Smorgasbord Religion: The New American Spirituality: A Review Article

Danny Olinger

Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, by Tara Isabella Burton. New York: Hachette, 2020, ix + 301 pages, $28.00.

Tara Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites is not an easy book for a confessional Reformed Christian to read. The language is vulgar and graphic at points. She seems to have little grasp of or interest in an orthodox view of special revelation or why a defense of “the” Faith might be important when compared to a defense of Christian Theism. Theologically, she paints with a broad brush that minimizes the distinctions that can exist within Protestantism, much less for Presbyterians and the Reformed. As a journalist she makes sure that the door will remain open for her to write in such places as the New York Times, “a publication whose relative centrism can be gleaned from the fact that left- and right-wing critics alike are constantly accusing it of extreme bias” (172). Her one mention of John Calvin is to make a joke about the mantra of wellness culture being equal parts Ayn Rand and Calvin, “you’re not just allowed but in fact obligated to focus on yourself—but, no matter how much you do, it will never be good enough” (98). Added to everything above is that each chapter describing the religious landscape of America seemed more discouraging than the previous chapter. When I reached the last page and finished the book, I wrote in red ink after the concluding sentence, “Depressing Book!!!”

While the book is not easy to read it is an important—almost essential—book. Rarely in recent times have I underlined more passages and taken more notes than I did with this book. Her insights are particularly illuminating on why so many millennials who have grown up in the Internet age have abandoned institutional Christianity. Her thesis is that increasingly Americans, especially younger Americans, are not rejecting religion, but remixing it according to their own interests. They long for a sense of meaning in this world but reject authority, institution, and creed that conflicts with their own intuition, personal feelings, and experiences. The result is a “remixed” religion, a new Great Awakening where spirituality incorporates the individuality that the internet has provided for nearly every other aspect of modern life.

The Religious Remixed: “I make my own religion”

Burton points out that in polling almost forty percent of Americans born after 1990, the so-called young millennials, say that they have no religion. These religious “Nones” are both the fastest growing religious demographic group in America and the largest at eighty-one million people. To put that in perspective, they are now more numerous in America than Roman Catholics and Evangelicals combined.

This is not to say that the religious Nones are uninterested in spirituality. What Burton attempts to prove in the book is that “the story of the rise of the religious Nones in America, it turns out, isn’t really about Nones at all” (17). What it is about is a blending of “traditional religious practices and personal, intuitional spirituality: privileging feelings and experiences over institutions and creeds” (18).

In her judgment, this is the result of an internet-defined generation and the self-creating power of social media where people are accustomed to finding their own sources of information and mixing it with different perspectives. This belief, that one’s religious life can and should be customized to one’s personal interests and wants and needs, has become an embedded part of the culture. She concludes, “We may not all be Remixed, but we all live in a Remixed nation” (25).

Burton explains what this means in practice for the Remixed. They can mix-and-match so that they can get their sense of community from one place (fandom) and their sense of meaning from another (social justice activism). They can employ rituals associated with wellness culture while seeing their calling in life as primarily political. But what ties everything together is a rejection of authority and institutions and the embracing of “intuitional religions.”

By this [“intuitional religions”], I mean that their sense of meaning is based on narratives that simultaneously reject clear-cut creedal, metaphysical doctrines and institutional hierarchies, and place the locus of authority in people’s experiential emotions—what we might call gut instinct. Society, institutions, credited authorities, experts, expectations, rules of conduct—all these are generally treated not just as irrelevant, but as sources of active evil (33).

Truth also gets redefined according to the Remixed. Truth claims that come from rules or doctrines are regarded with suspicion. One’s emotional experience, such as a feminist’s lived experience, is what functions as an authoritative account of the world. Seventy-five percent of millennials agree with the statement “Whatever is right for your life or works best for you is the only truth you can know” (33). Demanding creative ownership of their spiritual lives, the Remixed repeatedly told Burton when they were interviewed, “I make my own religion” (33).

This freedom appeals to many who previously saw themselves as outside of organized religion. In particular, women who see organized religion as upholding an oppressive patriarchal culture and queer people who felt marginalized by traditional religion view this freedom as revelatory, even necessary. But Burton asks: If the personal authenticity and experiential fulfillment of intuitional religion becomes the norm so that everyone is a high priest, then who is willing to kneel? (34).

