Photo: Steven Ferdman / Getty Images for Harry Potter And The Cursed Child
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Tara Isabella Burton on America’s new religions

The story about the decline in organised religion in America is well-established: emptying pews, growing secularism. But, while it’s true that American churches are emptier than they were a few decades ago, the spiritual and religious lives of non-churchgoing Americans are considerably more complicated than you might think. In her new book Strange Rites, journalist and novelist Tara Isabella Burton explores what these Americans really believe and reports back with some surprising findings. From Soulcycle classes and Goop facemasks to social justice movements and the atavists of the alt-right, the evidence, according to Tara, suggests we live in a much more religious age than most people realise. “America’s religious landscape is teeming with new claimants to our sense of meaning, our social place, our time, and our wallets,” she writes.

I recently spoke to Tara about her new book and started by asking her about the surprisingly central role of Harry Potter in her argument about modern America. Here is an edited version of our conversation

I want to start with Harry Potter, which is — perhaps surprisingly — central to the argument you make in the book, so, as an introduction to your broader thesis, what does Harry Potter have to do with America’s new religions?

It’s funny. When Harry Potter first came out in the nineties, there was a flurry American Christian voices saying ‘This book promotes witchcraft. There’s going to be a whole new religious movement devoted to Harry Potter books.’ In the way they meant it, that was absolutely not true. But I think that there was something to it in terms of an inadvertent change to the religious landscape.

What Harry Potter did, or, more accurately, what it was the canary in the coal mine for, was a transformation, linked to the rise of at-home internet access, in how we talk about cultural properties andhow we relate to cultural properties. The transition to an internet space defined by user-generated content and what is often called participatory culture coincided with the publication of the Harry Potter books.

Between the first Harry Potter book’s release in 1997 and the fourth book’s publication in 2000 we went from 19 million Americans with internet access to more than 100 million. It’s that backdrop that really explains the shift. You did have fan cultures before. There were Star Wars conventions, for example, but there was quite a high bar to entry. You had to get on the right mailing list and it was done via post. It was quite a lot of work. You couldn’t just log on and enter a community, which is really what could happen with Harry Potter fandom.

J.K. Rowling was also one of the first major writers to openly accept and embrace fan fiction. So what you ended up seeing was something that started with Harry Potter fandom that then became an element of fandom online more broadly which in turn, I would argue, shaped millennial-and-younger culture. It was this idea that you weren’t just a reader of consumer of texts. It wasn’t just a top down hierarchical thing. Instead, mediated through the anonymity of the internet, you a kind of tribalism from talking to people in different geographical areas as well as things like fan fiction and later meme culture that meant you could change, shift, reimagine a text in your own way. And what’s so interesting about that is that sensibility — the sensibility that we have not only the right but the responsibility, the authority as consumers to also be creators, to rework ideas outside of existing texts — has spilled over into all aspects of our political life and of our religious life. And that is really something that is the product of user generated content and the internet.

To bring this to religion more specifically, 36 per cent of Americans born after 1985 are religiously unaffiliated, compared to about 23 per cent of the national average. That’s a huge generational shift in religious affiliation and organisation. That is not the same thing as saying that these are atheists or that these people are not religious. Some 72 per cent of them say they believe in some sort of higher power. About 17 per cent say they believe in the Judaeo-Christian God.

We’re in a religious or spiritual landscape that privileges mixing and matching, and unbundling — a bit of tarot here, a bit of meditation there. And a resistance to institutional and authoritative declarations in terms of how religion should be practised is very much something that has its roots in internet culture, of which Harry Potter was a forerunner.

So much of this is an internet thing, but the idea of mixed and informal religions is, as you write in the book, also something very old. If online fandom is the new bit, what did non-institutional religion look like in America before the internet?

Speaking particularly in an American context here, there’s always been this idea that your religious traditions, your community, your meaning, your rituals all fit together in a certain way: you grew up in a certain neighbourhood, you attended a certain house of worship, you might be friends or family, or meet your romantic partner through these communities. I think there’s a strong alliance at various points in American political and civic life particularly between mainline protestant Christianity and the corridors of power. There was a time, say in post-war America when, if you were to look at who’s who, nearly every influential politician or lawyer or doctor would be members of similar churches, often episcopal churches. And while this was a narrow view of power and power relations in America, it was a time when religious order and national order were at least nominally intertwined.

