A Book Review of
Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World
Tara Isabella Burton
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“Religion is returning from her exile; it is more likely that the future will be crazily and corruptly superstitious than that it will be merely rationalist.”
“At some point,” declared Sam Harris with evident relish, “there is going to be enough pressure that it is just going to be too embarrassing to believe in God.”2 Many agree with the outspoken atheist, believing that such a point is coming sooner rather than later. Recent statistics appear to substantiate this prediction. Today, almost twenty-five percent of American adults self-identify as religiously unaffiliated, roughly the same numbers of Evangelicals and Catholics, respectively, making them one of the fastest growing demographics, especially among the young. If asked why, Harris might respond, “Because science!”
However, there is always a story behind the statistics, a narrative buried in the numbers; and if we do not probe the polls, we are in danger of using them “as a drunken man uses lamp-posts, for support rather than illumination.”3 Sociologists have long sought the face of this group of people who check the box “none” on surveys for religiosity (called Nones) — who they are and what they believe. What is the story behind the Nones? Is it the dawning of Harris’s prophesied Age of Atheism and nothing more?
In Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, Oxford trained scholar of religion, Tara Isabella Burton endeavors to tell this story. Burton reveals that far from being embarrassed by religion, the Nones are extraordinarily spiritual. They “may not be traditionally religious,” she writes, “but they are not exactly secular, either.”4 Burton suggests that use of the term secular to describe the Nones is misleading, as it obscures the kaleidoscopic characteristics of this group. Instead, she argues for a new nomenclature to clear up the confusion, calling them the religiously Remixed. The Remixed “envision themselves as creators of their own bespoke religions,” she writes, “mixing and matching spiritual and aesthetic and experiential and philosophical traditions.”5 She likens their approach to a kind of spiritual fluidity in which “religious consumers construct strictly personal packages of meaning, based on individual tastes and preferences.”6 The key to understand these Nones is that they privilege intuition, emotions, and experience, while explicitly rejecting “authority, institution, creed, and moral universalism.”7 Indeed, they see these as not only irrelevant, but “sources of active evil.”8
In Strange Rites, Burton offers a thorough investigation into the rise of this new demographic, tracing its beginnings in American history and then taking the reader on a journey through its various contemporary subcultures. Along the way, she demonstrates how the Internet and modern consumerism provide powerful driving forces behind the recent statistical increases. Not only does Strange Rites tell how the Nones came to be, it contributes greatly to our understanding of how this group is now changing the political, cultural, and missional landscapes.
Roots of the Remixed
Burton argues that the remixing impulse has always been strong in America, tracing its beginnings back to the religious revivals of the past. She casts this country’s religious history as an ongoing clash between institutional religion versus intuitional spirituality — a lively dialectic between traditional creeds and individual preference. Burton writes, “the story of the American religious landscape has always been a story of the battle for the American soul: waged between the forces of institutional religion — organized, orderly, civic-minded — and crazes for its intuitional rivals, both traditionally Christian and more radically Remixed, that stressed personal piety, personal experience, and personal relationships over the solid but staid offerings from their more established peers.”9
A tension between individuals and institutions has always existed in America, the freedom to follow one’s conscience (or intuition) forming the warp and woof of American culture since its inception. Burton sees this tension as the primary source behind the various waves of religious revivalism that have swept America since its founding, culminating in the radically individualistic approach to religion taken by the Remixed today. Here, however, is where her argument is perhaps oversimplified. The American revivals of the past could be seen as intuitional to a degree, but the primary motivation for them was different from that of the Remixed in some key aspects. The perceived need for revivalism has always existed in the Christian church.
In fact, it could be argued that the motivations for these past revivals sprang from a decidedly Christian instinct. The Christian worldview inspires a unique type of revolution — an eternal revolution, as G.K. Chesterton called it, noting that a real revolution is always a return. “At any instant you may strike a blow,” Chesterton wrote, “for the perfection which no man has seen since Adam.”10 Revival is always relevant when the ideal is transcendent.
These revivals were chiefly a reaction against what was seen as a deadening or liberalizing of the mainline churches in America. Revivals called for a return to genuine Christian practices and beliefs not only in the life of the believer but in the church. Most, if not all, of the participants went on to form their own institutions. Therefore, what Burton reduces to mere anti-institutionalism is perhaps more of a complex phenomenon of institutionalism and genuine restoration that begins with the individual. What drove revivals was frustration at the hypocrisy of the more civic-minded institutions that wore the mantle of Christianity but had long since forgotten the gospel. Institutional Christianity had lost its first love — its love had grown cold — and it needed to be revived.11
Still, even if Burton’s division of American religious history into a struggle between intuitionalism and institutionalism is oversimplified, there is an important connection between the Revivalists and Remixers that her analysis reveals: many of today’s Nones were raised in similarly dead forms of institutional Christianity. What might be surmised from this link is that churches that lose sight of the gospel also fail to provide the coherent narrative that the Nones are seeking — the stabilizing, emotionally satisfying story that gives them a cosmic location and identity. Thus, they are compelled to look elsewhere — or create their own.
