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Without Traditional Faith, Spiritual Humans Go to Strange Places

Americans are turning to highly personalized, unorthodox religion to get fulfillment.
Local non-professional actors, dressed up as evils and witches, perform the "Burial of the Sardine" during "Las Burras" (The donkeys) festival, marking the end of the carnival celebrations in Guimar, on the Canary Island of Tenerife on March 7, 2020.(Photo by DESIREE MARTIN/AFP via Getty Images)

Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, Tara Isabella Burton, Public Affairs, 320 pages

What are you looking for?” The question is posed by svelte, tattooed fitness instructors in an ad for SoulCycle, the cycling class that has become a sort of quasi-religious cult. SoulCycle is undoubtedly a business: it has dozens of cycling centers across America, serves about 300,000 riders, and is worth an estimated $900 million. But it claims to offer something more than an exercise class, something transcendent—though not of the traditional sort. It promises a “higher expression of yourself,” as the ad puts it. It’s about self-divinization. It’s all about you.

The ethos of SoulCycle, and the wellness and self-care industry more broadly, is a kind of tacit theology for the increasing number of young Americans who are seeking spiritual fulfillment outside of traditional religious institutions. In her new book Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, Tara Isabella Burton describes that theology this way: “We have not merely the inalienable right but the moral responsibility to take care of ourselves first before directing any attention to others.” Original sin or evil is not found in humans, but in the unjust and repressive institutions of society. There is no objective moral truth. All we can rely on is our physical and emotional selves, our intuitions and experiences. As many people told Burton in interviews for her book, “I make my own religion.” 

There has been much discussion in the last few years about the rise of religious “nones,” or those who do not identify with a particular religion. The Pew Research Center reported in October 2019 that 26 percent of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, up from 17 percent in 2009. Among Millennials, 40 percent are nones. 

But this doesn’t necessarily mean that America is becoming a more “secular” society. Burton suggests a more complicated religious landscape, one in which people are still very much seeking something spiritual in their lives. Their spirituality is “a blend of what you might call traditional religious practices and personal, intuitional spirituality: privileging feelings and experiences over institutions and creeds.”

Burton, a writer who studies religion and secularism and holds a doctorate in theology from Oxford, calls these spiritual seekers the “Remixed.” Digging a bit deeper into the polling data, she separates the Remixed into three groups: the spiritual but not religious (or SBNRs), the “faithful nones,” and the “religious hybrids.” The first category is self-explanatory: 27 percent of respondents told Pew in 2017 that they are “spiritual but not religious.” Though a majority of SBNRs actually say they belong to a religious group, “their primary sources of what we might call meaning-making . . . come from outside their religious traditions,” Burton writes. Another Pew study reported in 2018 that “nearly three-quarters of religious ‘nones’ (72%) believe in a higher power of some kind, even if not in God as described in the Bible”—Burton’s faithful nones. And finally there are the religious hybrids, those who affiliate with a traditional religion but also “feel free to disregard elements that don’t necessarily suit them, or to supplement their official practice with spiritual or ritualistic elements, not to mention beliefs, from other traditions.” Nearly a third of Christians, for example, say they believe in reincarnation—certainly not an orthodox Christian doctrine. In what is an admittedly rough estimation, Burton approximates that at least half of Americans are Remixed, mixing and matching aspects of traditional religion and personal spirituality to create “bespoke religious identities.” 

What are the Remixed looking for? Defining what a religion is or does is no easy task, but Burton settles on the idea that religions fulfill four elements of human need: meaning, purpose, community, and ritual. A spiritually tinged fitness group like SoulCycle may only satisfy a couple of these needs (the ritual of a morning workout, perhaps a community of cycling friends), but people can find their meaning and purpose elsewhere, often in politics. 

