A Review of Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World

Burton, Tara Isabella. Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World. New York: Public Affairs, 2020.

About the Author:

Tara Isabella Burton holds a Doctorate in Theology from Oxford. She is Contributing Editor at the American Interest, a columnist at Religion News Service, and a former staff religion reporter at Vox. She has written on religion for National Geographic, the Washington Post, the New York Times. 

Strange Rites is “A sparklingly strange odyssey through the kaleidoscope of America’s new spirituality: the cults, practices, high priests and prophets of our supposedly post-religion age,” to quote the book description on Amazon.

My Review:

I’m trying out an idea for book reviews I’m calling a “4×4” approach. This review will include:

  • 4 Points of Summary
  • 4 Reflections
  • 4 Book Recommendations

Click Here for the Audio Podcast version of this review

4 Points of Summary

In this book, Tara Isabella Burton provides:

1. A Helpful Reflection On What Religion Is

The working definition she provides is helpful in sorting out the wide variety of groups with which she interacts throughout the book. For her purposes, she says that all religions, to be functional, must at least attempt to provide meaning, purpose, community, and ritual. Her description of the McKittrick Hotel in Manhattan as an immersive, jarring re-imagining of Macbeth as an experience rather than a play, provides both an introduction to her book, and a mind-blowing example of how the elements of religion can appear in surprising places. Truly, I re-read the introduction twice, just to try and wrap my mind around all she was describing at the McKittrick, especially as she was able to write of her own experiences there.

Further, she makes a solid case that the new religions in this “godless” world imagined by their adherents are moving away from institutional religions toward intuitional religions. While there is not one universal definition of intuitional religion, she summarizes the foundational tenets of contemporary American intuitional religion as follows:

I am the only truth I know. My emotions are God-given. They tell me what to do and how to live. To be my truest self I should follow my instincts. My body and my gut know more than my mind. An unjust and repressive society has held me back from becoming my best self. It has warped my faith in my own abilities and my relationship with others. I owe it to myself to practice self-care. I owe it to the world to perfect myself: physically, spiritually, and morally. There is no objective right or wrong. Different people and different societies have different moral obligations.

Page 167

2. A Conceptual Framework Of The Religiously Remixed

In this bizarre, syncretistic world with so many options meshed together, she describes the adherents of these new godless religions as the Religiously Remixed. Some of these groups would include the Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) and the Faithful Nones. “Remixed” was, to me, a helpful designation. I find it astonishing the way that people now assemble random bits from various parts of their lives to meet the needs that religion would have traditionally filled. This has become true in fitness, sexual experimentation including polyamory, video games, and in every other imaginable way.

A person might find meaning and purpose from marching with a protest, community in his or her workout group, and ritual through specific types of meditation, or even in communal online behaviors, such as trolling political enemies. No one really escapes the search for these things in life, but it may be the case that each of us puts a version of them together in a way that is completely unique to our own life.

What’s surprising about this is also how much these syncretistic-type practices have infiltrate the institutional religions. For example:

Irish Catholic nuns are enhancing their devotions with Buddhist meditation, Anglicans are learning spiral dances and Druids are teaching Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

Page 23

We have to think now beyond Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, and even Pagan. The Remixed feel free to draw from all of the above.

3. A History of Religion in America

It really isn’t as simple as Puritan Christians coming over on the Mayflower to establish a Christian nation. Not that most people would think it’s that simple, but Burton shows how some of these Remixed tendencies have deep roots in our nations. (She even tips her hat to the origins of Churches of Christ!) In fact, there has always been a heavy presence of divination, folklore, astrology, and fortune-telling competing right along with Christianity for the minds of the early colonists. She really does some nice work in this section broadening the roots of what might appear to us as a surprising recent move in thought.

4. A Deeper Engagement With Three Of The Most Formidable Remixed Religions

Though the book contains many examples from surprising places, there are three current movements cogent and cohesive enough to practice some sort of larger identity. These are:

  1. Social Justice Culture. With a utopian vision, these people believe all of society is a “script that must be rewritten” and that all Goliaths–especially racism, sexism, and anything that resembles bigotry–must be struck down.
  2. Techno-Utopian Culture. This group is less visible but more financially potent. Coming from Silicon Valley, this mindset holds firm beliefs in human potential and technological progress, intending that the latter will eventually perfect the former. Radically individualistic in scope, they hope to transcend the limits of humanity through technological innovation.
  3. The Atavistic Right. While adherents in this group might espouse a belief in the Christian God, there is also a strong Darwinian leaning which appeals to a nostalgic, masculinist view of what the world should be. The world has been overly weakened and feminized by the Social Justice Warriors, and in the face of this world’s ultimate meaninglessness, what is needed is to restore the hierarchical tendencies built into our DNA. Donald Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” absolutely alludes to mindset.