The Making of a None
The real strength of Burton’s book lies in her meticulous investigation into the lives of the Remixed: their religious upbringing, what they believe, and how they are seeking community outside the walls of traditional religion. She notes that the dominant narrative one hears when it comes to the Nones is that they “are put off by the repression and outmoded values of religion.”12 But the actual picture is quite the opposite. “In fact,” she observes, “it seems that the very un-repressive strains of midcentury 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.”13 She writes,
Today’s Nones have grown up seeing religion as a social or communal institution…but not necessarily as a core part of their meaning or purpose. They’re the kids who saw their parents attend church, or who went to Sunday school, but were nevertheless acutely conscious that their parents didn’t actually believe all that stuff. A 2016 Pew study found that, among those raised in Christian households (and particularly among Protestant households), those families that talked about religion at home and were more observant were more likely, not less, to have children retain their faith.14
There is a strong correlation between the religiosity of parents and whether or not their children grow up to identify as Nones. By and large, the Remixed were raised in households in which religion touched only the surface of their lives, the church being a place to receive some kind of social benefit, but not the exclusive or even primary source of meaning and purpose. The Nones see through the disparities of their parents’ empty observance and, thus, are seeking substance elsewhere.
At the same time, just as the economic market has expanded globally in the past century, so has the market expanded for these younger generations for sources of meaning and purpose outside organized religion. Burton convincingly shows that Christianity’s competitors hold “all the most valuable advertising space,” as T.S. Eliot once observed, largely because Silicon Valley is heavily populated with Remixers, and corporations have sought to capitalize on the restlessness of this growing demographic.15 Also, as mainline, civil Protestantism has declined, so checking the “none” box on a survey costs much less socially than it did for past generations.
Another important factor in the rise of the Remixed is the concurrent breakdown in the traditional means by which individuals rooted their identity. Along with religion, family and geographic location were once the pillars upon which one’s sense of self was tethered, as they provided a framework for the discovery of purpose and meaning. Burton writes that these factors “all fused together to create a shared hermeneutic for viewing the world and [one’s] place in it.”16 As these traditional sources of identity declined over the last century, we all have been put out to sea, in a sense. We have been forced to moor our identity elsewhere. The book only notes in passing these dynamics in the rise of the Remixed, but they are certainly key. The None phenomenon is also an identity crisis.
Where are the Remixers going for meaning and purpose? Burton highlights several trends: Wellness Culture (the newest version of self-helpism),17 modern occultism, the techno-utopians of Silicon Valley, societies founded around absolute sexual liberation, and far-right atavism (an explicit reaction against some of the more leftist trends in the rest of the Remixed crowd). Common to all of these subcultures is “the grand narrative that oppressive societies and unfairly narrow expectations stymie natural — and sometimes even divine — human potential.”18
Another theme is re-enchantment. The Remixed seem to have wrested the disenchanted world from the grips of materialistic science and are enchanting anything and everything under the sun. Burton writes that they “alchemize our everyday activities — eating, working out, following the news, posting on social media — and turn them…into strange and sacred rites, not hobbies but rituals.”19 The Nones are starved for the sacred.
Burton delves deep into these subcultures, painting for the reader a vivid picture of their respective beliefs and rituals — providing enough detail to see how each is desperately trying to fill the meaning void and ultimately failing, often creating more rigid, rule-laden systems as they strive for perfection. A shared refrain is a hyper-focus on this world, like the paganism of old, and faith in earthly rituals as a means of salvation from the suffering one will inevitably encounter. This part of the book, though disturbing to read at times with its forays into the worlds of witchcraft, sexual deviancy, and nihilistic extremism, is well worth our attention given that these remixed religions are competing with the gospel’s message of redemption.
The question arises, can all these various subcultures coalesce behind a common narrative as compelling and socially cohesive as Christianity? Burton notes that the Nones religious fluidity “necessarily lends itself to fracture, to ever-smaller, ever-more-fragmented, and ever-more-ideologically-aligned tribes.”20 Also, one of the hallmarks of such an ad hoc, build-your-own-worldview approach is that it distrusts the kinds of formal creeds that result from well-developed theological systems. Burton contends that for today’s Remixers, “their sense of meaning 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, what you might call gut instinct.”21
Can a civil religion rooted solely in gut instinct compete with two thousand years of Christian theological reflection and culture? Burton writes, “If these ideologies are to survive, they will need to take on a more formal shape. They need to become not merely religious sentiments or implicit theologies, but, ironically, institutions — narratives and communities capable of both withstanding the weight of internal dissent and providing a unified front against more established spiritual rivals….They need to provide a wholesale ideology no less powerful than, say, American evangelical Christianity or the Catholic Church.”22
The Coming Struggle
Burton proposes that two ideologies are providing the formal script and social glue for these Remixers. For the more left-leaning Nones, Marxist political philosophy, with its grand metaphysic of power and oppression, in which the purpose of the individual is to dethrone oppressors through social justice activism, is the most prominent contender. In response, many right-leaning Remixers are being propelled into what Burton calls a “reactionary atavism” that “sees history as a process by which feminists and the ‘politically correct,’ alongside other insufficiently heroic examples of modern, decaying civilization, have caused us to lose touch with our primal, masculine instincts.”23 Again, both ideologies are decidedly pagan in their hyper-focus on this world, with the battle between good and evil being waged here and now and not in the “metaphysical out there” of transcendent theism.24 Both reject Christianity’s concept of original sin, the resulting fallenness of this world, and the inability of the individual to ultimately prevail over evil without God’s salvific intervention.
