The Sins and Virtues of New Religions
Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, by Tara Isabella Burton, PublicAffairs, 320 pages, $28
Over the last 15 years, two growing groups of people have been drifting away from traditional organized religion. One is the “Nones,” the 25 or so percent of American adults who consider themselves religiously unaffiliated. The other—which overlaps with the first—is the “Remixed,” Tara Isabella Burton’s term for people who blend traditional faiths with “personal, intuitional spirituality.”
Burton, a journalist with a doctorate in theology, discusses both cohorts in Strange Rites, a book about Americans who reject traditional religious dogmas and labels. These people are often churchless and sometimes godless. But that doesn’t mean they’ve rejected religion. Many of them simply worship different things.
What counts as religion is crucial. Are erstwhile presidential hopeful Marianne Williamson’s Oprah-endorsed self-help books religious texts? What about the life-hacking, mushroom-coffee-guzzling, four-hour–everything works of productivity guru Tim Ferriss?
For Burton’s purposes, religion consists of meaning, purpose, community, and ritual. By meaning, she means some way of demarcating the line between good and evil, coupled with a sense of what life is fundamentally about. By purpose, she means your own role within that meaning. By community, she means the people you rely on. And by ritual, she means how you and your group mark the passage of time together, with acts of mourning, celebration, coming of age, penitence, and commitment to the faith.
Within that framework, Burton finds religion among SoulCycle obsessives, social justice warriors, far-right atavists, kink and polyamory communities, and Silicon Valley techno-utopians. As with the faith traditions of yore, they all have something that provides them with meaning, purpose, community, and ritual.
This rise in choice is good for personal autonomy, but these new religions tend to be thin on community building. Burton’s thoughtful analysis bolsters the sense that these young, syncretic religions might be less durable than traditional communities of faith.
One of the chief differences between today’s remixed faiths and conventional institutionalized religions is the premium the former place on personal experience, which is often considered irrefutable.
Wellness culture, from SoulCycle to meditation apps to the Goop empire, relies on this exalted interiority. “It’s a theology, fundamentally, of division: the authentic, intuitional self—both body and soul—and the artificial, malevolent forces of soc
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