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Welcome to intuitional religion

07 August 2020

Tara Isabella Burton talks to Vicky Walker about the growing trend of bespoke spirituality


A free yoga class to mark the summer solstice in Times Square, New York, in 2009

A free yoga class to mark the summer solstice in Times Square, New York, in 2009

Rose CallahanTara Isabella BurtonYou write about the “Remixed” in your book Strange Rites: New religions for a godless world. Who are they?

We’re seeing a reimagining of religion as a more individualised, more intuitional religion of the self, where people want to mix and match and play around with different traditions, belief systems, and practices.

“Re-mixed” as a cultural phenomenon is intended to capture all of these groups: people who are explicitly spiritual but not religious; who belong to some tradition or no tradition.

There are people who say that they are religiously unaffiliated but also say they believe in a higher power; and people who say “Yes, I’m Christian,” but also read tarot cards or practise Zen Buddhist meditation, and have a spiritual life that isn’t limited — I call them religious hybrids — to one set of doctrines and practices.


What’s driving them?

What I call “intuitionalism”: a focus on the self, on its instincts and desires, as being not just fine or acceptable, but cosmically good, in tune with the universe.

This is a trend we see a lot in American religious history and great awakenings, including proliferations of Evangelical Christianity, where the prevailing religious identity, your Sunday morning in your pews, was not intense enough — people were going through the motions, but needed a revival of the kind of personal relationship with God, paired with an anti-institutionalism: a distrust of authority, dogma, doctrine, of a top-down religious approach; again, something with a long American religious tradition.

This contemporary iteration is driven by two factors. The first, and perhaps most important, is the internet. I like to say that what the printed book was to the Protestant Reformation, in terms of a religious identity and approach to religion that was so wedded to a particular technological advancement, so, too, is Remixed religion very much a product of the modern internet: the idea that you can take an idea and add your own spin to it, that everything should be tailor-made to you, and individualised, with a sense of play about “How do I make this my own?”


Do you think technology will make this international?

I think that things like wellness culture, and a certain vision of self-care, have definitely been exported. That said, there is something distinctly American about this, data-wise and anecdotally, and, having lived in both places, the intensity of spiritual practices here.

There has been a study, if I’m recalling correctly, that suggests that American religious “nones” — people who don’t identify with religion — still score higher on a religiosity metric with questions like “How often do you pray?” and “How often do you feel a sense of wonder in the universe?” than self-identified Christians in Western Europe.


You call it a “Great Awakening” and say that it’s one that you believe will stick.

The fact that we are networked, and we, and the generations that come after us, are such generations of the internet, and so culturally informed by it, [means] it would be very difficult to go back to hierarchical models of faith or of faith practice, or the top-down approach of institutions, because, psychologically, we are culturally removed from that.

I say that as someone who is, in many ways, traditionally very Christian: I go to a liturgically quite high-Christian, Episcopalian, quite Anglo-Catholic church. But I think there is a sense in which we’ve got so used to mixing and matching, and creating our own everything, that the moment we feel ourselves asked to assent to something bigger, to create a community that isn’t determined by our desires and our affinities, but, rather, just being next to other humans who might not be like us, those things are more difficult, and we don’t have a cultural capacity for that in the same way.

Should we? I certainly think so, and I wouldn’t venture to say that we will never get there, or that something won’t happen that shifts it; but it’s an uphill battle to resist the pervasive influence of the internet.


What could the institutional Church learn from what you’ve uncovered?

The biggest thing is that most people who become religious “nones” are not people who are driven out by conservative fundamentalism. That is the case for some, particularly people who have been historically marginalised in churches: for example, about 46 per cent of queer Americans are unaffiliated (double the national average).

But, more broadly, it’s more likely that it’s someone whose parents didn’t talk about religion that much — maybe they ticked a box, went to church at Christmas and Easter, or on the high holy days, but life at home was just, “Eh, be a good person, it doesn’t really matter.”

The breaking away now is not people losing their faith, but people no longer thinking it’s important to tick a box when there are other things that they could be doing.

