From the autumn 2020 edition of New Humanist.

Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (Public Affairs) by Tara Burton

In 1819, as his slaves toiled in the fields of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson took shears to a King James Bible. He excised anything supernatural, divine or miraculous, pasting what remained into a scrapbook of ethical parables: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. This radical act of reconstruction, according to the journalist and theologian Tara Burton, can be considered “the first American fan fiction”. This deeply embarrassing observation should give an accurate hint of the tone of Burton’s latest book, Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World – a flawed work occasionally offering prescient observation.

Traditional religion in America is collapsing. Fewer people pay heed to old orthodoxies. But, as Burton astutely points out, the so-called “Rise of the Nones” – those without religious affiliation – is a misleading story. Around 70 per cent of Nones still believe in a higher power, even the Judaeo-Christian God, while close to half reckon that “spiritual energy” exists in physical objects. While the traditionally religious are abandoning the catechisms, 30 per cent of American Christians believe in reincarnation.

Far from a flowering nation of atheism, agnosticism or even secularity, Americans are scraping together individual cornucopias of spirituality, belief and ritual from the detritus of modern life. Younger Americans can sample a buffet, choosing or discarding as they go: anything from Wicca-style paganism and diabolical witchcraft to atavistic fascism or social justice culture, performance art, healing crystals, Harry Potter or Jordan Peterson fandom, CrossFit, sexual kinks or astrology. What results for many millennials is a hybrid, deeply intuitional set of hodgepodge beliefs, which Burton dubs “the Remixed”.

However, the analytical framework of Strange Rites is elastic. From a centuries-long argument about what religion is, Burton adheres to Emile Durkheim’s theorem of religion as the glue binding a society together – a “unified system of beliefs and practices which unite in one single moral community”. Furthermore, Burton claims, any religion must possess four qualities: purpose, meaning, community and ritual.

This extraordinarily broad remit allows her to discuss several beliefs or practices that really do not come close to falling under the category of religion at all. Although they may contain aspects of faithfulness or communal ritual, many are simply fads, or political ideologies, or the result of unrestrained capitalism. Things like obsessive fandom or wellness culture do not contain one of the most vital aspects of a religion: a sense of the apophatic, the inexpressible, the numinous – something more than Durkheim’s “collective effervescence,” which can be found just as easily at a mass protest, say, or a concert. And to what extent are these deeply individualistic ideas “unified”? Regardless of the mantras of self-improvement they’re fed, a gym class of sweaty millennials does not constitute a community.

And there is no ascendance in much of what Burton describes – no utopia, oblivion, nirvana or heaven. Neither Gwyneth Paltrow’s infamous jade egg nor the para-political incantations of witches will send you to a post-life paradise. They don’t attempt to make such a claim. This applies only to the Silicon Valley “rationalists” who yearn for the surpassing of humanity through technology, or some practices pinched from Buddhism, or indeed one character in the book who finds transcendence in the “journey to the farthest reaches” of anal fisting.

Above all, Strange Rites lacks a deeper understanding of history. Burton can swiftly survey the development of dominant mainline American Protestantism well enough, yet there is no account of its failure and decline. Rather, she pins blame on the internet: “Anti-institutional, intuitional self-divinisation is, at heart, the natural spirituality of the internet and smartphone culture,” Burton writes.

But the internet is only the method, the tool, by which we now interact with a world shorn of all symbolic significance. The scattershot attempt to self-construct a system of belief can only be a response to the deep well of ennui, disorder and ugliness that governs our lives. What Burton is really describing is the decidedly earth-bound material pursuits we develop as salves for a wider malaise.