I’ll say more about this in a moment, but it is fascinating how these three, while vastly different in their implementation, hold a non-Theistic worldview that seeks an immanent solution to the problem of evil, though each would locate the source of evil in a different location.

…the modern atavistic right, the progressive left, and the more centrist techno-utopians all can be considered pagan ideologies, which see the sacred within the world itself. The techno-utopians may locate that sanctity within human intelligence; the social justice movement within human emotion; the atavists within human DNA. But all three of our new civil religions envision the ultimate good—for some human beings, or for all—within the world, rather than beyond it.

Page 247

Four Quotes

I found these especially thought-provoking.

On the burden of reinventing everything in a non-religious world:
As psychologist of secularism Phil Zuckerman told me, “One of the biggest problems for secular culture [is that] you have to cobble together and make it yourself. If you want your kid to have a bar mitzvah, it’s all taken care of. You want your kid to go through confirmation class in the Episcopal church? Boom, they’re enrolled. If you want to do a secular version of that? Good luck. You’re on your own. You have to figure it out, explain it to people, rent the space, find people, figure out how to write up your own program.”

Page 31

On the hyper-specialization of internet culture:
For a whole generation of millennials—many of whom, in marrying and having children later, are foregoing traditional markers of rootedness—the Internet provides highly specialized alternative communities, allowing people to find friends or partners who aren’t merely like-minded, but almost identically minded. It disincentivizes compromise and conformity, even as it promises the bespoke ideal: people who think and feel and act just like you.

Page 60

On modern wellness culture:
Today’s wellness culture has trickled down to the middle class, inculcating a far broader demographic with the idea that your relationship to yourself sets the tone for your very worth. Whether it’s a SoulCycle class or a week on WW, wellness culture thrives on the notion that self-care is at the foundation of our very purpose. Objectivism as asceticism: at once tempting consumers with the idea that their primary obligation is to themselves and punishing them with a seemingly endless list of requirements necessary for optimizing that selfishness.

Page 97

On the challenge of tradition versus conformity in institutional religions:
In this way, traditional organized religion has found itself something of a catch-22. More stringent, spiritually demanding traditions—like, say, Christian evangelicalism or Orthodox Judaism—may be more likely to retain the average member, but they’re conversely more likely to alienate those members who are unable to conform their identities and values to those of the community. Meanwhile, more progressive and liberal traditions, such as mainline Protestantism, are often capable of being more welcoming to those on the theological margins, but more often than not fail to retain members or fulfill their spiritual needs.

Page 245

Four Reflections

I am thinking especially about application to local church settings.

