Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World

Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World

Tara Isabella Burton
New York: Hachette, 2020. 301 pp., hardcover, $28.

You may have noticed that the mainline Protestant churches in your community have dwindled in membership, closed and sold the property, or rebranded their mission to be more secular, so that you are free to believe anything or nothing at all. If so, you are a witness to what is happening to religion in America.

But why is this happening? In her newest book Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, Tara Isabella Burton, who holds a doctorate in theology from Oxford, addresses the changes in America’s religious landscape from the viewpoint of someone of the millennial generation. As someone who has studied American religions from the Second Great Awakening (1790–1840) through today, I found Burton’s book an intriguing introduction to a whole new paradigm of religion and spirituality, and decided that her title—Strange Rites—was appropriate.

Burton presents us with the idea of religious “remixing”—taking religious rites and rituals from both the mainstream and the cultlike fringe and creating our own religion, with a spiritual meaning unique to each person. It’s a twenty-first century do-it-yourself movement that suits millennials’ idea of customization. After all, if you can customize your car, your apartment, or your clothing, why not your religion? The book’s subtitle provides a clue to what these new religions offer—something suitable for a “godless world.”

As atheist Sam Harris said in his book The End of Faith, “We’re hurtling at top speed through a tunnel, heading straight for that blinding light . . . of a world without God.” Burton’s new religions offer us new gods: the “techno-utopians’ dream of a world in which we are all rendered optimally efficient machines”; the “social justice utopia of a liberated world”; and “the atavists’ vision of a purifying cataclysm that will bring us beyond the tyranny of civilization altogether.”

Burton starts us off on this journey with a “A (Brief) History of Institutional Religion in America,” beginning with the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and ’40s (which wasn’t so great) and going to the Second Great Awakening, which lit the fires of many American religions and ultimately to “Today’s Great Awakening (And Why It’s Not Like the Others).”

Why do surveys from the Pew Research Center each year reveal that the “nones” (those with no religious affiliation) keep increasing, and why do more and more Americans consider themselves spiritual but not religious (SBNRs, as Burton calls them)?

One thing that hasn’t changed is our desire to seek meaning and purpose in life, and many millennials and Gen Zers do that through Internet searches. The Internet, part of Burton’s “techno-utopian” religion, offers a community where people can connect with anyone interested in the same ideas. “In a virtual community we can go directly to the place where our favorite subjects are being discussed, then get acquainted with people who share our passions,” says Burton. “According to the 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 what we can create ourselves: the technology that makes us more than human. We, and we alone, are divine.”

A glimpse into the “wellness culture” industry (valued at $4.2 trillion, according to Burton), which “thrives on the notion that self-care is at the foundation of our very purpose,” offers today’s SBNRers a lifestyle option that institutional religion never thought possible. Initiated in the mid-nineteenth century by the New Thought movement, this new spirituality provides ways of thinking that can make us healthy, wealthy, and perhaps even wise. “A staggering 61 percent of American Christians agree with the New Thought-tinged fundamental premise of the prosperity gospel: ‘God wants you to be rich,’” Burton observes.

Burton credits the Harry Potter books for instigating “remix culture” and devotes an entire chapter to “fandom”—the “fan culture” that has “seeped into our contemporary Remixed religions: on the progressive left and far right alike.” But Burton neglects to note the many threads of ancient esoteric myths and symbolism that are woven into the Harry Potter tales, as explained so thoroughly by the late TSA president John Algeo.

Another element of this movement, the social justice culture, says Burton, is “a unified system of ideals and practices as deeply intertwined as any traditional organized religion.” Those “ideals” include seeing “government and wider civil institutions—the police, for example, or border control forces—not merely as ineffectual, but as actively malevolent agents of structural inequality and the cruelty and brutality such inequality manifests,” Burton says.

Ultimately, Burton concludes, “we do not live in a godless world . . . we live in profoundly anti-institutional one, where the proliferation of Internet creative culture and consumer capitalism have rendered us all simultaneously parishioner, high priest, and deity. America is not secular but simply spiritually self-focused.”      

Unlike philosopher Jacob Needleman’s 1970 book The New Religions, which explored the “invasion” of the Eastern religions into California culture, the new religions Burton proposes are hardly “religions” in the way many of us were brought up to use that term. Fifty years on, the Eastern philosophies have become almost as mainstream as Judeo-Christianity, and we hardly blink an eye at the customized rites and rituals that have sprouted from what was once “American religion.”

Clare Goldsberry