The United States has seen an increase in the so-called “nones”—people who don’t identify with any religious tradition. Some scholars have viewed this growing group as a sign that Americans are becoming more secular. Tara Isabella Burton argues in her new book, Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, that this notion is misguided. Burton takes a closer look at the lives of ostensibly non-religious people and finds that, even if they don’t identify with a religious tradition, there can still be a strong spiritual undercurrent to their lives. Her book takes readers through a number of spiritual subcultures, including among the followers of SoulCycle, Jordan Peterson, and witchcraft.
Burton writes a column for Religion News Service called “Religion Remixed.” She is a contributing editor at The American Interest and a former religion reporter at Vox. She is also the author of the novel, Social Creature. Kenneth E. Frantz spoke to Burton about her new book by phone. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Religion & Politics: In your book, you talk about the religiously remixed. Who are they and why did you consider them important to write about?
Tara Isabella Burton: I think that traditional conceptions of secularization in America have looked at the religiously unaffiliated as an indicator that America is getting less religious. That is actually not the case. About 72 percent of the religiously unaffiliated say they believe in some sort of higher power. About 17 percent say they believe in the Judeo-Christian god. In addition, you have people who affiliate with religious tradition—i.e. self-identified Christians—whose belief systems, structures, practices, and rituals are a little bit more eclectic. Almost 30 percent of self-identified Christians, for example, say they believe in reincarnation, which traditionally would not be something you would associate with orthodox Christian doctrine.
In talking about remixing, what I wanted to capture was this phenomenon I see as much more salient than so-called secularization, which is the way in which spirituality, meaning, purpose, community, and ritual are all divorced both from traditional religious observance and from one another. You might get your sense of meaning from one place and purpose from one place and community from a different place and so on and so forth. This kind of mix-and-match mentality, this anti-institutionalism, and desire to remake one’s own religious life in a more individualized way—all of these things I call together the phenomenon of remixing.
R&P: In your book you mentioned three categories of remixers. Could you get into those?
TIB: These categories aren’t mutually exclusive. They come from different forms of polling and data. You have your faithful “nones”—your people who say they are religiously unaffiliated but also say they believe in a higher power. You have your people who self-identify as spiritual but not religious. What’s interesting about that group is there are people who say that they’re spiritual but not religious but will also say “but I’m Christian” or “but I’m Jewish.” They might be affiliated with a religion, but they don’t call themselves religious, which itself opens up a field of questions. What does it mean to be religious? What does it mean to belong to a religion? What does it mean to identify as part of a religion and then also say you’re not religious? So that’s another can of worms.
The final can of worms is what I call the religious hybrids. These are people who do identify strongly with a religious tradition but who—as in the case of the Christians and reincarnation— have a personal theological outlook that is more eclectic than traditional orthodox theology. We don’t have good enough data to tell the overlap between these people because these are different polling systems. But, when we take it all together, what we can see is that a huge proportion of religious and not explicitly religious Americans fall into these categories. They are people whose approach to spirituality, whose approach to their religious life, is informed by this sense of individualization, by this sense of intuitionalism and anti-institutionalism. To put it very bluntly and reductionistically, they’re making their own religion in some sense.
R&P: How did the internet and our consumerist mentality bring about modern religious remixing?
TIB: There are three major elements that I would point to in looking at the way internet culture led to our modern religiously remixed culture. The first is the development of a kind of tribalization that transcended geographic limitations. The idea that you could seek out people who were like you, who thought like you, and share your desires and your goals, without those things being based in your geographic community. That fostered a different way of thinking about gathering and tribe based on affinity interest rather than on, perhaps one might say, a fixed point. Secondly, I think there’s the idea rooted in consumer capitalism that our choices define us. What we buy and what we consume can be indicative in how we build our personality. The internet has made this all the more possible, especially as various algorithms determine what news we see and what movies are suggested to us. The narrower an affinity base becomes, so too our approach to spirituality becomes something that should work for us and work for our choices, or so the prevailing cultural ethos goes. Thirdly and finally, I think the internet culture of user-generated content, where we are not just passive consumers but active creators—whether it’s making memes or posting on Twitter—has lent itself to a more participatory and polyphonic understanding of spiritual life. Again, there’s a hunger for ownership; we don’t want to passively consume a text but rather kind of write our own.
