Our Not So Secular Age

Thirteen years ago, Charles Taylor's magisterial A Secular Age hit the shelves with much fanfare, and based on an intuitive reading of the title, at just the right time. From the late 1990s into the first decade of the new millennium, it was accepted wisdom, especially amongst the religious right, that "secularization"—usually referenced in personified language—was on the march. The West was losing not just its Christian heritage but religion, period. The default narrative was a tacit affirmation of Max Weber's secularization thesis which, in brief, held that as the forces of modernity (e.g. science, rationality, and technology) advance, religion recedes into redundancy.

       At first blush, Weber's thesis sounds like a prophecy currently unfolding before our eyes. Just look at the evidence. For starters, the number of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated is higher than ever, especially amongst those born after 1990 (i.e. that generation not galvanized unto patriotic religion by the Communist threat). Indeed, the religious Nones are now the single biggest religious demographic in America, and the fastest growing. Second generation immigrants are far more likely than ever before to abandon the faith of their fathers by the time they reach adulthood. And we have all heard the stats about what happens, on average, when kids go off to college. Annually, hundreds, if not thousands, of churches are shuttered. Less than a quarter of weddings are held in houses of worship; the same goes for funerals.

       On top of that, the culture wars have been lost; the "evolving standards of moral decency" have triumphed. Kids do not pray in school and the Christian heritage of their country is diminished in history class. Representations of Judeo-Christian faith commitments are removed public view almost as quickly as concomitant moral assumptions are eroded.

       Surely, we live in a secular age. And it seems increasingly secular as we experience rapid technological advancement and global economic consolidation. Is all this not the ascendancy of modern, non-religious man? Lots of people think so, but others are pushing back.

       In truth, as Rodney Stark has pointed out, the secularization thesis of Weber has never comported with empirical reality. If Weber's thesis had been more modest, predicting only the decline of traditional, orthodox Christianity then he might've been on to something. But he posited something more comprehensive, the de-religionizing of the world in step with the modernizing of the same. This has not happened—which is not to say that traditional Christianity has emerged unscathed either.

       It was within the same century that Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin killed off God, each in their own way, that America experienced its second, and per Mark Noll, most impactful Great Awakening. The 19th century was certainly a fissiparous one for the religious establishment, but it could not accurately be characterized as secularization. Indeed, the period experienced an unprecedented enthusiasm for the supernatural and all things spiritual. Many of the dominant religious sects in America today are 19th century creations.  

       Another hundred and fifty years on and the secularization thesis is no more credible. And for the brave readers that progressed past the title of Taylor's voluminous, oft-impenetrable tome, they realized that the Canadian philosopher never really bought the secularization thesis either but rather reformulated it. The natural world might have been disenchanted; religion diversified and individualized. But the religion as such had not been so easily discarded.

“It was within the same century that Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin killed off God, each in their own way, that America experienced its second…most impactful Great Awakening.”

Tara Burton's new, must-read book, Strange Rites, sociologically corroborates Taylor's theory: in each of what she calls "Remixed religions"—think of an EDM track—covered, the individual, not so much the world, is enchanted. Whatever enchanted-ness remains in the new rites is derived from the internal and subjective, not the external. This is not a return to the fundamentally medieval worldview of Martin Luther, so vividly captured by Heiko Oberman, wherein Satan and his minions stalk the forests at night (or maybe even the confession booth). For Luther, the sacred was transcendent and the immanent was only sacred insofar as it participated in the transcendent. In Remixed religion, the immanent is sacred; the sacred is the self. The sacred is, therefore, perpetually fleeting, recovered only from one sacred (but immanent) experience to the next. The experience of the sacred can be compounded, however, by drawing on multiple sources of immanent religious experience at once.

       Burton's enthralling account, much of which draws on the author's own remixed experiences, surveys seven distinct movements in contemporary western culture that, whilst certainly not traditional or creedal orthodox, or even Christian, are nevertheless evidently religious in sentiment and practice. Harry Potter superfans, participatory performance art theatre, wellness culture, SoulCycle, Wicca and neopaganism, social justice, all these and more comprise religion remixed. They all act as a faith community for their respective adherents. But these are more than just millennial substitutions for the YMCA or country club. There are pseudo-doctrinal elements—and more importantly, cultural, ritualistic norms—for each group that govern behavior and belief. Though the sacred is immanent for these sects, there is something akin to narratives of redemption in each one. This much is clear from the distinctly liturgical practice of each Remixed faith.  

       Each niche, frankly weird, group encountered by Burton is, however fringe, representative of "the religious sensibility of a whole generation." People today are not rejecting religion as such, "but rather remixing it," according to the new truth north, viz., the psychologized, emotive self, and the last universal virtue, viz., authenticity. The characteristics of each subculture assessed are held in common. "Today's Remixed reject authority, institution, creed, and moral universalism." Their alternative values include the priority of intuition, feeling, and, of course, personal experiences.

       In many ways, the Remixed seek out in their respective cults what people have always derived from religion, meaning and community. But what is maybe unique to the present moment is the priority of identity as received from one's chosen associations.

       But there is something else unique about these strange, new religions that distinguishes them from past similar movements. If Protestantism is, as Burton puts it, "the ultimate religion of the printed book"—an insight supported by Andrew Pettegree's Brand Luther (2014)—then today's Remixed religions are "religions of the internet." Almost all of the movements included by Burton mediate parts of their "religion" through technology. This trend, especially since the start of the pandemic, is not confined to the strange rites. A notable quality of the so-called "Weird Christianity" investigated by Burton in a longform New York Times piece back in May of this year, is that as committed to older forms of worship as the young Christian "trads" are, they couldn't get their fill without the internet (and, specifically, social media and YouTube). Christianity Today recently ran a piece arguing that "Online Communion Can Still Be Sacramental," so long as one's conception of "presence" is technologically contextualized.  

