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9 September 2020

How millennials turned away from religion and embraced new lifestyle cults

From Harry Potter to wellness to astrology, Tara Isabella Burton argues that young people are not abandoning faith but reinventing it to suit their own lifestyles.

By Alice Robb

A prolific LiveJournal blogger believes that the Hogwarts potions master Severus Snape is her personal saviour. A Brooklyn boutique owner lights phallus-shaped candles and hosts a mass hexing of the Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh. A masochist finds transcendence in hardcore BDSM.

A record number of Americans say they have no religion, and a glance at the data may suggest that spirituality is becoming obsolete. Recent surveys show “religious Nones” overtaking evangelical Christians as the biggest religious demographic in the US; they account for almost one in four American adults and almost 40 per cent of those born after 1990. Even rites of passage that have long drawn the secular back into the fold – at least temporarily – no longer exert the same pull. In 2017, just 22 per cent of US weddings took place in houses of worship – down from 41 per cent in 2009.

But look closer, and a more complicated picture emerges. In Strange Rites, the novelist and scholar Tara Isabella Burton explores a curious paradox: 72 per cent of Americans who tell pollsters they have no religion also say that they believe in “something”, including almost half who regularly talk to a higher power and a similar number who trust a spiritual force to protect them in life.

Burton argues that young people are not abandoning religion but reinventing it to suit their own lifestyles – “mixing and matching spiritual and aesthetic and experiential and philosophical traditions”, from Buddhism to wellness to astrology, into a diverse set of “remixed” faiths and practices. They might burn sage in the morning and pray to God in the afternoon, unfazed by the historic incompatibility of witchcraft with Christianity. “As we increasingly consume our religious information the way we do the rest of our media – curated, like our Facebook feeds – so, too, does our religious ‘feed’ become increasingly bespoke,” she writes. If Protestantism is “the ultimate religion of the printed book” then the Remixed faiths are “religions of the internet” – cohering around niche interests and beliefs, indifferent to physical location.

Millennials are comfortable charting their own path: three-quarters of young adults and two-thirds of “religious Nones” endorse the statement: “Whatever is right for your life or works best for you is the only truth you can know.” Allergic to doctrine and the idea of absolute truth, they value personal experience over expertise and emotional authenticity above all.

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Yet their scepticism of authority hasn’t diminished their need to belong – to feel a part of something bigger, higher than themselves. “The ‘Remixed’ hunger for the same things human beings have always longed for: a sense of meaning in the world and personal purpose within that meaning, a community to share that experience with, and rituals to bring the power of that experience into achievable, everyday life,” Burton writes. She analyses how various modern cliques and trends – including New Age thought, fitness, Harry Potter super-fandom and polyamory – satiate these desires.

Take Harry Potter, the source text for one of the most passionate internet-based fan communities. For countless millennials, JK Rowling’s stories offered much more than entertainment: they offered a set of (progressive) values, a moralised way of looking at the world and of categorising others (Gryffindors and Slytherins; good and evil.) “Fandom, both as a practice and as a marker of identity, is at its core a kind of self-making: it’s not just about what we like but who we are. Identifying oneself publicly as a fan… is a public commitment to a tribe and a tribal identity.”

Burton has the rare ability to break down academic concepts in a way that is neither simplistic nor dry; to toggle between hard data, evocative scene-setting and historical anecdotes. And the relevance of her subject matter is undeniable. Even those of us who don’t consult horoscopes or post on fan- fiction forums can’t avoid them. Urban Outfitters sells magic spell books and “witch hat incense holders”; Google hosts silent “mindful lunches”. I have been questioned by well-meaning friends about the star sign of a new love interest and asked at a party in Brooklyn for my birth time.

While the critiques in some of Burton’s earlier chapters feel familiar – I am aware that celebrities can inspire intense devotion and that health brands make quasi-magical claims – her arguments coalesce, in the later chapters, in a compelling explanation for the potency of certain new political ideologies.

On the left, she writes, social justice culture offers “a unified system of ideals and practices as deeply intertwined as any traditional organised religion”; a world-view according to which “the Goliaths of society that must be struck down are racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry and injustice”. Activists gather in sacred “safe spaces” and participate in bonding rituals, such as collectively “calling out” social-justice sinners on Twitter. On the libertarian right, meanwhile, Californian techno-utopianism locates “the source of moral evil” not in society but in “the body: those mortal meat sacks and shifty synapses that keep us from achieving our full and fully rational potential”. Silicon Valley ideologues dream of defying death through intergenerational blood transfusions and cryogenic freezing. Adherents of both groups are even less likely than their peers to subscribe to a traditional religion. Half of all tech employees identify as atheist or agnostic; social justice activists are twice as likely as the average American to say that they never pray.

Is the “spiritual-but-not-religious” phenomenon uniquely American? Burton suggests that the American separation of church and state may have paved the way for the individual, sometimes private practices of the “Remixed”. And compared to Brits, Americans are still practically pious:  more than half of adults in the UK, and 70 per cent of those under 30, are religiously unaffiliated. Brits are much more comfortable calling themselves atheist: one in four British people admit they don’t believe in God, vs only 4 per cent of Americans.

Correspondingly, the UK hasn’t embraced wellness – perhaps the most mainstream of the American new “religions” – with the same zeal. When the first SoulCycle studio opened in London, a British millennial chronicled a week’s worth of classes for the Independent. She cringed at the instructor’s earnest affirmations (“Chase the light”, “Never apologise for who you are”) and ignored his instructions to fist-bump and high-five her fellow cyclists. There are still only two SoulCycle locations in the UK, compared to 91 in North America.

But the longing for meaning and purpose is not national; it is universal. And as the coronavirus crisis drags on and people around the world are forced to confront their mortality, many are turning to religion. Bible sales and Google searches for “prayer” are on the rise. At the same time, physical gatherings are suspended; services are streaming online. The line between traditional religions and “religions of the internet” is blurrier than ever. 

Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World
Tara Isabella Burton 
Public Affairs, 320pp, £20