Tag Archives: Religious Cults

Strange Rites

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Tara Isabella Burton.

Burton Strange Rites

Burton Strange Rites New

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.)

New Religions and the Theological Imagination in America

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews New Religions and the Theological Imagination in America [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Mary Farrell Bednarowski.

Bednarowski New Religions and the Theological Imagination in America

In this monograph Mary Ferrell Bednarowski examines a half-dozen religions of variously “alternative” status, inquiring into their different conclusions regarding traditional theological topics such as the character of the divine, the nature of humanity, human existence after death, and the cornerstones of ethical reflection. Her six example religions are carefully chosen, not only to illustrate a profound variety, but also to demonstrate some parallels: three originated in the 19th century and three in the 20th, and she sets the triads up so that each has a match in the neighboring century. The result is as follows: 

19th Century : 20th Century ::
LDS (Mormons) : Unification Church (“Moonies”) ::
Christian Science : Scientology ::
Theosophy : New Age Movement

In the case of the first pair, there is an emphasis on the finitude and anthropic qualities of God, along with the need for human participation in an ongoing historical process of redemption. Both place emphasis on families and marriage as the critical locus of society, and both have engaged alternative notions about marriage in contrast to American mainstream culture. 

At first I thought the second pair seemed more alike in name than substance, but it turns out that the early establishment of Christian Science under Mary Baker Eddy was marked by organizational secrecy and centralization to the point of paranoia, quite reminiscent of the Hubbard-Miscavige institution. The similarity of name betrays a shared emphasis on a formalized knowledge that the evident material world is an inaccurate reflection of mental-spiritual reality, which is the real locus of power. 

The chief problem here is with the third pairing: the New Age Movement doubtless appeared to have more durable substance in 1989 than it has since demonstrated. But more importantly, it’s not clear that the Theosophy and the New Age Movement are significantly different entities for theological study, since the Theosophical Society and its organizational progeny are reliable entries in any list of groups contributing to the New Age Movement. Bednarowski does show some appreciation for this weakness, but I think she could have still made a respectable case for her larger thesis by substituting Neopaganism for the New Age Movement. In that case, both would emphasize the recovery of wisdom from non-Christian sources, and both include a “magic-positive” outlook that includes the possibility of esoteric initiation. “Theosophy”–taken as a broader milieu than orthodox Blavatskianism–comprehends a considerable range of theologies and organizational approaches comparable to the amplitude of Neopaganism in the late 20th century.

So, while I had been fairly skeptical at the outset, I ended up impressed with the gist of Bednarowski’s pairings. The upshot is that since there is no direct doctrinal influence of Mormonism on the Unification Church, or of Christian Science on Scientology (or, in my proposed revision, of Theosophy on Neopaganism), she has identified three distinct–though not necessarily exhaustive–varieties or types of “theological imagination” among “new” religions. 

Curiously, she doesn’t name these three species. I was reflecting on how I might reference them, when it struck me.

Theosophy/Neopaganism : CCXX Chapter I ::
Christian Science/Scientology : CCXX Chapter II ::
Mormonism/Unificationism : CCXX Chapter III !