I have been annoyed at the popular discourse surrounding religion lately. I cracked open Woke Racism by McWhorter in the store and was pretty disappointed by his assertions that antiracist ideology is a religious system. It seems that if people notice a group any more substantial than a clique they’ll inevitably call it a religion or cult, especially if they don’t like them. I’ve seen this done in both atheist/secular spaces and Christian spaces. Christians call these movements religious because they’re projecting hard, and the atheist tweens gallivanting around online do it because religion is their boogieman. Religion’s notoriously vague definition certainly allows this discourse, but it still annoys me.
Strange Rites takes liberties with “religion” in similar ways, but it was in far better faith than a lot of other stuff I’ve read. While most others use “religion” to insult a political or philosophical movement they dislike, Strange Rites dilutes the definition in order find a grasp on the nebulous spiritual movements in America. While I would just stick to calling them “spiritual movements” the author’s decision to call them religions (or civil religions regularly) is understandable.
Considering the open-ended definition preferred by the author, I was surprised she didn’t include Qanon in her analysis. That, and other omissions, made me feel as if the book was incomplete, missing maybe two or three potential chapters.
But that aside, I enjoyed the book for what it was worth. I felt the author had some poignant insights into the modern spiritual landscape, and the book was fun to read.
Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World by Tara Isabella Burton explores the spiritual landscape in modern North America, specifically the United States, though many of her insights extend to Canada as well.
Burton begins her exploration by defining religion and what she calls the “religiously remixed” which are people who practice spirituality and religion in ways that are not easily accounted for in the US Census; the religious “Nones.” She emphasizes that a key property of the “Remixed” is that their spirituality is bespoke; tailored for them specifically. The Remixed approach their spirituality by taking what they like and leaving what they don’t whether or not they are within a larger religious community. The Remixed are fluidly moving between traditions and practices, rather than being explicitly syncretic; a consumer spirituality.
The first few chapters of the book jot down the broad strokes of remixed and “intuitional” spirituality in America. Christianity has gone through a pendulum swing between the poles of intuition and institution; one side being interested in personal spirituality, and the other side being interested in organized spirituality. The movement between these poles within Christianity continued into our godless age and carried its meaning-making machinery with it. Now, we are faced with a variety of spiritual movements which are all deeply intuitional. Burton identifies the advent of the internet (and Harry Potter fanfiction in particular) as the catalyst for this new spiritual landscape.
The last half of the book explores a few of these spiritual movements: wellness culture and the Law of Attraction is explored as a reincarnation of the older New Thought movement; modern paganism and witchcraft as a comment on the failure of Christianity, articulated most conspicuously by The Satanic Temple; sexual liberation and its various spiritual spin-offs; techno-utopianism of the Californian Ideology, social justice culture; and the atavist manosphere.
Burton concludes the book by arguing that the traditionally transcendent spirituality of established religions are giving way to the immanent spirituality of the Remixed. America is coming to believe that the divine is in this world, not outside of it.
Today’s new religions provide their various Remixed flocks with these four elements: meaning, purpose, community, and ritual.Page 29
This definition of religion is central to Burton’s analysis. It leaves a lot to be desired, but it is not designed to be definitive. Burton is not interested in a universal definition. Rather, she is trying to how these spiritual movements work, and what they are offering. To this end, her definition works well. It allows her to explore communities as different as the Harry Potter fandom and the manosphere. For her purposes, this definition works well, but it doesn’t challenge my understanding of Terranism much.
As popular movements like New Thought and Spiritualism swarmed what seemed like every drawing room in Boston and New York, Americans became as obsessed with sexual liberation as they were with spiritual fulfillment. And, more often than not, the two were deeply intertwined.Page 143
Burton identifies a key component of the intuitional spiritual movements (free love, New Age, social justice, etc.) as being the belief that humanity is perfectible. This perfection is founded in the idea that sexual relationships are bespoke and unique to each individual experience; each person can find their perfect sexual relationship.
We’ve hacked and optimized our diets, bodies, and spiritual practices. Why shouldn’t we hack and optimize our sexual relationships too?Page 145
To my eye, Burton is imagining this as a rationalization of the soul-mate. She notes that the change is in public sexual relationships rather than private, since private sexual lives have never fully conformed. People are more willing nowadays to publicly declare what bespoke sexual experiences they prefer and seek, which is true.
Both anti-institutional, intuitional spiritual practices and sexual freedom rested on the same fundamental principle: that humans were, at the deepest level of their being, not simply good but perfectible.Page 144
However, I disagree with tracing this sexual movement to seeking perfection. I’m not sure it’s that simple. Modern sexual discourse embraces the complicated, the messy, the entangled, the imperfect. While many are interested in optimizing their sexual experiences as Burton says, just as many are interested in experimentation, commodification, or even abstinence. Sex culture is breaking free of “purity” certainly, but this does not indicate a move towards perfection. Rather, it focuses on consent in a way that I feel stands alone, separate from a larger sense of perfection. Liberation is the ultimate goal of this movement, and I anticipate that Burton would agree with me.
