America's strange new religious rites
Humans are not made to live isolated and unmoored, as the last three months of social distancing have reiterated to any inclined to deny it. We require a sense of meaning and purpose for our lives to function rightly, and those guiding beliefs and aims are best cultivated in good company. Without these three — meaning, purpose, and community — we feel empty, adrift, and lonely.
For the great bulk of human history, this trio of needs has been primarily satisfied by religion, which used ritual to formalize such patterns of faith and relationship. Here in the United States, that has mainly meant Christianity: its creeds, ethics, and congregations who gather for shared services, sacraments, and holy days. But traditional religiosity is steadily declining in the U.S., as it did in Europe before us. Only 65 percent of Americans now say they're Christians, down from 78 percent as recently as 2007, and the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated (the "nones") have swelled from 16 to 26 percent over the same period.
Yet the nones' move away from religion is not a move away from inborn religiosity. It's not that humans' needs have changed, argues Tara Isabella Burton in her forthcoming Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World. "Rather," she writes, "we live in a profoundly anti-institutional [world], where the proliferation of internet creative culture and consumer capitalism have rendered us all simultaneously parishioner, high priest, and deity." To be religiously unaffiliated today often means, paradoxically, the choice to make your own religion — even if you'd never call it that. It's a trend, Burton told me in an email interview, the coronavirus pandemic may well accelerate.
Strange Rites takes a broad (and broadly disputed) view of religiosity. Building on the work of thinkers like Émile Durkheim, the founder of modern sociology, Burton argues that religion need not entail belief in a deity or self-identification as religious faith. Instead, she selects provision of meaning, purpose, community, and ritual as the defining attributes of religion. With that definition adopted, Strange Rites delves into "new religions" as diverse as witchcraft and Star Wars fandom, Gwyneth Paltrow's aesthetic lifestyle brand Goop and "black pill" forums populated by despairing incels who lionize mass shooters.
The "religion" designation for these groups is compelling in that they're demonstrably filling human needs religion historically filled, as I've written before here at The Week. I would stop short, however, of calling many of them religions, because they do not make transcendent truth claims. There's a spectrum here, with a few of the movements Burton examines (e.g. Wiccan groups) more clearly interested in transcendence than others (e.g. BDSM networks).
Burton is convincing, however, in her contention that the groups she examines fill a religious need in their participants' lives. For example, in a recent column I explored the possibility of QAnon becoming a new religion, because a small group of its adherents are holding self-described "church" services, syncretically mixing Q conspiracy theories with the Bible. But outside that congregation, I'd say the QAnon movement writ large is filling religious needs without being a religion itself.
Part of what makes Burton's "religions" able to appeal to religiosity without transcendent claims is their combination of moral certainty with a lack of "hard limits on personal, and particularly sexual or romantic, desire." This produces movements which are intuitive more than institutional, Burton explains, and distinctly creatures of the digital age: It's about what you feel is good and true for you, not what any religious authority declares, and communities of the likeminded typically coalesce online.
But they don't always stay there. While some of the groups Strange Rites covers seem primarily active on the internet, others — especially anything involving wellness culture, sex, or neo-paganism — prefer embodied gatherings. Burton describes SoulCycle classes physically organized around the assumption that participants will feed off each other's energy (or lack thereof: It is considered poor etiquette to select a front-row bike if you cannot be an enthusiastic rider), and she opens the book with a story of attending a rave, the feeling of which surely can't be duplicated on Zoom. I wondered if such groups and rituals are likely to collapse under social distancing.
"I'm inclined to think that disembodiment will help, not hurt, these communities," Burton told me. They'll make the transition to remote meeting easily, she said, "now, in particular, people are looking for connection and interaction, such that communities and practices that were less communal become more so. Thus, for example, the rise of Instagram Live fitness classes, or interaction with online dommes ... or attending the Instagram Live 'personal cabaret' of an actor" you like. Broadcasts from people's homes offer a special "sense of intimacy and connection," Burton added, that can be enormously appealing right now.
Strong as that appeal may be, I suspect this durability may have an expiration date. Zoom fatigue is real, and cell data shows Americans were moving back toward normal patterns of travel even before lockdown orders ended and mass protests started. One way or another, online facsimiles of community life won't hold our attention forever, no matter how eagerly we grasped them amid the loneliness of social distancing. Burton acknowledged this possibility, too, musing that "some of these phenomena will decline when we go back to our 'real lives.'" (Some of the protests, interestingly, fit Burton's religion definition, too. Look at this pseudo-liturgy in Bethesda, Maryland, for example, or read this 2015 piece on anti-racism as a religion from Columbia University's John McWhorter.)
If COVID-19 does substantially affect the trends Strange Rites analyzes, it may be the economic fallout rather than public health policy proper which has the most effect. Though some of Burton's groups have little necessary cost, most involve significant commercialization. "It's the dot-com bubble for spirituality," she writes. "No sooner does something become a viral movement than an ingenious start-up finds a way to recreate it at a more profitable price point."
For fandoms, there's merch. Wellness culture has ticketed classes and the infamous jade egg. Silicon Valley techno-utopians turn to Soylent and nootropics to "hack" their "meat sacks." Traditional religiosity tends to be higher among the poor, but these movements often aren't affordable below a certain tax bracket. And beyond the monetary cost, it takes time and creative energy to make your own meaning — resources the stresses of recession put in scarcer supply. If you've lost your job, don't you drop SoulCycle?
I think for many the answer is "yes," and some recent economic reports support that view. But Burton thought otherwise. "I absolutely think that 'best-self-ism' and a lot of the intuitional metaphysic of wellness culture [are] rooted in a particular kind of middle-and-up class experience, either in terms of actual bar to entry (Soulcycle, Goop), or in terms of the 'aspirational' quality of wellness culture," she told me. Rather than participants leaving their newfound faiths, Burton predicts the market will provide cheaper options: "I think we'll see the 'accessible wellness' stage before we see a turning from it."
Whether or not that prediction proves true, it seems unlikely people searching for more affordable religiosity will return en masse to more traditionally religious spaces. The pandemic may thus hasten pre-existing shifts in American religiosity more than it initiates new ones. For the foreseeable future, these strange rites are here to stay.
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