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Book Review: Strange Rites by Tara Isabella Burton

September 24th, 2020 | 10 min read

By Henry George

Matthew Arnold mourned the long withdrawing roar of faith in the 19th century. Fin de siècle European culture moved to the rhythm of Nietzsche’s poetry-by-jackhammer that proclaimed the death of God and the rule of the value-less Last Man. The lack of religion was taken as a sign of man’s advancement into his own destiny of mastery, over himself, the earth and life itself by the progressive politics of 20th century modernism. The idea that religion as traditionally understood was on the way out and man had no need of a replacement was seemingly taken for granted, and all that remained was for the Four Horsemen of the atheist apocalypse to ride into the fortress of faith and rhetorically disembowel any remaining resistance.

Tara Isabella Burton brings us back down to earth by redirecting us towards the metaphysical. In her book Strange Rites: New Religion for a Godless World she anatomizes through lucid and expressive prose the new bodies of faith growing from the barren soil of godless postmodernity. Those of the younger generations, Millennial and Gen-Z, are supposedly the most secular. And indeed, these cohorts have seen a momentous rise in those without religious belief, the famous rise of the ‘nones.’ Burton looks past narratives of progressive triumph and conservative tragedy to the spiritual eddies that are moving beneath the statistical surface, and what she reveals is a fascinating insight into how young people find meaning in a God-free world.

Writing in an American context increasingly applicable across the Western world, Burton argues in matter-of-fact style that there has been rapid growth in those calling themselves “spiritual but not religious.” This in turn partners with the rise of what Burton calls “remixed religions.” These are syncretic mixtures of various traditions, picked over and chosen by the atomised, autonomous agents of modern culture, “shaped by the twin forces of a creative-communicative internet and consumer capitalism.” Conforming to our culture of therapeutic feeling that subdues reality to its will, Burton calls these new religions “intuitional.”

This means “that their sense of meaning is based in narratives that simultaneously reject clear-cut creedal metaphysical doctrines and institutional hierarchies and place the locus of authority on people’s experiential emotions, what you might call gut instinct.” These new religions are rooted, according to Burton, in 19th and 20th century movements of Transcendentalism, Spiritualism and Quimby’s New Thought. The feelings-led, destructive narcissism of the 60’s had its roots in this very American setting, and is still around. It is now refracted through the ever-present desire for significance above the humdrum of our dull daily, 21st century lives.

As Mark Lilla wrote in The Once and Future Liberal, these intuitional faiths embody what he describes as “a pseudo-political and distinctly American rhetoric of the feeling self and its struggle for recognition.” As he points out, these have “turned out to be not all that different from Reagan’s anti-political rhetoric of the producing self and its struggle for profit” in their atomised individualism.

What qualifies as a religion? This is a question that has vexed scores of social thinkers and philosophers for centuries. Burton, taking inspiration from thinkers like Emil Durkheim, posits that religion comprises and satisfies the need for community, meaning, purpose and ritual. For her, religion encompasses beliefs and practices that “both individually and societally give us a sense of our world, our place in it, and our relationships to the people around us.”

Man is a religious creature, and the religious impulse never dies, but is simply redirected into other belief systems and structures. It is interesting though that Burton doesn’t extend her investigation into whether truth claims actually matter, and whether this then applies to these new faiths of the feckless.

Burton looks at the intuitional faiths apparently inherent to fandom culture rooted in Harry Potter, the wellness movement, feminist oriented occultism, the social justice movement, technolibertarian utopian rationalism, and the dark atavism of the racial essentialist online right. Some of what Burton describes is extraordinarily trite to any outsider, such as the obsessions of the aforementioned wellness culture, with their emphasis on “self-care”, proclaiming a “moral responsibility to take care of ourselves first before directing any attention to others.”

Meanwhile Burton’s discussion of the sense of community and purpose some progressives gain from witchcraft and occult circles travels into the bizarre and creepy. Even so, she discusses all of this with an understanding borne of clear-eyed sympathy for where these longing to belong come from, even if she finally disagrees with the results.

All of these express a desire for meaning and purpose by looking to one’s own physical essence, direction found in the rhythms and movements of one’s own existence, quite literally in the case of fitness and wellness culture. One’s own will is all that’s necessary to decide what is right and good, the north-star towards which we walk. Looking inward, gazing at one’s navel is the main focus of these intuitional religions.

The constant drumbeat of self-centered care and introspection is the perfect partner to the soulless mirror of the online world. As Burton writes, “if wellness culture centers the perfectibility of the body as the locus of personal spiritual growth, then sexual utopianism takes that corporeality to its logical conclusion . . . why shouldn’t sexuality be the place for us to access not just pleasure but meaning and purpose?” The self, drained of its soul, is commoditized and packaged for endless commerce.

Burton is arguably right that the Social Justice movement is the most developed in its formation as a new religious movement. It has its own rituals, provides communities to discreet oppressed identities, gives a sense of purpose in campaigning to overthrow the oppressive societal structures (all of them), and gives people meaning to their lives while they do so. The protests and upheavals following George Floyd’s killing, some only tangentially related to the unjust death of a black man, speak to this vision of Social Justice as a new faith for those who feel dispossessed. And yet, the vision provided by Social Justice prevents true commonality of purpose. As Lilla puts it, “Only those with an approved identity status are, like shamans, allowed to speak on certain matters.”

