Book Reviews & Essays

Among the Nonbelievers

How has religious experience changed in a secular age?

A version of this article was originally published December 28, 2020 in The Nation

Last May, the writer Tara Isabella Burton published a piece in the New York Times Sunday Review about a nascent faith community. A growing number of spiritually hungry young Americans, she wrote, were “finding solace in a decidedly anti-modern vision of faith”—attending Latin Mass, belting out Gregorian chants, even wearing veils to church. Some of them, including the author, had begun to call themselves “Weird Christians.”

Burton described the alluring aspects of traditional liturgy, from its intrinsic beauty to its historical role in providing succor throughout the ages. She wrote of the power of religious aesthetics—of grand ecclesiastical architecture, pungent incense, and haunting melodies—and reported that for some young Christians, their faith was wedded to progressive political commitments. Christianity, they insisted, could be “a bulwark against the worst of modernity,” offering an alternative to the dehumanizing gig work and ruthless Tinder swipes of 21st century capitalism.

The article offered a seductive glimmer of transcendence in an era that seems distinctly hostile to it. One might assume that Burton’s new book, Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, would expand on this intriguing subculture. In addition to a tour of Weird Christianity, a reader might expect excursions into Weird Judaism, Weird Islam, Weird Hinduism, and other idiosyncratic expressions of traditional religion. But it turns out that Strange Rites is not a study of how people are adapting long-standing faith traditions to the current moment. Instead it mostly explores something like the opposite—that is, how people are infusing new cultural forms with quasi-religious meaning. To tell this story, Burton covers, among other familiar milieus, fan fiction, the wellness industry, polyamory, social activism, and techno-utopianism. In short, she has written a book that takes contemporary American culture and views its most prominent movements through a religious lens. In doing so, she offers an insightful but limited overview of how these movements are providing four pillars (meaning, purpose, community, and ritual) that Americans were at one time more likely to seek at their local house of worship.


Burton starts her book by establishing the ostensible faithlessness of the contemporary United States. About a quarter of American adults, she notes, say they are religiously unaffiliated, and for those born after 1990, that number climbs to almost 40 percent. “In fact,” she writes, “the religious Nones, as they are often known, are the single biggest religious demographic in America, as well as the fastest-growing one.” Yet she argues that if we look deeper, we will see a more nuanced picture of these supposedly godless Americans. Almost three-quarters of the Nones profess belief in some sort of higher power, and many report engaging in practices that might be broadly considered religious. She dubs this group the “Faithful Nones.”

There are also those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious (an identity selected by 27 percent of Americans); many of them pray or meditate and might even identify with a particular faith tradition but do not regularly participate in organized religion. Finally, the “religious hybrids,” as Burton calls them, formulate their own syncretism. A representative member of this subset might, for example, occasionally attend services at a Presbyterian church, light Shabbat candles, and download the Headspace app for mindfulness meditation. Burton collects all of these modes of 21st century faith and spirituality under the umbrella of the “Religiously Remixed.” For her, what the Remixed have in common is a resistance to institutions and the rules and demands that come with them, yet they remain drawn to the idea of divinity or the prospect of transcendence.

Burton finds the roots of this approach to religion—which she calls “intuitionalist,” as opposed to “institutionalist”—deep in American history. In the 1800s, Transcendentalism extolled the primacy of the self against the strictures of a society that was, in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, a “conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” Less-remembered movements such as New Thought (with its focus on positive thinking) and Spiritualism (centered on communication with the dead) likewise elevated personal experience above the authority and infrastructure of organized faiths.

At the same time, for all the historical continuity, Burton identifies two new factors that reinforce the intuitionalist bent: the rise of consumer capitalism and the advent of the Internet. Together, these juggernauts have instilled in Americans, especially younger generations, the expectation that we should be able to meet our need for the sacred in the same ultrapersonalized, digitized way that we seek romance or find tonight’s entertainment on Netflix. “Why force our beliefs into a narrow category of organized religion, with its doctrines and creeds, when we can cobble together a metaphysical system that demands of us no moral, ethical, spiritual, or aesthetic compromises?” she asks. “Why not combine meditation with sage cleansing with the odd Christmas service and its aesthetically pleasing carols?”