The thing we need to learn from that, combined with the fact that there is still sincere spiritual and moral hunger, is that churches need to preserve and embrace their distinctiveness, including their theological distinctiveness. They are not going to compete on fun, Hillsong aside; they are not going to compete on social-media presence, or sexy music, or any of the entertainment metrics.

I think the only way that the Church moves forward is to say, “What we believe is weird, it’s pretty weird,” — I’m speaking, again, from a Christian’s perspective, specifically — “but a guy died and he came back, that happened.”

Preserving that, and saying that we are making a real truth claim about what happened more than 1000 years ago in the world, and what you glean from that and where you move forward, is a product of these distinct and sometimes difficult theological beliefs.

If people are going to take Soul Cycle classes every day at 6 a.m., they’ve clearly got the stamina to do hard things; it’s not that people don’t want to. If anything, it seems that people seek out challenge and intensity. So, I think really holding to a distinctiveness that this is a theology first, and Sunday school and coffee hour second, is really the only way to go.


You write: “We do not live in a godless world, but in a profoundly anti-institutional one.” Where do you think God resides now?

I want to say, everywhere, really, but rather that I think that our resistance to institutional models of faith can actually be quite a good thing, which is to say that there is a danger of God being so allied with institutions that we do tick the boxes, we go in and sit on Sunday, we do everything right, and don’t think seriously about what this actually means, about how this should actually affect us.

I think in many ways, speaking as a Christian, that Christianity has been at its best when it’s been a bit counter-cultural, a bit — if not a lot — able to combat the error in which it lives, and call to account the Roman Empire; call to account wealth and power. And I think that theological visions that embrace that are bound to be perhaps more pertinent, more pressing, than a kind of comfortable stasis.

Transcript by Serena Long.

Listen to the full interview on the Church Times podcast.


This is how spirituality sells

TODAY’s Remixed millennials are, in many ways, caught between a rock and a hard place, at least when it comes to traditional religious observance. On the one hand, they’re disillusioned with what is, in most cases, their parents’ religious tradition, which has failed to provide them with a coherent account of meaning and purpose in the world.

On the other hand, they’re alienated from the political conservatism of more hardline denominations, with stances on LGBTQ issues or sexuality that an increasingly progressive generation sees as at odds with their core values. These values see the self as an autonomous being, the self’s desires as fundamentally good, and societal and sexual repression as not just undesirable, but actively evil. These Remixed millennials are at once attracted to moral and theological certainty — accounts of the human condition that claim totalising truth or demand difficult adherence because the challenge is ultimately rewarding — and repulsed by traditions that require setting hard limits on personal, and particularly sexual or romantic, desire.

That, for better or for worse, is where corporations come in. Increasingly, big-budget companies have recognized that there is a gap in the needs of today’s Remixed: institutions, activities, philosophies, and rituals that manage to be challenging and totalising while also preserving millennials’ need for individualisation and personal, intuitional freedom. It’s the dot-com bubble for spirituality, a free marketplace of innovation and religious disruption. (Literally. Columbia Business School is currently hosting an incubator designed for “spiritual entrepreneurs”. Those who complete a 20-week course get a special Columbia Business School certificate in spiritual entrepreneurship.)

It’s all but impossible to tell today’s fringe movements from their savvy corporate-sponsored counterparts. No sooner does something become a viral movement than an ingenious start-up finds a way to recreate it at a more profitable price point. The sociologist Ronald Inglehart has called this phenomenon the central crisis of “postmaterialism”. In a society where we no longer fear securing the basic necessities of life, we gradually adopt a different value system, one dedicated to seeking out self-expression and fulfilling personal experiences.

Consumer-capitalist culture offers us not merely necessities but identities. Meaning, purpose, community, and ritual can all — separately or together — be purchased on Amazon Prime. As journalist Amanda Hess writes in the New York Times, “Shopping, decorating, grooming and sculpting are now jumping with meaning. And a purchase need not have any explicit social by-product — the materials eco-friendly, or the proceeds donated to charity — to be weighted with significance. Pampering itself has taken on a spiritual urgency.”