       If Remixed faiths are religions on the internet, they are also evidently products of consumer capitalism. The a la carte expression of modern religious sentiments evidences this fact. Having options is indispensable to the Remixed, so too is the freedom to innovate. The hunger for meaning and belonging is, perhaps paradoxically, highly individualized in the sects covered by Burton. Belonging and meaning are discovered through affirmation of the desires of the internal self. And the nature of Remixed religions is that this affirmation is found from multiple, sometimes contradictory, sources at once. For example, the actress Lili Reinhart recently told Self that she is a Christian and prays nightly. But she also practices transcendental meditation, is training as a Reiki healer, and is openly bisexual. Reinhart is Remixed.

       Speaking of Hollywood celebrities: the lion's share of Burton's analysis is taken up with two sects in particular, both of which are currently vying for dominance of the American religious landscape—oftentimes competing for the same constituency and, thereby, reinforcing one another. These elite, coastal ideologies also best demonstrate Burton's approach and thesis.

       The first is what she calls the "California ideology," the faith of Silicon Valley elites and those caught up in the personal asceticism and capital "P" Progressive millenarianism. The deity of the libertarian California ideology is technology, and eschatological expectation is wrapped up in some version of Raymond Kurzweil's transhumanist singularity. Transcendence of mortality by the power of man as creator to harness the material world is the redemptive historical narrative told. Fueling this ideology are elements of Zen Buddhism and half-baked Stoicism.

       Arguably more dominant amongst the Hollywood glitterati, and, perhaps, half the country, is the social justice movement (SJM)—the activism of which is mediated through internet tools built by Silicon Valley luminaries designed to elevate "global citizens" above tribalistic biases and factionalism. That the SJM functions as a religion is not an insight unique to Burton. Andrew Sullivan, former New York columnist, the linguist John McWhorter, and mathematician turned woke-critic, James Lindsay have all highlighted various socio-religious aspects of SJM. Harvard Law professor Adrian Vermeule has, taking a more expansive look, cast modern libertine, identity politics-based progressivism as fundamentally sacramental. All such analysts highlight the performative, liturgical nature of SJM's concomitant cancel culture.

       But Burton performs this same analysis with new clarity and depth. SJM possesses all the hallmarks of a neo-Durkheimian cult. It provides meaning and manifests zealotry. Its proclivity for online callouts, iconoclasm, and forced institutional self-flagellation provide "collective effervescence." Most essentially to Burton's overarching taxonomy, SJM provides meaning via a metanarrative—despite how much its adherence decry metanarratives generally as oppressive and arbitrary. The past is oppressive and bigoted; the future is equity; the present acts of resistance are moral renewal. Through this narrative, says Burton, SJM culture is "able to balance its fatalistic conception of the world as it is now with a more optimistic vision of what the world could be." "Because tyranny is seen as located in society, not biology, the social justice self manages to be simultaneously free and contingent. We may be warped by societal expectations, but at our core we are blank slates ripe for reinvention."

       To do this, however, a new cosmology (and anthropology) is needed. Humans are blank slates whose "oppressive and oppressed identities are violently imposed upon us from without, by society." This is the human condition; the human purpose is to examine, problematize, and dismantle the societal sources of oppression, thereby reprogramming themselves. Burton shrewdly identifies the contradictory nature of this outlook: 1) insofar as people are marginalized, "society has warped our fundamental goodness." Liberation is the cure. But, on the other hand, 2) because morality and identity are so attached to social location—power dynamics are all there is—there is no place for the transcendent element of the self, viz., the soul. Neither is there real equality. Those who are socially positioned as oppressors, self-denial is in order; for the oppressed, self-love. A hermeneutic of suspicion surveys all "texts"—postmodern speak for, well almost everything. The "lived experience" of the oppressed is the magisterium of said texts.

       The middle chapter ("Two Doctrines for a Godless World") covering the two ideologies just mentioned feature Burton's most insightful assessment and best writing—which is not to imply that every word of this book is worth reading. Elsewhere her prose can become a bit repetitive. Early on, the definitional and conceptual introduction is a little belabored. Strange Rites is never dull, however. Burton, a columnist at Religion New Service, is obviously enthralled by her own subject matter. And, thankfully, this book is not simply a compendium of her most popular articles. It is singular study of the topic; one we may not have realized existed at this scale. Overall, the narratives she tells are captivating, if only because they seem so simultaneously alien and relatable.

       After traversing this brave if strange new world with Burton, the average Christian will doubtless feel more like a stranger than ever; until they take a look into the mirror, that is. In truth, even adherents to non-remixed Christianity live and worship in this remixed context. The same forces that have molded Burton's strange new rites, namely, the internet and consumer capitalism, have, to some extent molded Christianity.

       Likewise, the evident expressive individualism and emotivism of the remixed religions crop up too in more identifiably evangelical circles. The related phenomena of church hopping, the attractional church model, and multi-site churches exhibit this. So too do more recent developments in worship practices insofar as people are becoming more comfortable with mediating their participation via the internet. There's something of the Remixed in all of us, it seems.  

Tara Isabella Burton, Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (Hachette, 2020), 246 pp.

Timon Cline is presently undertaking an M.Div at Westminster Theological Seminary.

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