All of these new religions locate meaning within this world rather than outside of it. Their narratives, from origins to anthropology to soteriology to eschatology, are immanent rather than transcendent, and therefore ultimately doomed to disappoint and to fail. They offer utopian visions that cannot and will not be realized.
We’ve all heard by now of the rise of the “Nones,” that growing demographic that, when filling out a census, marks their religious affiliation as “None.” While until recently they made up only the smallest minority in America (and the rest of the Western world) they may now come close to forming a majority, especially among the younger generations. A common narrative among Christians is that people are migrating away from traditional Judeo-Christian faiths in favor of liberal secularism. But might it be possible that people are not actually abandoning religion as much as they are exploring, embracing, and even customizing a whole host of new spiritual traditions and subcultures? Might it be possible that people are not becoming less religious but more? These are the questions Tara Isabella Burton sets out to answer in Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World.
Burton believes that behind the Nones are people whose beliefs and practices are, to varying degrees, a mix of traditional institutional religions and personal, intuitional spiritualities. She calls these people the “Remixed” and says that though they are drifting away from their Judeo-Christian roots, they are still seeking what religion offers: meaning (a sense of why the world is the way it is), purpose (shaping life according to that meaning), community (joining with others to better understand meaning and better enact purpose), and ritual (actions or occasions in which the community acts together to reify and reaffirm a sense of community and a sense of purpose). While some of the Remixed have cut all ties with traditional faiths, others maintain a connection to a church or denomination, though they freely disregard elements of that faith they dislike and integrate elements of other faiths they deem attractive. She calls such people the “Remixed” because rather than creating new religions they are actually blending together elements of many others. Their most successful forms have integrated the power of consumerism to make them branded, salable, and, therefore, even more popular. Today the Remixed may make up nearly 50% of the population of the United States.
Of course America has long seen intuitional religions rise and fall. Transcendentalism, Spiritualism, New Thought, New Age—each of these was a faith of intuition, of feelings, desires, and experiences rather than writ and creed. It should be no great surprise that the tide has once again turned and is sweeping people away from institutional faiths in favor of intuitional alternatives. But while intuitional faiths have historically proven relatively minor and short-lived, is it possible that today’s New Great Awakening could permanently reshape the American religious landscape? Burton believes it is, and points to three reasons.
The first reason these remixed faiths may stick around is the absence of wider demographic pressure toward alternatives. Family and society no longer exert significant pressure toward traditional faiths, for in general the Remixed are the children of parents who already had no more than a formal, token association with a church. The second is the power of consumer capitalism. Big businesses have identified the spiritual longing among the Remixed and have begun selling not just products but also values, so that consumerism now strengthens and spreads the power of these Remixed religions. The third is the rise of the Internet through which we so easily form into tribes and through which we all come to demand a role in designing and personalizing our experiences. Says Burton, “Our spiritual profiles, like our Facebook profiles, need to be individualized.”
Harry Potter, Wellness, Witchcraft, Sex
A number of forces have combined to bring about and shape Remixed culture and, strangely enough, one of the most important is Harry Potter, for it marked the beginning of an Internet through which people wanted not just to consume content but to co-create it. The Remixed came of age just as Harry Potter was achieving its ascendency. As they read the novels and watched the films, they went online to discuss and remix them. The books made such a deep impact not just because people enjoyed the stories, but because they enjoyed the participatory culture they fostered. Through it all people came to expect more from what they consumed, so that stories were no longer meant to just entertain or teach, but to serve. “It’s impossible to understand Remixed spirituality—and the degree to which we seek out more precisely calibrated identities and tribes—without understanding the way that Internet culture, and fan culture in particular, primed us to expect, and even demand, narratives, practices, and communities that we found personally meaningful.”