Having sketched the contours of the Remixed and the context from which they emerged, Burton goes on to explore some of the specific expressions of their improvisatory new “religions”—the ways in which they instill meaning and purpose into their communities and practices.

A few of the arenas Burton surveys have unmistakable spiritual overtones. Witchcraft, she notes, has become remarkably popular. She cites 2014 data from the Pew Research Center showing that 1 million Americans identify their primary religious affiliation as New Age, Neo-Pagan, or Wiccan. (Witchcraft falls into her purview because, as a “diffuse and decentered practice and spiritual system,” it “lends itself easily to contemporary intuitional eclecticism.”) Then there’s the wellness industry—a $4.2 trillion market, according to Burton. Companies hawking wellness often vaguely invoke spirituality and foster a cultish vibe. SoulCycle instructors shout out, “You were created by a purpose, for a purpose”; Goop sells a $185 Nepalese singing bowl and $40 tarot cards. Wellness is explicitly, if not a full-fledged religion, at least religion-adjacent.

But Burton also considers several other worldviews that would appear to be entirely secular. One is what she calls “social justice culture,” which she says adapts “the personal and individualistic tenets of New Thought (a repressive society warps our sense of cognition and ability to be our truest self) and gives it a firmly political cast: the Goliaths of society that must be struck down are racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry and injustice.” Another belief system is the techno-utopianism of Silicon Valley, which she writes is devoted to the self-optimization enabled by technological and biological advances; for techno-utopians, transcendence means breaking free from the limits of the human body and supplementing the meager abilities of the human mind. A third is “reactionary atavism,” the domain of alt-right trolls and Alex Jones acolytes, who yearn to reinstate the old hierarchies destabilized by feminism and other forces of modernity.

Burton’s argument is that while the people who join these subcultures clearly differ from one another and are not consciously seeking substitutes for religion, their involvement is driven by some of the same motives that have always drawn people to religion: They want community, a sense of purpose, and a coherent narrative to make sense of the world. And although none of these subcultures necessarily meet all of the criteria for a religion, “they no longer have to: today’s mix-and-match culture means that the Remixed can get their sense of community from one place (an intense fandom, say) and their sense of meaning from another (social justice activism, or techno-utopianism).” And for the ritual component, they might turn somewhere else altogether, like yoga classes or a witchy subscription box.

Burton is a sharp thinker and a lucid writer. At her best, her aperçus are spot-on, as in her gloss on the “theology” of wellness: “We are born good, but we are tricked, by Big Pharma, by processed food, by civilization itself, into living something that falls short of our best life.” She adds, with perhaps just a touch of exaggeration, “The implicit mantra of wellness is equal parts Ayn Rand and John Calvin: you’re not just allowed but in fact obligated to focus on yourself—but, no matter how much you do, it will never be good enough.”

At other times, the religious framework is more of a stretch. She writes that the adherents of both techno-utopianism and social justice culture “seek not salvation out there, but a purification down here, a kingdom of heaven that can be realized fully on this earth, rather than in a world to come…. To transcend biology or to transcend deep-rooted prejudices is to achieve a kind of earthly divinity.” While these parallels are provocative, they don’t entirely hold up under scrutiny.

Burton’s take on the world of progressive activism is sympathetic though not uncritical. She is not wrong that many who are committed to social justice find community and a sense of purpose in activism and shared values—and, in some cases, exhibit a zeal equal to that of a devout believer. But much of today’s social activism grows out of the imperative to change unacceptable conditions and address collective problems, not from a desire to fill a spiritual absence or achieve “earthly divinity,” and her portrayal at times elides that distinction.

In her discussion of techno-utopianism, Burton draws several illuminating connections between that ideology and common religious precepts. The belief that individuals can be liberated from biological constraints, including death, has clear analogues in the religious belief in a soul and the afterlife, and the expectation of a coming Singularity, in which humans and technology fully merge, resembles eschatological visions. Yet here, too, the religious analogies occasionally seem forced, as when Burton argues that techno-utopians see the body as the source of “moral evil”—“those mortal meat sacks and shifty synapses that keep us from achieving our full and fully rational potential.” It’s a clever line, but the religious concept of evil in this context feels misplaced.