That divinization of consent is twofold, and telling. On the one hand, it rightly prioritizes the importance of explicit sexual consent – that all practices, however risky or outré, be enthusiastically agreed to by all parties. But the valorization of consent has the foundational basis for human action among the sexual utopians says something much bigger about the way the Remixed see the world. Our purpose, at a very real and deep level, is to express our authentic selves, and to pursue that self through freedom. We are totally free beings, beholden to nobody but ourselves. Exerting that freedom, furthermore, is at the core of what it means to pursue the good. Our choices, in this model, both define and liberate us.Page 159
I think Burton very correct here. Consent and liberation central to this modern way of thinking about sex. People want to be free of abstract boundaries and press up against the desires and needs of their partner(s).
As for Terranism, a doctrine around sex is an interesting matter. It is not a secret that institutions have tried to organize their members through sex since time began. Monogamy, polygamy, polyamory, purity culture, abstinence-only education, homophobia, transphobia, abortion rights, contraception availability, modesty standards, gendered separation, family values, and even private bedrooms are all methods of organization through the medium of sex. A lot of civic and religious participation involves sex to some degree. It makes sense, since sex is one of the most foundational and direct modes of human contact; far more so than the complicated logistics of food, shelter, language, medicine, or any other mode. Sex creates a direct, explicit, and strong connection between two people, even if it’s just for a moment. So organizing how that connection occurs will inevitably influence much of that person’s life, especially if they’re fertile. Should Terranism make an attempt to provide it’s own sexual order?
Probably. Sex cannot be ignored, at least. I don’t have any final thoughts on the matter, but this system would have to fulfill a few criteria.
Firstly, it would assume a non-binary connection, and layer gender on top of it as secondary or non-essential; partners first, husband and wife after.
Secondly, it would assume an equal connection, with hierarchy layered on top and distinct from gender.
Finally, it would assume a negotiated connection, not an absolute one.
Following these criteria should lead us in the right direction.
The historical narrative of social justice – that America, despite its lofty political ideals of freedom and justice for all, is at its core a country built on white supremacy, patriarchy, repression, and hatred – became, for many on the political left, an etiology at once reassuring and unsettling, evidence that Trump’s election was not simply a chaotic anomaly but rather rooted in a wider, if more insidious, historical trend. America was, is, and will remain broken. … Yet, at its core, the social justice movement’s rendering of America isn’t merely a history. It’s also a profound and powerful theodicy capable of explaining the evils of 2016 with recourse to a still wickeder past.Pages 175-176
Burton describes what I’ll call the “Woke Theodicy” here, and I find it deeply fascinating. It is a myth that the founding of America was an essentially evil act and that our purpose in the modern day is to transform it into a new and better place, a utopia of true freedom and individual liberty. Racism, sexism, queerphobia, religious intolerance, patriarchy, and capitalism are all evils endemic and inherent to America, and they must be expunged. The battle of good against evil is of good/oppressed people against an evil/oppressive system that goes beyond any one racist or patriarch. And good will prevail in a Marxist fashion to create a liberated new world. This is the Woke Theodicy.
I think Burton’s articulation is right on the money. While I would rather call this a political movement than a religion (if we’re willing to call this a religion, then it follows that Marxism is a religion, which makes things messy) she is quite right concerning its worldview and mythology.
What is exciting to me is that I agree with the arc of this mythology. My fundamental belief is that good and evil are generated by humanity. This theodicy of evil acts and systems suits my worldview quite well. A diety is not responsible for evil, we are. It is up to us to make the world a better place, just as it was within our power to make it worse. While there are particulars about “wokeness” that I may disagree with, the basic theodicy tracks for me.
This has really cleared out some cobwebs for me. I want to broaden the structure of this theodicy into a truly global myth. Evils like racism, sexism, slavery, patriarchy, etc. will be articulated in the myth and countered by a spiritual community throughout history. The key relationship I want to emphasize is between the individuals who have stagnated in their climb of the World Tree, and how that stagnation may lead to systems of suffering. I’m also interested in the material component of these systems, how material circumstances tend to encourage certain injustices and that we can develop systems and technology to overcome them in a just or unjust way. Essentially, material circumstances do not excuse evil, even if they explain it.
Terra, then, is a symbol of the struggle against evil just as much as They are an emergent entity. Faith in Terra is the means by which we continue to climb the World Tree, continue our ascent and descent.
Strange Rights: New Religions for a Godless World – Burton