all people, Rihanna.”
The theme of experiential spiritual freewheeling divorced from moral or ethical — much less dogmatic — constraint continues throughout Strange Rites. Burton finds examples of what she calls “intuitional religions,” the “sense of meaning” of which is “based in narratives that simultaneously reject clear-cut creedal metaphysical doctrines and institutional hierarchies and place the locus of authority on people’s experiential emotions,” and which treat “society, institutions, credited authorities, experts, expectations [and] rules of conduct” as “not just irrelevant, but as sources of active evil.”
One might say that “intuitional religion” is what makes America what it is today. “Wellness culture, modern occultism, social justice activism, techno-utopianism, and the modern sexual revolution all share a fundamental distrust, if not outright contempt, for institutions and scripts,” Burton writes. She focuses on the spiritually tinged gym franchise SoulCycle as a fusion of many strains of American religiosity. “Today is all about you,” one of SoulCycle’s “motivational mantras” runs. The company’s 2015 SEC filing was branded “Your Soul Matters.” This is intuitional religion, and it is quickly becoming the de-facto creed of the United States.
Strange Rites extends this canny sketch of the American present deep into the American past only to find that our forebears were even wackier spiritually than many of us are today. Burton cites historian Gilbert Seldes’s 1928 book on the “stammering century,” the 1800s, which Seldes saw as a time of Prohibitionists and Pentecostalists; “the diet-faddists and the dealers in mail-order Personality; the play censors and the Fundamentalists; the free-lovers and eugenists; the cranks and possibly the saints. Sects, cults, manias, movements, fads, religious excitements.” These are our American religious heritage, Seldes wrote, and Burton agrees. One Great Awakening followed another as Americans god-bothered one another with “everything from Theosophy to Transcendentalism to New Thought, all designed to provide the average American with a sense of authentic meaning and genuine connection with a higher power, however defined.” If you thought exercise-biking to candlelight was weird, you ought to read up on spirit writing. Or, better yet, the Shakers.
America has always been a Galapagos Islands of the spiritual. Anything goes, especially egoism. Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, American Transcendentalists par excellence, took up Timothy Leary’s advice some 12 decades in advance and dropped out of society by tuning in to what the Transcendentalists saw as the higher-order spiritualism of the individual soul, following the spirit’s exhortations whither they listed. Later, New Thought guru Charles Benjamin Newcomb taught that “your feelings can change the world,” as Burton puts it. Drawing on the proto-self-help doctrines of “New Hampshire-born clockmaker, mesmerist, and faith healer” Phineas Parkhurst Quimby’s “gospel of total psychic self-reliance,” Newcomb’s 1897 book All’s Right with the World “instructed readers to summon betterment through sheer force of will,” repeating Oprahesque mantras such as “I am well,” “I am opulent,” “I do right,” and “I know” to set themselves on the path of what in the 1980s would be called “personal growth.” Quimby provided tailored spiritual succor to Mary Baker Eddy, who would go on to found Christian Science.
Later, Pastor Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 book The Power of Positive Thinking rebranded “positivity.” When Americans of today read Peale’s kneading of New Thought gobbledygook into Christian dough (“When you expect the best, you release a magnetic force in your mind which by law of attraction tends to bring the best to you”), they are sure to recognize John Tesh’s recent pronouncements about using the “world of divine healing” to overcome COVID-19. Peale, incidentally, was “the personal pastor to the Trump family and officiated Donald Trump’s 1977 wedding to Ivana.”
Each flaring of the never-ending Great Awakening scorched that part of America so prone to religious inflammation that it became known as the “burnt-over district.” There are strange bedfellows in American spiritual entrepreneurism. Burton sees Billy Graham as a rightist version of Beat poet and psychedelic mystic Allen Ginsberg, part of a grand American tradition of tinkering with the human soul and pulling the Heavens down, Yankee-Hegel-like, to make retrofitted improvements on the metaphysics impinging on human life. We are still engaging, Burton writes, in Thomas Jefferson’s project of cutting out the miraculous parts of the New Testament to make “the first American fan fiction.” Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, leaders of a massive megaplex of Republican religious crusading, are, in Burton’s analysis, just more varieties of Great Awakening-ism. Our national motto is “In God We Trust”; an invisible asterisk adds, “Your God May Vary.”
But this time the American pastime of hacking metaphysics is different, Burton avers. The old Protestant mainline churches, which had exerted a braking effect on glossolalia and the snake-handling proclivities of America’s religiously impassioned, are now nearly gone. What’s more, “consumer capitalism” and the Internet make every spiritualist whim a potential new comet in the crowded New Age firmament. Luther would love it: everyone is his or her, or zir or xir, own priest and prophet now. The boosterism and joinerism of Protestants past have morphed into online communities, impromptu ceremonials, and endless variations of what Baptists in small towns still call “fellowshipping,” or spiritually inflected gatherings in which sweet tea and curly fries take on at least some aspects of religious ritual.