Mainline Protestantism’s Decline

Burton believes that Remixed religion is likely to stick around due to “the absence of wider demographic pressure, the power of consumer capitalism, and the rise of the Internet” (53). What she does not believe is the typical media spin that young people are necessarily put off by repressive and outmoded values of religion. “In fact,” she writes, “it seems that the very un-repressive strains of mid-century Protestantism and ecumenism—the theologically unchallenging ‘come for Christmas and Easter only’ variants—have, for the past few decades at least, been doing significantly worse than their more conservative counterparts” (54).

Specifically, the religious Nones “have grown up seeing religion as a social or communal institution—a ‘nice to have’ teaching ‘good values’ or solidifying family bonds—but not necessarily as a core part of their meaning or purpose” (54). According to Burton, the Nones saw their parents attending church, but they were acutely aware that their parents really didn’t believe.

This is in contrast to the youth who were raised in a Christian home where the faith mattered. Burton notes that these households were more likely to have children retain their faith. “Of born Protestants whose parents talked about religion ‘a lot,’ 89 percent continue to identify as Protestant, while just 8 percent call themselves unaffiliated” (54). Conversely, children of interfaith households where presumably a consistent doctrine was not advocated are more likely to leave organized religion behind. Burton concludes that the “raised religious” who are leaving the church are not for the most part those whose parents found purpose and meaning in the faith. Rather, they are those raised with the sense that religion is what one does.

This has led to an exodus in mainline Protestant churches. In 2017 the membership of mainline Protestantism made up ten percent of the American population, but of these barely a quarter attended church. Burton projects a bleak future for mainline Protestantism, even citing Ed Stetzer’s projection that “if mainline Protestantism continues to decline at its current rate, the whole community will be wiped out by 2040” (52).

Today’s Great Awakening and the Birth of Remix Culture

Remixed millennials, disillusioned that their parent’s religious traditions did not provide a coherent account of meaning and purpose in life, nevertheless do not embrace religious traditions that disagree with their personal stances on LGBTQ and sexuality issues. This puts them, in Burton’s judgment, between a rock and a hard place: they desire moral and theological certainty, but they are repulsed by any authority that would put limits on sexual desire.

Corporations have seized upon this spiritually bubble and sought to fill the gap. Nike celebrates Colin Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee, enabling it at the same time to promote its moral righteousness in a political manner and enhance its financial bottom line. Burton observes, “In so doing, they are creating moral universes, selling meaning as an implicit product and reframing capitalist consumption as a religious ritual—a repeated and intentional activity that connects the individual to divine purpose in a value-driven framework” (59).

Another cultural phenomenon that has filled the spiritual gap is J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Burton maintains that its popularity owes in part to the fact that it was “the first media property to go viral in the Internet sense and the first to almost exclusively harness the Internet, rather than analog media, as the medium by which its fans converged” (75).

She speculates since sixty-one percent of Americans have seen at least one Harry Potter film and fifty percent of Americans could not name the four Gospels, the odds are that Americans are more likely to name the four Hogwarts’ houses. More alarmingly, she also states that Harry Potter has displaced the Bible as a sacred text for many, though Burton also notes that Rowling has come under recent criticism for being insufficiently woke (84).

What applies to the fandom of Harry Potter in regard to the creation of a spiritual universe also applies to earlier spiritual universes like those in the Star Trek and Star Wars series. The Remixed question why they must fit into the narrow category of organized religion with its doctrines and creeds that do not adhere to progressive values reflected in these beloved entertainments. “Why not use the language of Hogwarts’ houses to talk about good and evil, alongside the rhetoric of social justice and metaphors garnered from Star Wars?” (88).

Burton contends that if fandom provides the structure of Remixed religious culture, then wellness culture provides its implicit theology. The anthropology of wellness is that we are born good but tricked through Big Pharma, processed foods, and civilization (the toxic energy of others) into a life that is short of our best. Sin is insufficient self-care. Prior to the emergence of SoulCycle, Goop, Thrive, and WW, Orpah Winfrey articulated the “oxygen mask theory” that they all employ. That is, life is like being on an airplane where you need to put your own oxygen mask on before helping the people around you.