More broadly, this was a time of what I’d call institutionalism. But American religious history is sort of a pendulum. There have been times when religious institutions have been stronger and had a more public role in shaping their communities. And then there have been frequent anti-institutional turns when would be reformers say that people just go through the motions, that they go to church and sit in the pews but they don’t really believe it, that there’s no really emotive force there, that we’ve got to bring back that personal relationship. You see that in the rhetoric of Methodist circuit riders and the rhetoric of the First and Second Great Awakening, tent revivals, evangelical revivals. You see it too in non-Christian and non-typically religious movements like the cult of spiritualism, which was a big thing in 19th century New England and things like New Thought which was sort of a proto-self-help movement that believed you could manifest riches and wealth and health by picturing them in your mind. This became a wildly popular craze among the middle classes in 19th-century America. And all of these intuitional movements were conceived as opposition to what they saw as the failures of institutional religious structures.

Let’s take a caricature of the conversation about religion. The big debate that raged maybe 10 or 15 years ago, was between the New Athiests and organised religion. The framing among athiests was that there was this old world where formal religion ruled and that there’ll be a sort of spiritual end of history: we’re enlightened, we’re smart, well-educated and scientifically clued-up enough to know better. You’re saying that this caricature of the past was wrong, but also that their prediction of the future was wrong too. There’s a return of history theme to you book.

Absolutely. I think the idea of the disenchanted world is not at all what I would subscribe to. What we’re seeing is not the secularisation of the world or a move toward modernity but rather a kind of kaleidoscopic refraction of religious sentiment and perhaps a divorcing of senses of meaning, senses of purpose, emotive enchantment, communal identity. I see them very much within the paradigm of the internet, of technological shifts. I see it within the paradigm of what you might call late capitalism and the idea that our choices, our activities, our purchases define us and that there’s a sort of moral imperative and a moral power to our purchases such that our religious life is in part linked to what we buy, and how we consume. All of these things work together to create, in this sort of phantasmagoric 21st century, an atomisation of our various religious and spiritual identities. But that doesn’t mean that we are at all not religious or that we are disenchanted. We are just exploring enchantment differently.

I think usually when people talk about the religiosity of a lot of the things in your book, like Goop or Soulcycle for example, 98 per cent of the time they are either criticising or making fun of the people that use those products or services. Or maybe, if they are from an organised religion, they would argue that it were evidence of the hunger for organised religion in America. You’re making a more neutral point, aren’t you?

I definitely resist either the tendency to mock something as a cult, or the argument that it is just a pure sign of vacuousness. It’s important to think about the rise of these individualised and intuitional religions as part of a broader story of the failure of institutions. This is not a story about narcissistic millennials taking selfies. It is a story about mass public distrust, especially among young people, in religious leaders, the journalistic establishment, the medical establishment.

Faith in these institutions have fallen rapidly, and in that context it makes perfect sense that if you can’t rely on institutions, the most authoritative source of information about the world, spirituality etc is yourself. And you look inward. So I think a lot of wellness culture, or seemingly narcissistic religious sentiment is coming from mistrust and betrayal.

Some of these wellness brands are very much a ritualistic thing. But I think they are also doing something potentially more insidious because I do think there’s an implicit theology or set of spiritual assumptions in a lot of wellness culture. And it goes something like this: to be my best self is to be a good person, and that my goal is to maximise who I am. And I think that that sense of meaning and purpose — self-care and self-help as a goal — is as central to wellness culture as just the sort of feeling of community you get in a Soulcycle studio or the sense of ritual in your day.

That culture, for me, has deeply seeped into American capitalism as being a normative assumption. When we investigate it we can’t just see it as an odd phenomenon but also as a set of cultural and metaphysical assumptions about the nature of the good.

The part of your argument that is probably the most current is the relationship between these new religions and the so-called ‘Great Awokening’ or whatever you want to call the social justice movement making headlines at the moment. I’m interested: do you see what is happening as vindication of what you say about the religiosity of some people’s engagement in politics?

I think, as with wellness culture, when the conversation about the religious element of social justice culture comes to the forefront its generally a charge levelled at progressives by conservatives. ‘You’re all zealots. This is a cult.’ It is only meant as something that is bad. I do think this is a religion but I would definitely not say that pejoratively.

On the one hand we have a breakdown of public institutional trust, on the other we have a populist narrative of how we fix that. We fetishise authenticity, we fetishise self-care, we fetishise other forms of spirituality that are quite inward and quite nihilist. And I think it’s quite reductive. Social justice culture is quite ideologically diverse and not a monolith. I think it’s worth drawing a distinction between the corporate version of it and the grassroots, between the people and brands using their Instagram and Facebook accounts to post black squares and the people actually protesting. So I do want to make that distinction. But I do think that the idea of a search for solidarity and a search for a remade political world, for a kind of utopian vision of human cooperation and institutions that are reimagined, that work, I think so much of the force and effectiveness of social justice culture is first the recognition of very real and deeply felt injustice, but also the inability of the systems we have, particularly in the kind of neoliberal system that claims a certain neutrality, to address those concerns.

