New Religions For a Godless World
by tara isabella burton
publicaffairs, 320 pages, $28.00
C. S. Lewis wrote that to be modern is to be consumed by the magical impulse “to subdue reality to the wishes of men.” This entails giving up one’s soul in exchange for power. “Once our souls, that is, ourselves, have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us. We shall in fact be the slaves and puppets of that to which we have given our souls.” We will also have forsaken the ancient wisdom which holds that the soul is only truly free when in harmony with what is real.
Strange Rites, Tara Isabella Burton’s survey of America’s post-secular religious landscape, examines prominent twenty-first-century attempts to “subdue reality” by force of will. Contrary to the popular perception that America has become increasingly secular, Burton shows that religion is flourishing, albeit in non-traditional guises. Insofar as “religion,” in Burton’s functionalist usage, names those beliefs and practices that serve “both individually and societally to give us a sense of our world, our place in it, and our relationships to the people around us,” it has always and everywhere suffused human life. Today that suffusion is apparent even in avowedly “secular” institutions like the Supreme Court, which recently enshrined the sacral metaphysics of gender theory in law. The George Floyd protests also demonstrate the power of the progressive social justice religion to effect a nationwide Durkheimian “collective effervescence.”
Burton describes the new religions practiced by more than fifty percent of Americans today as “Remixed.” The religiously Remixed, “shaped by the twin forces of a creative-communicative internet and consumer capitalism,” prefer “intuitional spirituality” to institutional churches. They mix and match different practices to form their own rituals and belief systems. While most Remixed are “nones” or “spiritual but not religious,” many self-identified Christians also practice Remixing.
Remixed religion, Burton suggests, would be impossible apart from our long conditioning by consumer capitalism. At its heart, Remixed religion is selfish, choice-obsessed, therapeutic, and adaptable to expediency—making it a natural bedfellow of progressive politics. These new religions of the self may partially satisfy the human need for narrative and wonder, but they threaten to dissolve our civic institutions in a sea of “personal authenticity and experiential fulfillment.”
Burton traces the roots of the Remixed to the intuitionalist faiths of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially Transcendentalism, Spiritualism, and Quimby’s New Thought. While the postwar economic boom accelerated individualist trends in American religion, America has always been fertile ground for self-worship and charlatanry.
Today’s charlatans are the “spiritual entrepreneurs” who reinvent snake oil in the myriad guises of a “wellness” industry worth $4.2 trillion, exemplified by Gwyneth Paltrow’s pseudoscience bazaar Goop. The theology of wellness is gnostic, pitting the intuitional self against society. According to the gospel of wellness, we each have a “moral responsibility to take care of ourselves first before directing any attention to others.” But because the work of “self-care” is never complete, care for the other is never quite justified.
Among the darker forms of self-worship, Burton examines the recent explosion of occultism among American progressives. This movement drew scrutiny last year when the proprietors of Catland, an occult supply store in Brooklyn, ritually cursed Brett Kavanaugh and President Trump. Modern witchcraft combines “progressive feminist politics with a fervent opposition to institutional Christianity—which is dismissed and derided as a bastion of toxic patriarchy, repression, and white supremacy.” Dakota Bracciale, co-owner of Catland, is an apologist for “black magic,” which is countercultural, dangerous, and a tool for resisting oppression. Bracciale, a white male, argues that non-whites and queer people should “decolonize” witchcraft and restore its African roots by embracing the language of white European Luciferianism. Such farce is typical of the incoherence of the Remixed.
Even apart from witchcraft, Remixed religions consistently exhibit Lewis’s magical impulse. For the Remixed, nature—especially our sexual nature—exists to bear the imprint of human will. “If wellness culture centers the perfectibility of the body as the locus of personal spiritual growth,” writes Burton, “then sexual utopianism takes that corporeality to its logical conclusion . . . why shouldn’t sexuality be the place for us to access not just pleasure but meaning and purpose?” Remixed sexuality casts a vision of a transformed social order. And that vision is increasingly popular. One-fifth of Americans admit to experimenting with “ethical non-monogamy”; even more have experimented with BDSM and other kinks. Authenticity, after all, requires acting on our desires. Refusing to indulge one’s kinks is thus to forsake one’s own perfection.
While the Remixed faith of the sexual utopian may seem like New Thought by way of Thelema, it is perhaps best understood as—to coin a phrase—neoliberalism of the body. Remixed religion is so appealing, in part, because it “is inseparable from a consumer-capitalist model of sexuality.”
But not everyone has the same purchasing power in the sexual marketplace, and thus not everyone can access the meaning-making power of Remixed sexuality. In her penultimate chapter, wryly titled “Twilight of the Chads,” Burton examines the ressentiment of “incels,” men who for want of good looks, money, or social skills are “involuntarily celibate.” Incels want to burn the world down (along with all the sexually successful Chads and Staceys), and Burton’s characteristic empathy is muted as she walks us through their misogynistic world. Incels are a small but noisy subset of what Burton calls “nihilistic atavism,” a Remixed religion focused on reclaiming ground lost to feminism and progressivism. At its most reasonable, the new atavism may resemble Jordan Peterson’s program of renewed male responsibility. But it is best characterized by outsized denizens of the “manosphere” such as Bronze Age Pervert (BAP), who advocates a muscle-bound, homoerotic Nietzscheanism that longs for the emergence of Übermenschen worth submitting to. It is hardly accidental that BAP’s obsession with submission resembles the sexual utopian’s affinity for kink.
Burton believes three rival strands of Remixed—social justice culture, nihilistic atavism, and Silicon Valley's techno-utopianism—are battling to become America’s new civil religion. Each belligerent resembles the others. Whereas intersectional feminists want to destroy society for its misogyny and racism, new atavists want to destroy it for having yielded to the enervating forces of progressivism. Both the cult of social justice and the cult of techno-utopianism prize disruption, valorize the self, and see nature as an obstacle to the body’s perfection.
By emphasizing narrative, Burton renders complex phenomena accessible to general readers without sacrificing precision, and her analysis flows directly from the testimony of the Remixed themselves. But readers will be left with questions. To what extent is the egocentrism of American religion intrinsic to the American project itself? In the context of liquid modernity, are genuinely new faiths possible? Or are all new faiths doomed to serve only as therapies for the “spiritually fluid”?
Remixed religion is mutable and prone to imitation because, at its heart, it preaches only the self and its will to power. No civilization whose civic religion is so crassly nihilistic can long survive. And no self whose faith is Remixed can long endure as a self. Remixed religion is in the business of producing what Malachi Martin called “aspiring vacuums”: denatured souls dispossessed of the ability to will that which is proper to their natures; that is, individuals ripe for possession by the will of another. Most despairing of all, the Remixed are trained to welcome such demonic subjugation. One woman interviewed by Burton explains that during BDSM sessions she pictures herself as a “hollow cane of bamboo,” an empty vessel for external will (“energy”), rejoicing in the annihilation of self.
This is the false re-enchantment of the magician’s bargain. The unmaking of one’s soul is disguised by therapeutic appeasement. And yet re-enchantment remains perhaps the most important task for a civilization incapable of experiencing the meaning inherent in our world. That meaning cannot be “chosen” by humans. It can only be discovered—by participation in what Lewis called “Deep Magic,” the unbegotten power that sang the world into existence. Burton says in her introduction that she has rediscovered such enchantment in a return to faith. I’m not alone in hoping she will share that journey in her next book.
Justin Lee teaches undergraduate writing at the University of California, Irvine.
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