Doctrines for a Godless World

According to Burton, there are two de facto civil religions that are battling for supremacy among the Remixed. The first is social justice culture. Social justice culture, which she says has fueled such movements as Black Lives Matter and #Me Too and led to the 2018 election of “the Squad” to Congress, sees America as a repressive society where progressive politics are the means to slay the Goliaths of racism, sexism, and other forms of injustice. The second is the techno-utopian culture of Silicon Valley. Techno-utopian culture puts forth a libertarianism that looks to technology as that which can unleash human potential. The two civic religions share a disdain for rules, maxims, and mores of society. Traditional authority is seen as oppressive. But, in Burton’s view, most importantly both groups treat earthly self-actualization as the ultimate goal. Consequently, “both groups are fundamentally eschatological yet thoroughly materialistic” (168). They seek a kingdom of heaven on earth rather than a world to come. The techno-utopians seek it through robot-fueled singularity. The social justice culture seeks this kingdom on earth through Marxist-style cultural revolution.

Burton predicts that social justice will probably win the battle to become the new civil religion in America, and based on events following the publication of her book in April her prophecy has proven true. Her commentary on the movement is helpful in understanding what is happening in society. She writes that social justice activists see society as having been shaped by white and male privilege. This has led to racism and sexism that are fundamentally unjust. Government institutions like the police and border patrols are viewed “not merely as ineffectual, but as actively malevolent agents of structural inequality and the cruelty and brutality such inequality manifests” (169–70).

Burton states that compared to the national average, social justice advocates are twice as likely to say that they never pray, twice as likely to have finished college, and three times as likely to say that they are ashamed to be an American. They are suspicious of authority and politics play a key part in their identity. Consequently, for this group, the election of Donald Trump as president was a tragic reminder that America, despite its lofty ideals at its founding, is a country built on white supremacy, patriarchy, repression, and hatred.

Andrew Sullivan and David French are two conservative critics who have written, in Burton’s judgment, pejoratively about the social justice movement. Sullivan “derisively” called the movement the “Great Awokening” and “derided” its advocates as “humorless neo-puritans” who delight in canceling the insufficiently enlightened (176–77). French, “equally skeptical,” saw the social justice movement engaged in a religious war when he wrote, “Out with the Christianity that spawned American higher education, in with a ferocious new faith—a social-justice progressivism unrestrained by humility and consumed with righteous zeal” (177).

For Burton, Sullivan and French “in their knee-jerk derisions of it as a ridiculous cult” (177) fail to realize how right they are that this is a religion. Social justice has provided meaning and purpose for the secular and reenchanted a godless world. God is not needed to create an eschatologically focused account of a meaningful existence, and yet the movement draws from traditional religion. Its success is in replicating the cornerstones (meaning, ritual, community) of traditional religion in an internally cohesive way. It takes the varied tenets of intuitionalism, the self, emotions, and identity, and threads them together into a visionary narrative of political resistance and moral renewal. It provides for a sense of community with its collective ritual catharsis of calling out problematic enemies or insufficient allies who deserve to be canceled. It provides an explanation of evil, “an unjust society that transcends any one agentic individual and, more specifically, straight white men” (178). By equating the problems of a repressive society with the egos of straight white men, social justice is able to balance its fatalistic conception of society now with a more optimistic future. The goal is new creation, that is, a new world full of love and compassion that will arise “from the ashes of a patriarchal, racist, homophobic, repressive, Christian society” (178).

Religion and the Modern World

In conclusion, Burton argues that the world is not a godless one but profoundly an anti-institutional one. Affluence and the proliferation of the Internet has rendered us all parishioners, high priests, and deities simultaneously. In her opinion, this has led the church into a catch-22 situation. Those communions, like Christian evangelicalism, which are stringent and theologically demanding retain a greater percentage of their members. But, they are also more likely to alienate those who are unable to conform to their identities and values. Conversely, mainline Protestantism is more capable of welcoming those on the theological margins but more often than not fail to retain members or fill spiritual needs.

But Burton does not stop with the comparison. She asserts that once you go down the route of relaxing elements of your faith tradition, then what’s to stop you from seeking a mix-and-match religious identity that fits your personal needs, identity, and situation. As an example, she says what is to stop you from combining “Episcopalianism with yoga, tarot, poly community, or seek communal and spiritual fulfillment outside of organized religion altogether?” (243–44). In other words, what you end up with is a Remixed nation, a place where God and his authority is not needed for spiritual purpose and fulfillment.

Danny E. Olinger is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as the general secretary of the Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, November 2020.

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Ordained Servant: November 2020

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