  1. What is our real story?
    Narrative Theology has been helpful to me in realizing the value of story, and what story we believe it is that we are living. Is the real story that of Atavism, that the politically correct crowd have caused us to lose touch with our primal, masculine instincts? Is it that of Social Justice Warriors, that all is a story of oppression and power to be overthrown? Or could it be something else? By the way, it is absolutely worth reading Tim Keller’s summary of how a Christian view of Justice is distinct from all of these options.
  2. What is the real locus of evil?
    It is striking to me that once you take a thoroughly disenchanted view of the world (to quote Charles Taylor), that you have to explain evil somehow. If there are no gods or devils, your only option left is to blame people. No wonder the hatred between warring tribes, whether in person or on social media, has become so out-of-control. I believe that one of the strikingly helpful features of a theistic, and particularly Christian, worldview is that human beings are not the ultimate source of evil. Even the Evangelical Church has been willing to place far too much blame on secular society, as Burton points out. If we take a worldview informed by Scripture, then our ultimate struggle is not against “flesh and blood.” It really helps us not to kill each other if we believe that even our worst human enemies are under the influence of a more sinister unseen enemy. It matters whether I believe you are the embodiment of evil, or if you’re living into a lie you’ve been told. Are you evil, or mostly deceived?
  3. How can churches rethink our approaches to the core aspects of practiced religion?
    Especially the introduction and her description of the McKittrick Hotel really got my mind churning about possibilities for church that we might not have considered. People need meaning, purpose, community, and ritual. There are traditional ways we’ve provided these, but might we be able to create other, immersive spaces where these things are practiced in refreshing ways? I think about the Taizé worship community and the way they’ve connected with thousands of young people who are not going to a pyrotechnics show called a worship service, but rather an experience of music and community that truly feels connected to something transcendent. This is worthy of deeper reflection.
  4. How can churches better engage digital tribes?
    Now groups can form around absolutely anything. Physical space is no longer necessary because as long as there are a few people who share an interest, there’s always a subreddit available. We can divide ourselves to the point that we might never actually engage with anyone who thinks differently than us about anything because the internet specializes in helping us find our perfect matches. Part of me sees the need for balance, Sabbath, and pulling back from technology. But with the ubiquitous nature of internet groups and tribes, I don’t think it’s a space we should avoid, because for many people, it is the only world they truly inhabit. So how do we engage the online world in a meaningful way without being overrun by trolls?

4 Book Recommendations

Here are books on related topics that may interest you. I am an Amazon Affiliate, and if you decide to look into any of them, I would appreciate you using the links I provide below.

  • Charles Taylor, A Secular Age. This winner of numerous awards is a sweeping study of the 18th and 19th centuries, and how secularism has grown in Western culture. Blending philosophy and history, Taylor has provided a set of lenses through which to view our context that simultaneously give insights into where we might strive to go from here. The challenge? This book is a whopping 896 pages and few people read it. For that reason, you should seriously consider as an introduction James K. A. Smith’s book, How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Smith was able to see that this work was brilliant but not popular-level, and so he created a sort of guide to Taylor’s concepts. As Smith himself is a wonderful observer of culture and philosopher, this book makes an easier entry point into Taylor’s work.
  • Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity. This is the account of how Christianity changed in parallel with the founding of America. Hatch traces five denominational strands, including the Restoration Movement, and shows their deep rootedness in American philosophy and Enlightened optimism. If you enjoy history, this one is exceptionally well-done.
  • James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. Without a doubt, Postmodernism owes much to French Philosophers. Smith provides an accessible introduction to several of these thinkers, and rather than looking for a simplistic way to dismiss them, he helps the reader to actually hear the points they were trying to make. The founders of Postmodern thought may actually provide helpful keys to doing church in a Postmodern world.
  • Mark Lau Branson, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry, Missional Engagement, and Congregational Change, 2nd ed. One of the most important books I’ve read for wise church leadership. In navigating uncharted territory, leaders are wise to figure out how to root future innovations of a group into the past identity of a group. In other words: How do I change my church without blowing it in half? If you want an introduction to Appreciative Inquiry, I’d be glad to have you look at my extended series on this method, and some examples of how I and others have used it.

In Summary

Burton has put together a truly fascinating read. This is not a book for the faint of heart as there a few topics she explores which, if I were Googling, I wouldn’t want someone to walk up behind me and ask, “What are you looking up?” (Polyamory and kinksters in chapter 7, for example.) Yet it is the realism and sincere engagement with our context, warts and all, that makes this book so useful. I found Strange Rites full of examples I wouldn’t have discovered on my own, insights that describe trends that I had seen but didn’t know how to articulate, and a vast amount of inspiration for brainstorming.

The book is primarily descriptive in nature. If I could add to it, I would wish for one final chapter where she gets a bit more prescriptive. I would have loved: “And now here are the best ways that churches should move forward.” But to be fair, looking at the complexity and constantly changing nature of our current world, a chapter like that would be a tall order, nor was her intention to write a “how-to” book for church leaders, though she presents a lot that is worthy of our engagement. I would certainly love to hear her thoughts on how her work intersects with ecclesial/ministerial praxis.

I’m grateful for her meticulous work, her lively writing style, and for the abundant food for thought found here. I plan to keep an eye on Burton to see what she does next. This is one of the most insightful books I’ve read in a long time.

Other Posts You Might Enjoy:

questioning forward
Dr. Jason Bybee Research Spotlight

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.