Magazine August 24, 2020, Issue

The Gods We Worship in a Secular Age

(BrianAJackson/Getty Images)
Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, by Tara Isabella Burton (PublicAffairs, 320 pp., $28)

Without Johannes Gutenberg, Protestantism might never have gotten off the ground. And without Tim Berners-Lee and other Internet pioneers, the rising tide of religiously unaffiliated young adults would doubtless look very different.

Strange Rites, by Religion News Service columnist Tara Isabella Burton, offers a series of Instagram-filtered snapshots of what the search for meaning looks like in the age of curated consumption. It also provides an irresistible frame for understanding the quest for community in the age of YouTube influencers and fan-fiction forums.

Burton, who holds a doctorate from Oxford University and is a contributing editor of The American Interest, suggests that the religiously unaffiliated, or “nones,” are better understood as the “Remixed,” because they mix and match elements of different practices to fit their individual preference or identity. All told, she estimates, “at least half of America” falls into the category of the “Remixed.” We can quibble with the estimate, as many in this camp self-describe as belonging to a conventional denomination, but American life is clearly moving in a more individualist, less institutional direction. Look at popular media, political leaders, brands, and institutions, she says. “We may not all be Remixed, but we all live in a Remixed nation.”

Strange Rites reads like an unauthorized sequel to Ross Douthat’s 2012 Bad Religion, which made the claim that America was becoming not a post-Christian nation but a heretical one. Almost a decade later, Burton proposes that our most national heresy is syncretism, a blend of ancient, faux-ancient, or contemporary practices to suit our needs — especially ones sold to us by corporations that recognize that “spirituality sells.”

Borrowing from Émile Durkheim, the godfather of modern sociology, Burton understands “religion” as a set of rituals and beliefs that affirm participants’ identity as part of a group. Here she places fans at a football game or gamers simulcasting World of Warcraft matches, taking part in a collective ritual that binds them together. But, she notes, religion is more than a set of shared actions. It is also, in the words of the sociologist and theologian Peter Berger, “the human enterprise by which a sacred cosmos is established.” Religion is not just worship but the anthropology or philosophy that makes sense of the world around you — to paraphrase that other great sociologist, Frank Sinatra, it’s “anything that gets you through the night.”

Millennials adrift at the “end of history,” Burton argues, use the infinite-swipe mentality of the Web to custom-build a sense of belonging and meaning while straddling different, often online, communities. Everything from a resurgence of interest in the occult to contemporary “wellness” routines to online communities built around certain sexual practices are tributes to the new gods of our secular age — or, as Douthat might put it, ways of gratifying the “God within” of ego or libido.

How seriously we should take rituals such as sage-burning, or hexing Brett Kavanaugh, remains an open question. Strange Rites is more essential in describing the way a particular kind of political praxis has become its own religious order.

A certain type of urbanite Millennial might start the day with a morning reflection over a social-media feed, commune with brethren over the all-you-can-eat-brunch table, perform acts of self-mortification in a SoulCycle studio, and avoid ritually impure foods (no GMOs!). Those practices might substitute for yesteryear’s Divine Office or daily scripture passage but cannot form the “sacred canopy” Berger pictures. For that, the “Remixed” need a sense of the transcendent, and the biggest and most powerful denomination today is the high church of progressivism.

Since Voegelin, conservatives have accused progressives of trying to immanentize the eschaton, but the quasi-theological fervor has never been felt so keenly on the left as in the modern social-justice movement. John McWhorter, the Columbia University linguist, may have been the first prominent commentator to identify the modern anti-racism movement’s religious characteristics, followed by Vox’s Matt Yglesias, journalist Andrew Sullivan, and others who have noted a nascent “Great Awokening.” Much contemporary rhetoric around global warming takes on a religious tone as well, replete with the original sin of the industrial revolution and carbon offsets as indulgences.

Burton’s contribution is to explore, with rigor and empathy, the roots of how the political became spiritual. She grounds the appeal of “social justice” in its narrative power, revealing to the “woke” the gnostic truths of how power and oppression order the world. This eschatological framework situates the adherent in a chain of being and orients him or her towards a particular goal. Our “Remixing” Millennial loft-dweller can now find communion at SoulCycle and redemption on the right side of history.

