Living in a So-Called Secular Age

Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World

We’re living in a strange cultural moment when it comes to religious belief. Like everything else in American society, religion has become polarized. On the one side you have those who reject religion as an archaic holdover from when we sacrificed chickens to ensure a good harvest, on the other side you have the “true believers” who hold to pure, orthodox, religious belief (in all its variety). A closer look suggests something else—a messy middle. Over the past ten years or so research on the religious identity of Americans has said we’re becoming less religious. The “Nones”—the increasing number of people who select “none of the above” when it comes to religious affiliation—are coming. Some are freaking out, wondering how to keep young people from leaving their religious traditions. Others celebrate it as the end of religion and the onset (again) of the death of God.

Tara Isabella Burton doesn’t think this is even close to the whole picture. Her book Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World explores the complexity of spirituality in contemporary America. Sure, people might be leaving traditional forms of religious belief, but they’re far from the hard core atheists of the four horseman. Here’s how she describes the situation in the introduction:

In other words, our Nones may not be traditionally religious, in the sense that either Jerry Falwell or Sam Harris is used to. But they’re not exactly secular, either. The story of the rise of the religious Nones in America, it turns out, isn’t really about Nones at all. Rather, it’s about three distinct and complicated groups of people, people whose spiritual lives, sense of meaning, community, and rituals are a blend of what you might call traditional religious practices and personal, intuitional spirituality: privileging feelings and experiences over institutions and creeds. (p. 17) (The three groups are: 1. Spiritual but not religious 2. The Faithful nones 3. The Religious Hybrids.)

Burton’s argument provides nuance to what is often a binary conversation. This binary is demonstrated by her use of Falwell and Harris as the two poles. Either a person is a true believer, meaning they meet the criteria for orthodoxy, or they are an atheist who is an enemy of God and true religion. I see this binary creeping into churches and institutions that were, at one time, much more open to nuance and dialogue. Increasingly, churches and institutions formulate markers of religious purity that serve as litmus tests to determine the boundaries of orthodoxy. The problem with these firm boundaries is they are much more about power and social status, leaving the more meaningful questions about faith and spirituality unexplored.

Burton’s book pushes religious communities and institutions to wrestle with contemporary forms of spirituality and faith. Will congregations and institutions continue to play the binary game, going all in on some version of orthodoxy that may never have existed in the first place? Or, will they embrace the hermeneutics of faith—a dialogue between new expressions of belief and spirituality with the Christian tradition?