New Religions for a Godless World
tara isabella burton
publicaffairs books, $28
What follows traditional religion’s decline in America is not atheism, but intuitional paganism. Traditional Abrahamic religions focus on the transcendental and eternal, but the anti-institutional religions of America center on the self as the seat of perfectibility and sanctity.
Burton defines religion as that which provides meaning, purpose, community, and ritual. Religion that is “remixed” tailors the rituals and beliefs of traditional religion to fit contemporary life. Burton writes that the remixed privilege “feelings and experiences over institutions and creeds.”
Both traditional and remixed religion offer theodicies that explain the brokenness of society, means of counteracting that brokenness, “chosen tribes,” and participatory occasions for Durkheimian “collective effervescence.” Burton focuses on these movements that have become alternatives to establishment faith.
Burton explores the commonalities between the wellness movement, new witchcraft, techno-utopianism, social justice, and polyamory, which are all outgrowths of the same Internet culture. She quotes Steven D. Smith, who describes them as instances of paganism that “[locate] the sacred within this world.”
Self-centered spirituality is no stranger to America. It has a long history in this country, and has run both counter and parallel to established religion. Burton points to examples as early as Thomas Jefferson trimming miracles out of his New Testament, the nineteenth century New Thought movement, and even Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking.
Burton sees these current movements and trends not merely as fads, but as new emerging faiths vying for establishment success. But memes die and Internet platforms become obsolete. And individualistic, antiauthoritarian movements do not have the universal morals, understanding of self-sacrifice, and outward-looking vision that strengthens enduring religions.