The New Religious Tribalism in Modern America According to Tara Isabella Burton


The new spiritual movements in the US are “religions of the Internet”


I recently read a review by Chris Smart on the Solas blog of the book, Strange Rites, by Tara Isabella Burton, published by Public Affairs, New York 2020. My thoughts come third hand, but I found enough meat to chew on (hopefully) in the review to warrant some attention.

The author of the book is an American, though she establishes some objective distance through her Oxford education in the UK. Only about five percent (5%) of people in the UK attend church on Sundays, and the trend in the US is moving in that same direction.

Into the vacuum that is growing with nones in the US are rushing other objects of our religious impulses. This seems to be the focus of the book, analyzing the places religious impulses are taking modern Americans as they drift away from Christianity.

If Protestantism that has dominated the religious landscape in the US in the past is a religion of the printed book, the new spiritual movements in the US are “religions of the Internet”. That remark certainly doesn’t surprise me, though I had not thought of it that way.

The Internet is larger than life in our world. It has replaced encyclopedias and asking our parents (or even your doctors) for information. It eats up our spare time more completely than the television did in my youth and the radio did in my father’s youth.

The Internet is everywhere. It never leaves our sides. We turn to it feverishly at all hours of the day and night. We can’t wait to communicate with it, and we constantly check it for validation through its communication with us.

Chris Smart, summarizing Burton’s observations, describes our preoccupation with the Internet as a search for transcendence in which people are “looking to create meaning, purpose and community through new rituals”. Those “modern rituals” are exploited and perpetuated by big business.

Some of the largest big businesses are the purveyors of community and connectivity on the Internet. They help to lead people with the breadcrumbs of their own preferences to tribes that are personally tailored for them. Our new temples are the echo chambers of our own inclinations and the tribes to which they tend to lead.

Burton identifies the movements gaining cultural traction, which may not be a comprehensive list. They include the wellness movement, the occult, the sexual revolution, social justice and transhumanism.

The $4 trillion wellness movement provides “energy and packaged rituals combining health, exercise and spirituality”. Cross fit, yoga, running and other varieties offer new rites premised “on fulfilling individual desires where it is all about finding the best you”.

The occult continues from distant ages past to offer an alternative to more traditional spirituality. The loose knit community of New Age experimenters of the past are giving way to a more organized and “deeply politicized Wiccan religion”, says Smart.

The sexual revolution continues from the less distant past, thanks to my generation (the Baby Boomers). The sexual revolution is more about personal choice than ever before, down to choosing from a dizzying variety of genders. Authenticity has become the ultimate standard of what is right in the sexual revolution, and “negotiation is the only constraint”, says Smart.

I find it noteworthy that the author exposes a “growing loneliness that this revolution is birthing” that can be discerned in her own personal concern. The ultimate question is whether they can satisfy. The proof will be in the individual puddings: Do they offer the fulfillment of their promise?“

The haunting necessity of hope” seems to explain the movements of social justice and the “Silicon Valley, techno–utopian” ideal, according to Smart. Hope dogs us even as we lift the restrains of more traditional hopes.

Though many people have turned from the hope of Christianity in the last generation to “the blind, pitiless indifference” of Richard Dawkins and his cohort, the human longing for hope is not disquieted by the apparent nihilism of the New Atheists. The tensions intrigues me.

Each of new religious rituals and devotions are hyper experiential in their tenets and practices. Concepts of objective truth and morality are overshadowed in the new spirituality by individualized truth and morality.

These things seem discordant (to me) with the embrace of the New Atheist view. While the New Atheists have aided modern generations in throwing off the perceived shackles of Christianity, it seems quite at odds with modern sensibilities about personal truth, nonbiological categories of gender and a kind of hyper moralistic rejection of the idea of objective truth and a God in which objective truth might be anchored.

That modern Americans can hold onto the blind pitiless indifference of the New Atheists together with the far-from-indifferent-moralism that demands tolerance of all perceived truth (regardless of the truth inherent in it) is a curiosity. The high lip service paid to science seems at odds with the little care we seem to have about truth as it relates to people on a personal level.

We can champion, “It’s science!”, without a qualm about being incongruent in the way we defend individual identify. Love your neighbor is replaced with the command to tolerate everyone (except for anyone who believes that objective truth applies at an individual level).