Self-care has become both a call to emotional authenticity and an ascetic challenge: to put in the labour to perfect the body in the service of a soul whose emotions, desires, needs, and wants are considered not just valid but authoritative.

Consumer capitalism, and the corporate takeover of the spiritual marketplace, has effected a kind of institutionalisation of practices that, in previous decades, were primarily associated with the grass-roots fringe. More and more brands, seeking to capitalize on the spiritual gap in the market, are packaging and marketing religious and spiritual products, finding ways to integrate them seamlessly into lives defined by the capitalist machine.

In 2019, you can use your paycheck to buy witch-branded candles at Urban Outfitters, then download Headspace or another meditation app to practice mindfulness on your morning commute. You can pop in to SoulCycle, or CrossFit, or an Ashtanga yoga class on your lunch hour. A 2018 study by the aptly named Virtue — the branding-partnership arm of Vice Media — argued that spirituality was the “next big thing” in millennial-focused marketing. “We now think brands should take a step further,” Vice’s chief creative and commercial officer Tom Punch told attendees at a marketing festival, “thinking more broadly about what their role is in society and how they can truly be a force for good in people’s lives”.


MEANWHILE, even brands that don’t offer specifically religious or spiritual products are increasingly looking to spiritual traditions to improve their bottom line. In the early stages of its development, for example, Facebook set up internal “compassion research days”, during which they brought in academics from Harvard and Yale to teach employees the benefits of Buddhist compassion so that they could improve the site’s harassment-reporting tools.

Meanwhile, Google offers its employees “Search Inside Yourself” courses, designed to optimize productivity by encouraging Eastern-tinged meditation. (The company also regularly holds “mindful lunches,” in which employees sit in total silence, save for the sound of Zen Buddhist prayer bells.)

This pseudo-spiritual ethos also reaches consumers directly. Companies are increasingly using political advocacy to sell themselves as moral arbitrators. Whether it’s Nike’s advertisements celebrating Colin Kaepernick’s decision to “take a knee” in support of the Black Lives Matter movement (garnering the wrath of more than a few white Evangelical pastors), or Chick-fil-A’s donations to anti-LGBT-marriage groups, a growing number of brands are selling not just products but values.

In so doing, they are creating moral universes, selling meaning as an implicit product and reframing capitalist consumption as a religious ritual — a repeated and intentional activity that connects the individual to divine purpose in a values-driven framework. The rise of “woke capitalism” and its reactionary converse is endemic of the way today’s new religions interface with the brands that so powerfully promote, reify, and profit off them.

Of course, the rise of spiritual branding would be impossible without [another] phenomenon that sets this Great Awakening apart from its predecessors: the dizzying transformations effected by today’s new internet culture. For one thing, it has made geography irrelevant — allowing communities to develop outside the traditional bonds of organised community and the dwelling places of traditional institutions.

It’s telling that among the most culturally significant new holidays in America is “Friendsgiving” — having Thanksgiving with your friends instead of making the potentially expensive trek back home to see family — which went from virtually unknown pre-2013 to a viral marketing term with more than a million tagged posts on Instagram in 2018.

A holiday dedicated to chosen family among largely millennial, largely single and childless city dwellers, Friendsgiving represents the degree to which millennials in particular have been forced to explore and invent an alternative, less rooted societal model than that of their forebears. But the internet hasn’t just made us location independent. It has also encouraged us, as consumers with a cornucopia of options, to seek out, even demand, a creative role in designing our own experiences, including spiritual ones.


This is an edited extract from Strange Rites: New religions for a godless world by Tara Isabella Burton, published by Public Affairs Books at £20 (Church Times Bookshop £18, from September.)


‘You can do a sun salutation to the Lord’s Prayer’

I HAD a fairly Charismatic Church of England early experience, singing worship in my local church, attending Spring Harvest, and, later, Soul Survivor. I used to have moments in my room where I felt like the Spirit was present with me: almost out-of-body experiences that confirmed for me that, whatever God was, it was real.