Burton’s attitude toward the Remixed landscape can be a bit hard to gauge. She sometimes appears to celebrate its freedoms and ingenuity, but at other times she lets loose quips that reveal a more disdainful attitude. (“Meaning, purpose, community, and ritual can all—separately or together—be purchased on Amazon Prime.”) She presents herself mostly as a neutral guide, although she does, unsurprisingly, express disapproval of reactionary atavism, which she calls the “most dangerous” of these movements.

She acknowledges that there is good reason for the decline of trust in institutions. After all, although she doesn’t delve into their history, old-school religions have been responsible for untold repression, violence, and misery over the centuries; many would see their withering as a sign of progress. But she also emphasizes what would be lost without new spiritual institutions. She is critical of the valorization of the self that she finds in much of Remixed culture. This is particularly true in the realms of wellness and self-care, which are interwoven with most of the other subcultures—even Jones sells his own version of wellness with products like Super Male Vitality supplements and Wake Up America Immune Support Blend 100% Organic Coffee. Burton cites blog posts and Instagram hashtags that encourage self-care even when it means ditching friends and shirking responsibilities. She worries that in some cases a spiritual patina could “lend legitimacy to behavior that might, in other moral systems, be considered merely selfish.”


In a way, while not nearly as ambitious, Strange Rites can be seen as an effort to update William James’s canonical 1902 book The Varieties of Religious Experience. He also distinguished between institutional and what he called “personal” religion and focused on the latter. While acknowledging that religion was nearly impossible to define, he offered this definition for the purpose of the book: “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” (He granted that the “divine” might not include the supernatural, citing Buddhism as an example of a nontheistic religion.) His account drew chiefly on the testimony of these “individual men”—and a few women—about their interior spiritual states.

James took pains to put into words what he termed “religious feeling.” “There must be something solemn, serious, and tender about any attitude which we denominate religious. If glad, it must not grin or snicker; if sad, it must not scream or curse,” he wrote. Although it was “personal,” it was not about asserting or gratifying the self; on the contrary, in these experiences, the sense of self tended to dissolve. “The essence of religious experiences, the thing by which we finally must judge them,” he added, “must be that element or quality in them which we can meet nowhere else.”

Surprisingly, even though Burton’s subject is also a more personal style of religion, religious feeling is all but entirely absent from her account. Her four pillars are admittedly invaluable, and perhaps their confluence has the potential to produce religious feeling. But without that feeling, those other ingredients may not add up to anything greater than the sum of their parts.

One reason for the omission may be that Burton does not seem to have extensively spoken with her subjects. Only a handful of quotes are attributed to interviews, and most of her observations seem based on evidence gleaned from books and surveys, the media and social media. Her analysis centers on broad cultural movements rather than the individuals who make them up. As a result, Strange Rites does not examine the interior experiences of the Remixed in any depth—and interior experience is, of course, central to any authentic engagement with religion.

That said, there is another possible reason for the omission: The “solemn, serious, and tender” mood that James described may be increasingly elusive in today’s world. Burton repeatedly stresses the centrality of the Internet to the Remixed scene. Much as the rise of Protestantism is considered “inseparable from the invention of the printing press and the spread of mass literacy,” so, too, does technology shape our current religions. “Anti-institutional, intuitional self-divinization is, at heart, the natural spirituality of Internet and smartphone culture,” she asserts. The Internet is ideal for finding like-minded souls, for learning about new belief systems, for purchasing the perfect herb-infused crystals. But if I wanted to invent a mechanism for thwarting the emergence of that reverent, self-forgetting mood, I doubt I could do much better than a smartphone: beckoning with temptations, by turns inflating and deflating the ego, all while buzzing with alerts of (usually bad) news from the outside world.

This is not to say that religious feeling is impossible to achieve in our high-tech society. From Burton’s piece on Weird Christianity, one gets the sense that her church’s evening prayer services are suffused with religious feeling—even though, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, they were taking place online. In Strange Rites, however, Burton refers just once in passing to her own faith before quickly adding, “But that’s a story for a different book.”

Source: The Nation

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