To be fair, too many people who have traditionally called themselves Christian have failed miserably in the department of loving th, but will the substitutes prove to have any substance?

Another substitute to loving your neighbor is the “the passion, the theology, the evangelism of the social justice movement”. The social justice movement is every bit as religious as the Christianity it seeks to replace, down to the rituals, the sacred texts, the dogma, and its equivalent for salvation.

Social justice informed by critical race theory is a “committed ideology” that rejects Christianity and its concept of the ills and solutions to those ills in the world. Casting reality into the paradigm of a power struggle, the only things that matter are who has the power, and who doesn’t.

CRT clothes the powerless with a moral imperative to overthrow the powerful, while the powerful are relegated to moral impotency. If the powerless succeed in that moral imperative, the struggle continues anew as the formerly powerful take on the mantle of moral superiority in their newfound powerlessness. (These are my thoughts, not Burton’s or Smart’s.)

The last tribe Burton identifies (if I am reading Smart accurately) are transhumanists whose mecca is the Silicon Valley.  Burton describes transhumanism as “the Californian Ideology which, ‘promiscuously combines the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies… through a profound faith in the emancipatory potential of the new information technologies.”

Transhumanism is a “digital utopia” in which “everybody will be both hip and rich”. Except for those who aren’t, it seems to me. Much wealth is being poured into everything from Artificial Intelligence to cryogenics to enhance humans to defeat death and prolong life, but wealth is also necessary, therefore, to have access.

The goal of extending human life also seems to assume that a longer life is worth living. I am not sure we can (or should) assume that.

According to Burton, “The final tribe is the online world of single white, angry men….” She might be right in this assessment. “As modern life is not going their way, they look more to the past for answers. But they see this as only attainable by humanity first going through an apocalyptic scenario such as fills our cinema screens.”

If our modern tribes are religions of the Internet, this group seems to qualify. If we want to stretch the idea that far, I imagine the number of “tribes” is likely to grow.

I can think of at least one other tribe. They are true believers, the people are truly born again, who know the cost and the value of laying down their lives and picking up their crosses as disciples of Jesus. They may not be as many as they once appeared (see the angry white man tribe), but the remnant lives on.

Smart similarly notes some missing tribes. Burton apparently focuses on middle class American culture, while ignoring immigrant America. Smart observes that the tribe of American immigrants tends to be more traditional – whether in its Catholicism, Pentecostalism, or Islam. This tribe (or these tribes) may increasingly gain number, status and influence as the other tribes are growing relatively more slowly than the immigrant (and may be shrinking in the other direction).

I have added a little commentary here, not having the benefit of the actual analysis from Burton. I may be reading too much (or too little) in to her analysis.

The main point, regardless of whether my thoughts or Smart’s thoughts on the matter, is that Americans have not lost their religious tendencies. Even the atheist tribe (which may or may not be separate from the other tribes) find life difficult without manufacturing their own purpose and seeking their own communities with their own rituals and dogmas.

This religious tendency is deeply embedded in the human psyche and does not die easily. As the book trailer says:

In Strange Rites, Tara Isabella Burton takes a tour through contemporary American religiosity. As the once dominant totems of civic connection and civil discourse–traditional churches–continue to sink into obsolescence, people are looking elsewhere for the intensity and unity that religion once provided. We’re making our own personal faiths….

Some might rue the ground lost by Christianity in the United States, lamenting at the same time the secularization of the Western World – as if the West were the chosen people now wandering in the desert. Whether any truth attaches to that notion, I think that “dissipation” by “God’s chosen people”, by the seven churches who received warning in Revelation, by God’s elect, is (perhaps) inevitable.

God cultivated Israel to preserve a remnant, a stump out of which (and into which) God became man and became the Savior of the world. His own didn’t receive him, but to all who did (and do) receive him, he is the Light of the World, Living Water, the Bread of Life.

Jesus said: “Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.” It was true then, and it is true now. It was true of the people of Israel that many were the people who grumbled in the desert, and many are the people today who would rather return to Egypt than follow God to the promised land.

The deeply-seated urging of the human heart is a religious one, but it competes with the equally deeply-seated desire of the human heart to be free from the impositions of a Creator God. We want our cake and to eat it too, and we want it on our own terms.

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