By my mid-twenties, I had started practising yoga, as my mother had trained as a yoga teacher. She had been 100 per cent against yoga, but had her mind changed by her cousin, an ex-Catholic, and embarked on a radical path of self-exploration. She still considers herself a Christian, and feels more in tune with God since this journey began.

I went on to train as a yoga teacher in 2016. The deep sense of understanding of myself that yoga brought allowed me to reconnect with the sense of the “sacred” in human interaction and our responses to the world around us. I found myself naturally gravitating to practices, people, and activities that nurtured me, encouraged me, and built my confidence.

Many of the things church had promised me that following Jesus would bring, actually surface now in this yogic practice. I have found it has only strengthened my faith with God. After all, you can do a sun salutation to the Lord’s Prayer — it fits perfectly!

I feel I have grown in my knowledge of God, and my personal faith feels more resolute and true, rather than being dictated to me by church leaders. I am deeply impacted by the Iona community. I’m part of a community group where we read the Northumbria Community’s prayer and liturgy, come together in community to discuss spiritual practices, and give to our local community through social action.

I would not describe myself as a Christian in name, any more, but as someone exploring her spirit. I do still pray actual prayers to God, and, bizarrely, still speak in tongues sometimes.

When I do, a supreme sense of God’s peace descends, and I truly feel like God is there with me. I feel like I have spoken from my soul; that my heart has uttered what it could not find the words for, both in sorrow but also supreme joy and love for God and for life.

a media professional in her thirties, living in London


‘A deity who doesn’t ask much’

Dr Phoebe Hill, Director of Theology at YouthscapeFROM my experience of researching faith among younger people in the UK, it is apparent that spirituality is a fuzzy concept. In fact, the word “spiritual” doesn’t seem to mean much to young people, with few linking it to ideas of God or faith.

There is a sense that anything related to deep personal experience is intrinsically good, in contrast to the Christian framework holding some spiritual realities as good, and other spiritualities as bad. In our No Questions Asked research, we found little difference between those who were part of a faith group or religion, including Christians, and those who weren’t, in terms of their attitudes towards spirituality and God.

Despite this, almost all we spoke to said they prayed, though “prayed” to whatever or whoever represented help and meaning for them. US researchers coined the term “moralistic therapeutic deism” in 2005 to describe the idea of a benign but loving God, attractive and loosely defined, that helped individuals lead a “good” life.

This God is deistic in the sense that they don’t ask much of me, and they are largely irrelevant to my life. How I live, and the various forms of spirituality I engage with, are therefore not hugely important: this God still loves and accepts me.

This fits into a picture of a more generalised approach to spirituality. In recent years, mainstream UK media, particularly aimed at women, have promoted activities such as witchcraft and yoga as meaningful practices, which are presented as enhancing, or even central, to a person’s well-being, and able to replace religion, which is dismissed as outdated and unnecessary.

If all forms of spirituality are perceived to be good, and life is just generally about being moral, then it is unsurprising that we are seeing more hybrid spiritual practices, even among Christians.

Dr Phoebe Hill
Director of Theology at Youthscape


‘An alternative identity’

Rachel GardnerCHRISTIANITY has often disembodied women in particular, encouraging them to live in a way that’s detached from their physical selves and realities. Alternative spiritual expressions can mean reclaiming power over your body and life.

Where I live, in north-west England, I’ve come across a number of younger women with a strong attachment to Gaia and ancient witchcraft practices. It seems to be a part of establishing an alternative identity: rejecting Western beauty ideals and finding powerful stories that make sense to them.

They’re happy to play around with binaries and look for alternatives to institutional ideals. But it’s not just the structures that may be leading to many of these young women rejecting Church. There’s also a sense that, in surrendering themselves to God, they are losing the tiny pieces of power they have.

Rachel Gardner
President of Girls’ Brigade England and Wales

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