Indeed, Burton considers the social-justice activism of the Left to be perhaps the most compelling of the new godless religions: it provides adherents with a meaningful framework for understanding reality (original sin is rooted in the patriarchy and the other unjust institutions of society) and a sense of purpose in showing solidarity with the oppressed. These are reinforced by a church-like moral community that performs “call-out” rituals against oppressors on social media and at rallies. Burton continues in this vein throughout her book, chronicling the meaning-making and at times bizarre rituals of wellness culture, social-justice witches, the techno-utopians of Silicon Valley who want to turn us all into machines, acolytes of Jordan Peterson’s masculinist self-help, other “atavistic” men’s-rights groups, and even polyamorists and sexual utopians. (Sexual acts you shouldn’t Google are described by practitioners as “transcendent.”)

These “intuitional” religions and forms of spirituality are not exactly a new phenomenon, however. They have deep roots in American religious history. During the Revolutionary War era, just 15 percent of American adults belonged to a church. Christians at the time dabbled in fortune-telling and astrology. Ever since the birth of our country, there have been battles between institutional religion and more personal forms of piety.  

One 19th-century craze known as “New Thought,” a precursor to the modern self-help movement, was particularly influential. New Thought founder Phineas Parkhurst Quimby believed that, as Burton puts it, “God—or at least a nebulously defined higher power—was in you, and you had both the right and the responsibility to channel that spiritual relationship in order to gain personally fulfilling results.” American religious affiliation hit its apex in the mid-20th century (an incredible 75 to 80 percent of Americans belonged to a local congregation in the 1950s) and subsequently declined, as the intuitional strain identified by Burton came roaring back. Traces of New Thought ideas like the “God within” and willing oneself to health and wealth can be found all over this renewed intuitionism, from the New Age and self-care movements, to the “pray and grow rich” prosperity gospel, to the belief on the social-justice Left that subjective feelings and experiences are inherently authoritative.    

It’s tempting to dismiss the Remixed as hopelessly selfish and freakish—honestly, who buys a $185 Nepalese “singing bowl” from Goop?—but Burton deserves credit for taking them seriously. As she frequently points out, these unorthodox religions are the only access to a spiritual life that many have; some were previously abandoned or alienated by other faith communities. A fascinating if frightening journey into contemporary spirituality, Burton’s book illustrates a great truth: humans are a spiritual species. We are wired to search for meaning, purpose, and transcendence, and that search can lead us to some very strange places. 

A shortcoming of Burton’s book, however, is that there is not much investigation into the effectiveness of these substitutes for traditional religion. Do they actually provide their adherents with meaning and community? In a 2019 YouGov survey, 30 percent of Millennials reported feeling lonely, a higher percentage than older generations. (Predictably, that percentage has increased to 38 amid the coronavirus pandemic.) Younger Americans also suffer from higher rates of depression. It turns out that living in a culture that encourages people to pursue maximal individualism in their social, economic, and spiritual lives makes them feel more alone and unhappy.

Traditional religious institutions, of course, have been severely weakened in recent decades: sexual-abuse scandals, the decline of the nuclear family and church attendance, apathy among parents in passing faith traditions onto their children, and plummeting trust in institutions more broadly have all contributed to their decline. But organized religion should view this cohort of lonely yet spiritually hungry young Americans as an opportunity. Maybe the solution is what Burton in The New York Times recently called “Weird Christianity”: faith communities across denominations that are more orthodox and intellectually serious, more focused on beauty and aesthetics, and more skeptical of the culture wars and consumer capitalism’s obsession with desire-fulfillment and profit. But especially during a devastating event like a global pandemic, church leaders and members should be thinking about ways to “meet man in a special way on the path of his suffering,” as Pope John Paul II once put it, to help people find meaning in their suffering and form communities to bear each other’s burdens. 

In the Gospel according to John, Christ’s first words are a question to his disciples: “What are you looking for?” It is the central human question. In a time of crisis and uncertainty, we shouldn’t be surprised if people start looking for answers not within their broken selves and this fallen world, but outside of them.  

Daniel Wiser, Jr., is an assistant editor of National Affairs.