Most importantly, these opposing movements are both fighting to replace Christianity as the new civil religion. With cosmic narratives that seek to explain and identify evil, they each provide the vital elements of meaning, purpose, and community. They have even established their own, uniquely modern rites with what Burton observes as the “near-liturgical process of call-out culture in social justice activism, and the even more insidious and abusive ‘pile-ons’ beloved by right-wing Twitter trolls, both of which imbue relatively straightforward actions (clicking away on a keyboard, pressing ‘send’) with cosmic and communal significance.”25
An aspect of these new movements worth noting is how they borrow from Christianity despite rejecting its overall metaphysic. This borrowing is especially pronounced in the more left-leaning, social justice culture. It remains to be seen how an ideology such as Marxism can ultimately justify its valuing of human rights — its care for “the least of these” among the oppressed — without reference to a transcendent ideal. In addition to the challenge of grounding the idea of justice itself, one is hard-pressed to find a justification in Marxism for the tempering forces of mercy and forgiveness without lifting one’s gaze above a world that is red in tooth and claw.26
Return of the Remixed
As the Christian reader travels with Burton through the various Remixed subcultures, she might get the impression that she has taken such a journey before. History may not always repeat itself but it does rhyme, as the saying goes, and there is something in the story of the Nones that sounds familiar. I kept thinking of a young St. Augustine of Hippo and his restless journey through a dizzying array of self-indulgence, pagan philosophies, and religious cults before finally finding his rest in Christ. Had Pew surveys been conducted in the 4th century, he might have been pegged as religiously Remixed. Of course, a separation of over sixteen hundred years makes for some important differences between the Carthaginian seeker and an American None; nevertheless, one can detect similarities. The Internet and greater wealth has made the modern Western world as cosmopolitan as Augustine’s Carthage, with its vast sea of subcultures as competing paths for finding meaning and purpose. Augustine’s Confessions reads every bit as much as an identity crises as the one the Nones experience today.
In the end, Strange Rites demonstrates that we cannot live without meaning; we cannot live without seeing ourselves as part of a larger narrative in which we are indispensable players. As Jewish psychologist and Nazi concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl observed, “man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or avoid pain, but rather to see a meaning in his life.”27 The ultimate meaninglessness of Sam Harris’s godless world will simply not satisfy. The Nones intuitively know this. —Rebekah Valerius
Rebekah Valerius holds a BS in Biochemistry from the University of Texas at Arlington and an MA in Apologetics from Houston Baptist University.
- G.K. Chesterton, The Apostle and the Wild Ducks, ed. Dorothy Collins (London: Elek, 1975).
- Gary Wolf, “The Church of the Non-Believers,” Wired, November 1, 2006, https://www.wired.com/2006/11/atheism/.
- This quote is attributed to Andrew Lang.
- Tara Isabella Burton, Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (New York: PublicAffairs, 2020), 17.
- Burton, Strange Rites, 9, 10.
- Burton, Strange Rites, 24.
- Burton, Strange Rites, 10.
- Burton, Strange Rites, 33.
- Burton, Strange Rites, 35–36.
- G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2006), 107.
- Revelation 2:4; Matthew 24:12 ESV.
- Burton, Strange Rites, 53–54.
- Burton, Strange Rites, 54.
- Burton, Strange Rites, 54.
- T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture (New York: Harcourt, 1967), 18.
- Burton, Strange Rites, 48.
- Editor’s Note: See Ann Kennedy, “There Is No Health in Us: Wellness and Self-Care in the Age of Coronavirus,” Christian Research Journal, vol. 43, no. 02 (2020):24–29.
- Burton, Strange Rites, 33.
- Burton, Strange Rites, 34.
- Burton, Strange Rites, 168.
- Burton, Strange Rites, 33.
- Burton, Strange Rites, 168.
- Burton, Strange Rites, 30.
- Burton, Strange Rites, 30.
- Burton, Strange Rites, 32.
- Editor’s Note: See Jay W. Richards, “History’s Bloody Mess: Why Marxism (and Socialism) Always Fails,” Christian Research Journal, vol. 42, no. 01 (2019), Christian Research Institute, https://www.equip.org/article/historys-bloody-mess-why-marxism-and-socialism-always-fails/.
- Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (New York: Washington Square Press, 1963), 179.