Meanwhile, in contrast, Burton’s last chapter, “The Twilight of the Chads,” considers those on the other side of this divide. The discussion of what Burton calls the “atavist” masculinist right gets to something important about the new, biological essentialist right that has grown up online in the last few years. Led by personalities with names like Bronze Age Pervert, this loose grouping presents itself as the antithesis of the pathetic, bug-like Last Men of the shallow and softly-suffocating End of History. If the other intuitional faiths preach harmlessness, the atavists proclaim their hardness, danger and potential for conflict and conquest, in matters sexual as well as political.

Burton is right to paint this uprising in this way. The cod-Nietzschean style of these people is communicated through internet-pidgin, expressing nihilistic irony. However, she goes too far in lumping Jordan Peterson into this, misreading his use of evolutionary biology as a means to remind us of the limits to utopian dreams given man’s immutable nature. Burton also ignores Peterson’s emphasis on suffering inherent to life, and the importance of embodying truth as means to mitigate this.

Further, Burton misrepresents the views of the right-wing site Jacobite, calling it far-right, despite the fact it isn’t. She claims it is laudatory of Bronze Age Pervert’s book Bronze Age Mindset. If one reads the review from which Burton’s out-of-context quote is wrenched, it is plainly an ironic critique. Added to this, saying that the centre-right neoliberal site Quillette is part of the atavist movement because it features articles on evolutionary biology and psychology is a reach too far. These are two small examples, but which matter, nonetheless. Burton’s case is weakened by this lumping together of disparate factions under one banner and the use of elision and misrepresentation to achieve this. This is an unfortunate degeneration in intellectual honesty towards the end of the book.

Having finished the book, I was still left feeling dissatisfied at what is apparently on offer today in the void left by what used to be called Christendom. The novelist Michel Houellebecq is the greatest diagnostician of our modern malaise. Strange Rites felt like an anthropology of Houellebecq’s Godless world revealed through the transcendent-in-immanent form of his fiction. In book after book, as Micah Meadowcroft argues, Houellebecq reveals to us that what is left in the silence after the long withdrawing roar of faith fades into the night is just us, lost in a materialist nowhere with nothing to aim for.

The logical conclusion of this is an exclusive emphasis on our physical form, and at bottom for Houellebecq this means carnal desire, divorced from its live-giving potential, thereby drained of life’s joy. Even if this isn’t the extreme many of these movement descend to, Houellebecq gets at the emptiness so many feel and can’t seem to fill, even if they can be bothered to try. In some sense, one could argue that the emphasis on movement in the wellness movement, transcending our physical form in the technolibertarian scene, and the centrality of sanctified identity on the woke left and atavist right is an embodiment of the Houellebecqian horror of the material. It is a way to distract from and overcome the otherwise bottomless meaninglessness of life that would present itself.

Religion’s root, religare, means a binding together. Glaes Ryn argues in his work that some conservatives get lost in a kind of pretentious idealism, lost among abstractions with no connection to the concrete particular, their drive to act in the world sapped into passivity. This is the opposite of the obsessive focus Burton’s characters feel for their own particular existence. The coming together in faith central to Christianity means a certain blurring of the boundaries between ourselves and others, gathered in communion with each other and God. As embodied by the figure of Christ himself, the particulars of our lives are oriented towards the universality of God Himself.

The particular and the universal point towards and reinforce each other. The new religions, if this is even the right word, fail in this. There is nothing outside of ourselves that illuminates and is illuminated by our individual experiences. Instead we fall back on our own private reserves of will and choice. In the end, as Justin Lee writes, choice based entirely on one’s own will and lacking all connection to God has become the only point of life. In other words, what connects these new faiths and liberals like Lilla is nihilism. The will to power pulsates through these arbitrary manifestations of self-obsessed will, just as it does in the critiques of liberal individualists like Lilla.

The individualism that tore apart the ties of communities and culture, and which helped erode the bonds between man and God, is in no way alleviated by the religions Burton describes. Indeed, they feed on this nihilism and entrench it further. This is the tragedy of these faiths of the self: in an attempt to find succour against the vicissitudes of life and the void of meaninglessness all around, their adherents only serve to isolate themselves further, even more cut-off than they already were from the hope of attaining a view of the common good that ultimately rests in the promise of redemption in God. The fact that Burton fails to articulate and explore this is a significant failing and disappointment.

Despite this, Burton’s book remains an important introduction to the new world of belief developing among the young, and embedded by the elites in culture, the corporate world and managerial government. Each grouping represents an effort to start from scratch in the ruins of our culture, the only way to realise the Gnostic goal of heaven on earth warned against by Eric Voegelin. If these remixed, intuitional belief systems, marinated in self-obsession, self-pity and resentment at reality itself are the new civic religions of our Western societies, then we should not expect what is left of our societies to survive very long. This newly religious world is now ours to contend with, whether we like it or not.

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