These tethers on American religious weirdness — tethers that tended to draw previous downhome shamanism into the apple-pie wholesomeness of rural American life — are snapping. Americans who feel the spirit moving them to get up and dance during the sermon no longer face scowls from the purple-haired ladies in the front pews. Sweet freedom! The only “church” that unchurched Americans are likely to visit now, if they bother at all, is the Unitarian temple, where they can pick up flyers for abortion services in the vestibule and sing songs in praise of Obergefell v. Hodges. It is amateur hour, all the time. You can follow your bliss, and nobody is going to keep you from doing your own thing.
As anyone who has read the Bible can tell you, however, left to their own devices, people go off the rails pretty quickly. America today is hardly an exception. By one estimate, “there are more witches in the United States than Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Burton writes, and the doors opened to the occult by the Harry Potter franchise are now flocking with new petitioners. Kristen J. Sollée, author of the “zeitgeist-capturing” book Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive (2017), speaks for a whole lost generation when she sees Joan of Arc as the equivalent of Lilith, “at once female divinity, female ferocity, and female transgression.”
Perhaps nobody in post-Christian America better typifies the “let’s eat of the forbidden fruit” crowd than the high-tech transhumanists who look forward to a “singularity” of flesh and silicon, of mind uploaded to computer to fulfill the serpent’s twisted prophecy that humans shall not die. Techno-utopians, Burton tells us, want to make the body itself immortal, without passing through the portal of death into a world beyond. “We, and we alone, are divine,” Burton writes, encapsulating the typical techno-utopian approach to human existence. She cites journalist Mark O’Connell, who described the ethos of Bay Area Transhumanists (a group that includes Silicon Valley bigwigs) as “such a radical extrapolation of the classically American belief in self-betterment that it obliterates the idea of the self entirely.” By embracing “technology’s potential to make us machines,” we further “the kind of world we say we want to create.” Burton sees transhumanist “seasteaders,” who are attempting to build artificial islands as escapes from existing societies, as “liberalism taken to its natural conclusion: an eschatological vision of billions of people, freed through technological innovation from their shared contingency, each their own sovereign, free-floating nation.”
Post-Christian America may boast the smug transhumanist tech god remaking himself in the image of an idol that is part computer and part Ayn Rand, but Burton’s portrait doesn’t look like the progress envisioned not so long ago. We were supposed to be eating nutritious meal-pills, getting enough sleep and exercise, lounging in clean casualwear while robots do our work for us, and generally enjoying the good life free from the old superstitions about Hell and all that. Well, America has, for the most part, thrown over the Hebrew God. The futurists got that part right. But we didn’t consider that destroying God destroys the imago Dei in each of us. Post-God man is a monster. The blasphemers of Sleep No More are the best of the fallen. The worst, or their victims, are the ones who comprise the bulk of the evening news.
And yet, it must be asked: Was this handwriting not on the wall long ago? Burton notes in a chapter on religious history that “Protestantism — particularly Martin Luther’s vision of religion — pioneered a different and far more individualistic path” than the institutional setting of the Church in Europe. Burton sees the “pendulum” of religion in America “swinging constantly from the institutional to the intuitional” after the groundwork for church-state separation was laid at the American founding, with the same liberal-conservative divide running clean through American religious-political history. However, while Burton denies that America was founded as a Protestant nation, she contradicts that assertion in her acknowledgment that Protestantism drove people to America for the sake of the only truly common belief all Protestants hold: “the liberty of each individual believer to pursue religion as a private matter.”
If the mainline Protestant denominations acted as dampers to American religious primitivism, emotivism, Pentecostalism, and all the rest, it was not because the established Protestant sects were not infected with the same strain. It was more the cultural inertia of a millennium of Catholicism and the emerging bourgeoisie gentility that kept the whirligigs of Luther’s revolt from spinning too obstreperously down the ages. The civilization that Christian men and women built helped constrain their progeny for centuries, staving off the true horrors of Luther’s creed taken to its natural conclusion. Mark the line where you will, but at some point, the Christendom of our forefathers was finally done away with by Protestants. After that, every private religionist has made the call on what God really has in mind. America is not a Protestant nation? There are tens of thousands of Protestant denominations, and America is every single one.
In revisiting early American history, let us remember that the Pilgrims’ worst sin was not slavery — many were opposed to it, after all — but heresy. Colonists had turned to “divination, fortune-telling, astrology, witchcraft, and even folk medicine,” Burton cites historian Robert Fuller as saying. The temptation to dabble in the occult, to be religiously promiscuous, is simply how Protestantism works — or doesn’t. Once the individual is the axis, the whole world takes the shape of the ego exalted.
Tara Burton’s Strange Rites is a hodgepodge portrait of religious kookery. Her subject matter, American religion past and present, is such a twirling firework of hysteria, delusion, and prophesy-mongering that she surely had her hands full sorting out which loonies go into which bins. Burton may miss a few notes in her intellectual history of American religious weirdness, but her reportage from the front lines is invaluable all the same. Strange Rites is a well-crafted, incisive, necessary work of contemporary anthropology, an errand into the wilderness of unchurched, post-Christian America. The report is not flattering. But there is also a glimmer of hope. Perhaps the sheer scope and clamor of American metaphysical shenanigans will inspire some — maybe many — to return to the fold of the One True Faith. America’s patron saint, we must remember, is the Blessed Mother, who specializes in leading the wayward home again.
©2022 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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