A phenomenon that I think is sort of an early canary in the coal mine for all of these tendencies is the rise of internet fandom. I’ll just give you the example of the Harry Potter fandom which is the one I focus on my book. Between 1997 and 2000, which is when the first through fourth books of the Harry Potter series came out, internet household usage went from 19 million Americans to a 100 million. A huge increase. Around that time, Harry Potter became the forefront not just of a phenomenon but a phenomenon that took on an internet form: the development of fan groups, of fanfiction. J.K. Rowling was among the first writers to publicly embrace fanfiction, which in turn kind of made Harry Potter fanfic its own thing. And again, fanfiction was not new; fan culture was not new. Among Star Trek fans, for example, it had been going on since the 70s. But online, the cost of entry was lower. It was easier to find it and get involved. The idea that if you didn’t like something that the author did, you could create your own story. You could make Harry Potter end up with Hermione Grainger if that’s what you wanted. This sense of creative ownership and freedom over ideas—rather than the idea that you were just receiving passively from on high the text and the story as it really was—was I think hugely formative.
R&P: In the book, you talk about how people are saying J.K. Rowling no longer owns the Harry Potter world.
TIB: More recently, as J.K. Rowling has alienated a lot of her fans through her transphobic views, the response has not been, “Let’s not read Harry Potter.” Some people have said that, but the predominant response has been, “She doesn’t own Hogwarts. These characters are ours. We can still write stories set in Hogwarts. Maybe don’t give this woman any more money. Don’t buy tickets to ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,’ but these characters, this world, belongs to us, and it’s J.K. Rowling whom we want to exile from Hogwarts rather than boycott.”
What’s to stop us from taking a similar approach of ownership of reimagining to sacred texts, to sacred stories? What does it mean to reimagine religious traditions in the same way? And that is the move that gets us from fan culture more broadly to its relevance for spirituality more specifically.
R&P: There’s this distrust of institutional religion and drawing guidance more from your gut. You call this “intuitional religion” in your book. Would you mind talking about the history of how that came about?
TIB: I’d say it’s more of a pendulum than a linear progression. This is very distinctive to American religious life. There are a variety of reasons. You could cite the separation of church and state. You can cite the sort of inherent inwardness of the Protestant tradition. You could cite the kind of cultural sense of freedom in America geographically and its novelty. There are many reasons for this, but in American religious history, there have always been waves of a kind of calcification of tradition and the development of civic institutions around religion. Your church as a center of civic as well as religious life—and backlash movements against that.
The rhetoric throughout many centuries has been very similar. It’s been something along the lines of: Those people going to church on Sunday and sitting in their pews are just going along with the motions. They don’t really believe it. There’s no real inward intensity to it. What we need is to restore a kind of emotional connection to the divine. You find that rhetoric in both Christian and non-Christian or Christian-adjacent versions of this. You find this certainly in the Great Awakenings with your tent revivals and your Methodist circuit riders. You find it too in the philosophy of the transcendentalists like Emerson or Thoreau with their focus on the individual spiritual experience over and against that of society. You find it in pop culture crazes of the nineteenth century like New Thought and Spiritualism. And you find it in the rise of contemporary evangelical American culture as well as in our modern kind of internet-based great awakening. In each case, the pendulum swings from religion as a cohesive social force, one that is about community and structure to religion as a kind of inward source of personal connection with the divine. Those things have always existed in tension, I would argue, in American culture up to and including today—with the difference today being that late capitalism and the internet have kind of kicked this phenomenon into overdrive.
R&P: You write about many different groups, including Harry Potter fans, wellness gurus, witches, and Jordan Peterson fans. What do these groups have in common and why did you choose to write about these groups in particular?
TIB: I will say there are so many groups I left out and that the difficulty with a book like this is I didn’t even get to QAnon or other conspiracy theories or anti-vaxxers. There’s so much I could have written about and I just didn’t have the space to. That said, what I wanted to capture in selecting these groups was to look at […] the most prevalent examples of new religions that people may have heard of, or encountered, and not really thought of in a religious way. So, looking at the things that have most permeated American cultural fabric and then analyze their religious character rather than talk about perhaps more intense but smaller groups with less media presence.
What all of these groups have in common is they are groups that have been galvanized by the internet. They are groups that want to rewrite the scripts or rewrite the rules of being. There’s a focus on internal desire. What do you want? What do you hunger for? There’s a sense that the establishment of society at large is dangerous insofar as it stops you from achieving your truest self or being your most authentic self. All of these qualities, which I think are embedded in contemporary American culture, I felt I could explore in the most nuanced way possible through turning a more specific lens to these groups.