Fascinatingly, Burton finds the same desire for direction and transcendence on both the “self-care post-religious left” and the “atavist post-religious right.” (She also explores, with probably more seriousness than they merit, the transhumanist rationalists found in Silicon Valley — the all-in-one nutrition package Soylent will not be manna for many.) Adrift, but with newfound access to speakers and ideas once considered taboo, those on the post-Christian right are also formed by a type of identity politics, often rooted in misogyny or white supremacy. These “most successful of our modern new religions provide a clear, if nontheistic, account of the meaningfulness of the world,” Burton says, and the parallels she draws between the alt-right and the social-justice Left are unforgettable.

The success of these “religions” in forming new allegiances has shifted the fault lines of our debates as a nation. Battles in the culture wars used to be fought over religion and the family but have taken on an increasingly different character in the Internet age. Lapsing into the argot of the online, Burton reports, “Our culture wars now better resemble Gamergate — with its clash of SJWs [social-justice warriors] and proto-atavist nerd culture — than they do the debates of the 1980s and ’90s.”

At times, Burton sympathizes with the perspective of the “Remixed,” but that does not prevent her from seeing through their self-delusion. The creams, classes, and self-care of “wellness culture” are gently skewered as “equal parts Ayn Rand and John Calvin.” The commerce of virtue-signaling, from LGBTQ-themed soda cans to #MeToo-branded razors, demonstrates how “today’s new religions interface with the brands that so powerfully promote, reify, and profit off them.” The book’s avatar may well be one of her interviewees, a willing participant in what is described as a “24-7 master-slave relationship,” who tells Burton, “If we had a god, that god would be consent.”

Burton’s blend of an academic’s care and a journalist’s eye for suggestive detail makes Strange Rites an easy book to recommend. One relatively weak point is its limited scope. The narrative’s prime movers tend to be “creative class” types who came of age with Harry Potter and balance their time between an upwardly mobile career and a Tinder account. There is not much about the spiritual practices of young adults outside urban cores. Religion, derided since Marx as the “opiate of the masses,” seems less likely to be replaced in the lives of the deinstitutionalized working class by ersatz religions such as dominant–submissive relationships than by actual opiates.

In a recent report, American Enterprise Institute scholar Lyman Stone highlighted that “religious affiliation has never before fallen as it is falling today.” But this shift, he and other scholars have found, is being primarily driven not by a mass falling-away from faith but by generational replacement, especially as children raised in weakly religious households come of age. The “Remixed” grew up with religion as something “‘nice to have’ teaching ‘good values’ or solidifying family bonds — [not] necessarily a core part of their meaning or purpose,” Burton notes. For traditional religious denominations, a bold restatement of what makes their conception of human anthropology different from that of the secular mainstream is long overdue. Churches will need to recognize that their former advantage in fulfilling individuals’ need for meaning and meeting is being competed away not just by the Internet but by the individualistic, hyper-customizable orientation towards the world that it enables. And they will need to adjust.

Mass-produced texts democratized access first to the words of God, then to those of man, enabling theological and political upheaval. Automobiles, arguably, did as much for the sexual revolution as any tract by Margaret Sanger. And chat rooms, message boards, and blogs doubtless contributed to our 21st-century great awakening. “The proliferation of Internet creative culture and consumer capitalism have rendered us all simultaneously parishioner, high priest, and deity,” Burton writes. 

Strange Rites will find a ready audience among those who have recently revised down their cheers for capitalism from two to one. A certain type of reader will come away from Burton’s work blaming the Internet for accelerating the breakdown in traditional institutional religion. Still others will credit it for the rise of Black Lives Matter or the alt-right. But a more subversive interpretation might see the Internet as accelerating, but not causing, the working out of homogenized consumerism in the way we interact with the divine and with one another. The “strange rites” she refers to may well be our suspicion of unchosen obligation and the fetishization of autonomy that had taken root before the first message board went online. The fault may be not in our social-media platforms, but in ourselves.

This article appears as “That Old-Time Religion” in the August 24, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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Patrick T. Brown is a congressional staffer. His views are his own and not those of any Member of Congress or committee.

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