Religion – or more precisely formal, institutional religion – is facing a crisis in the USA. The number of religiously unaffiliated (or ‘nones’ as Burton labels them) are creeping up: 15 per cent of Americans said they didn’t affiliate with any church in 2007. By 2012, that figure stood at 20 per cent and rising. But here’s the catch: they aren’t turning their backs on faith. Rather, according to Tara Isabella Burton, Americans are now experiencing a new spiritual awakening, that’s powered, as Protestantism was by the printing press, by the growth of internet culture.
In Strange Rites, Tara Isabella Burton chronicles the rise of ‘intuitional’ spirituality, mapping out the new roles of hexing, horoscopes and pseudo-haematology on the USA’s religious landscape. Mixing reportage with her own experiences, Burton traces the recent formation of the ‘religiously remixed’ – those who don’t affiliate with any formalised religion, but still believe in higher powers, a sense of ‘spiritual peace and well-being’, psychics, reincarnation and astrology.
Neatly arguing that what once might have been perceived as the death of religion is actually a reshaping, Burton looks for modern gods in the communities of SoulCycle, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, social justice movements, hyper-masculine alt-lite Reddit groups and polyamorous practitioners. Americans – she claims – are searching for alternative belief systems and finding them online.
It’s a concrete argument which only falters when Burton’s tone creeps towards desperate while discussing the stranger rituals of modern-day witches and occult obsessives. It would have been informative too, to hear directly from the introduced communities rather than the heavy reliance on second-hand sources, but that’s a small complaint. This is a fascinating insight into the changing landscape of America’s ever-broiling religious structures.