So I think the reason the social justice movement is so powerful is that it harnesses many different needs. It provides not just a sense community, not just a sense of ritual, not just a sense of purpose, but also a sense of how one might remake the world. And I think that’s a very powerful thing. If you’re options are an inward turn that just says I’m going to put on my nice expensive facemask and buy a candle and make myself feel good, or I’m going to involve myself in a political vision of a world that can be remade. One of those things, it seems to me, carries more metaphysical weight, more promise and more meaning than the other.

The question we need to be asking ourselves isn’t ‘are these people cultusts and isn’t that crazy?’ But ‘what is missing in terms of political work and moral and spiritual fulfilment that means this group is doing what it’s doing?’

But isn’t there a difference between political action motivated by a deep faith and conviction in the fact that something needs to change and a political movement that functions as a religion. The latter can come with serious hazards, can’t it?

I guess I wonder how, historically, those boundaries can ever be drawn. Once could just as easily say of Christianity — and I am a Christian — what do you really believe in? What do you just go along with everyone else as a creed? These are not questions that are easily separable from one another. And in some ways, I’m often reminded looking at the debates in social justice movements about language — sometimes quite heated debates — I am reminded of my background studying fourth century theological debates.

I think it’s probably fair to say, too, that there are people or companies that are going along with it because it is profitable to them and that their customers want to see “wokeness” from them. Vice’s sponsored content arm, which is called Virtue, did a 2018 study that found 50 per cent of millennials want a brand to reflect their values. It is true that the rhetoric of social justice, what is often pejoratively called wokeness, is something that brands have discovered, people have discovered, can be commodified. That is happening but I’m not sure that even then one could draw a distinction between that and any other religion or ideology or movement. You always had people back in the day in the pews whose relationship with religion was ‘Alright, I’ll say what I have to say and get to coffee hour’. I don’t know that you could draw those distinctions any more clearly when talking about social justice than you could when talking about any traditional organised religion.

So if the social justice movement does function as a religion, then those looking to argue with it, to have a debate with it, are missing the point aren’t they?

I would phrase it like this: there are starting principles and basic metaphysical assumptions underpinning the movement from which all other principles are drawn: principles about justice, principles about lived experience, about which it is difficult to argue in the same way that it would be very difficult to debate with a Christian whether or not God exists. And so I think rather than frame it as a debate with one group being rational and one being irrational, I would frame it as a debate where first principles are so different that the most fruitful form of communication would be making explicit and hammering out what those first principles are.

It’s true that without clearly establishing the underlying ideology, epistemology, the underlying metaphysics, it is very difficult to figure out whether you’re disagreeing on one issue because you’ve got two definitions of common sense or because you’re disagreeing about a basic question about how the world works. And I’m certainly interested in being party to debates over those first principles. To give an example to make it concrete: questions of neutrality in the New York Times opinion pages in the wake of the Tom Cotton op-ed. I think that one version of having the conversation is ‘Oh, those crazy social justice want to suppress free speech’. And one way of having the conversation is ‘Well, those horrible fascists are doing violence with language’. But I think the question of what is neutrality? Is neutrality possible? Do we think of words as violence? Why or why not? These are genuinely interesting questions and I think there is so much room there to have that conversation. But in order to do so, there needs to be an acknowledgment of social justice culture as a kind of religion, or for that matter to acknowledge neoliberalism as a kind of religion. That is to say that these world views rest on underpinnings that need to be clearly elucidated for conversations between and about them to be fruitful.

Sure, but once you get there — and maybe this is something I’d push back on a bit in terms of the argument you make in the book — what is the difference between a religion and an ideology? Aren’t you at risk of just seeing religion in everything and therefore stripping it of meaning?

But I think that is fine, and I say that in the book. There really isn’t one scholarly definition of religion. It’s a bit like pornography: you know it when you see it. Is it about symbolism? Is it about community? Do you need to have a belief in God? If you apply a certain lens there are even religions that are acknowledged as world religions that might not fall under that rubric. So the way I want to talk about religions is to talk about what provides meaning, what provides ritual, what provides community, and look at these elements of religious life and how they fit together. And I don’t necessarily think that you can easily draw neat boundaries between the religious and the ideological, or between the religious and the tribal and communitarian.

And so you think it would be a healthier way for society to see itself if we were comfortable with the fact that there was religiosity in more things than the church down the street, the synagogue around the corner and so on?

Yes, I mean I think that acknowledging the religious character even of modern liberalism, or of capitalism in terms of what we venerate, what we take for granted, what we think of as sacred even without the explicit sense of divine sanctity. I think that would be enormously enriching to the conversation to see religiosity in what we culturally otherwise assume to be neutral.

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