According to polls, the percentage of people in the United States professing to be Christians has been in rapid decline.
This has been a generational change, with the youngest adults least likely to declare themselves adherents of any specific religion. We call them “nones” or religiously unaffiliated.
In the young and predominantly male culture of high tech enterprises, the number of atheists approaches 50 percent.
At the same time, the total number of atheists and agnostics has risen only modestly; about 4 percent of Americans call themselves atheists, with another 5 percent identifying as agnostics.
If Christianity is declining and atheism is not rising at the same rate, what is going on with the religious or quasi-religious lives of the “nones”?
Tara Isabella Burton has a new book, “Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World,” that tries to answer the question.
Though the book has its flaws, it can serve as a fascinating and perhaps troubling introduction to the ways in which younger Americans are trying to give meaning and community to their lives in ways that are similar to the functions of religions.
As the subtitle indicates, there is a problem with Godless religion. It’s important to know what counts as a religion, and Burton’s unwillingness to settle on a clear definition results in a narrative with a lot of breadth but little analytical depth.
Burton calls the religiously unaffiliated a “Remix Culture,” one that picks and chooses elements of former practices for their own uses.
Her brief survey of institutional religion in America is helpful. It is good to be reminded just how religiously odd the 19th century was. In addition to the rise of new faiths, like Mormonism and Christian Science, there was also a strong interest in spiritualism, Eastern religions, and Theosophy.
She says a lot of her book is about charlatans, but that there is a basis of hope and yearning behind it all.
She talks about the rise of Remix culture, with, of all things, Harry Potter and fan fiction, then moves on to a discussion of witches, then transitions to wellness culture like Goop and CrossFit.
There is a strange aside into polyamory, where people negotiate their sex lives to include open liaisons with other people.
Much of this is interesting, but it is a tale too briefly told.
Toward the end, she discusses three movements that provide their adherents social connections, a world view, and rituals of meaning or meaninglessness.
One of these groups is what she calls the “California Ideology” of libertarian transhumanism. These people worship machines and look forward to turning themselves into machines. They despise the frailties of the body and look for extended life in a world to come. Some are very, very rich.
Another movement is one of racist, violent and nihilistic young men who are anti-feminist trolls posting and sometimes acting on destructive impulses. An anonymous spokesperson for this “community” is called Bronze Age Pervert. It’s a genuine neo-fascism.
Finally she comes to the Social Justice movement and “The Great Awokening.” As other writers have noted, this movement, moving out from college campuses, reinterprets the world as a place of unbridled oppression. Repentance is demanded, but salvation is always beyond the horizon. Burton, who holds a doctorate in religion from Oxford, could have written a book twice as long on any of these last three movements. Interesting and important parallels lie undeveloped. In a godless religion, people worship themselves—or power. We don’t see a lot of happiness in this book.
Unfortunately, Burton settles for a quick sketch. We deserve more.