Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Tara Isabella Burton.
This book’s more journalistic work follows in the steps of scholarship such as David Chidester’s Authentic Fakes in applying the tools of religious studies to American popular cultures. After an introductory anecdote regarding author Tara Elizabeth Burton’s own religious participation in “intense subcultures,” she starts by reviewing the demographics of the “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) who make up a large and growing portion of the American population. In particular, she observes the prevalence of the “faithful nones” who maintain “spiritual” identities while distancing themselves from “religious” institutions and traditions. She advances the label “Remixed” to designate the adherents of the sort of secularized quasi-sacred value systems and communities that propagate themselves through the consumerism of 21st-century mass society, with an emphasis on their customizable individualism.
Burton categorizes the faiths of the Remixed as “intuitionist religion,” and her thumbnail history of this phenomenon considerably overlaps the “Metaphysical religion” chronicled in Catherine Albanese’s Republic of Mind and Spirit. She traces one vector from 19th-century New Thought through 21st-century wellness culture; another of sexual revolution from Free Love to kink, polyamory and “consent culture” over the same historical span; and a yet another of neopagan occultism through the New Age and eventuating in a “Magical Resistance” in Trumpian America.
All of these past trends have had consequences in the three “postliberal paganisms” (246) that Burton sees as durably emergent from contemporary American culture. While some readers may be accustomed to noticing these alignments as political valences, this book observes (accurately, I think) that their political potency is a function of their differing and compelling religious visions. The first of these, already touched on in her prior discussion of activist witchcraft, is the social justice movement with its aim of moral renewal and measures to redress sexual and racial oppression. The second is the right-libertarian techno-utopian culture valorizing “rationality” and transhumanism. The third is the reactionary authoritarianism and chauvinism of a burgeoning neo-atavist movement. Burton notes perceptively that although adherents of these faiths may profess affection for or opposition to inherited theologies or metaphysics, none of them are incompatible with the starkest mechanistic materialism.
This book published in the first half of 2020 was then up-to-the-minute in its cultural assessments, but it predated the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, the protest wave following the police murder of George Floyd, and the US Capitol riot of January 2021. Each of these watershed events could be viewed as a manifestation of one of Burton’s three contending para-religions. The protests were clearly a development of the social justice movement. The lockdowns forced commerce and culture online, accelerating various techno-utopian projects (and enriching and empowering their proponents). The attempt to violently overturn Trump’s electoral defeat was an authoritarian disruption that demonstrated social cohesion among ideological actors previously characterized by “lone wolf” reactionaries.
(I couldn’t help recalling my reading of Mary Farrell Bednarowski’s New Religions and the Theological Imagination in America, where I correlated her three religious genera to the chapters of Liber Legis. In this case, I think it is fairly evident that Burton’s understanding of the social justice movement corresponds to the first chapter, her techno-utopians match the second, and her apocalyptic atavists fit the third.)