Book Review: Strange Rites

This afternoon was perfect. The morning rain dried up and the sun came out. The temperature was a comfortable mid-60s with only a slight wind. For mid-December, this is as good as it gets. So I made a cup of Darjeeling and finished the last bit of the book I’ve been working on since Thanksgiving. It is titled Strange Rites: New Religions For A Godless World and was written by Tara Isabella Burton.

The premise of the book is people are moving through the essence of religion without the belief in God. She makes much of the Durkheim principle of collective effervescence. What that means is people bond together through rituals that create its own meaning and define what the community is. A common example is an athletic event where people all know the fight song and the cheers and are enthralled as one community for one purpose.

Burton argues this happening in several different ways in our culture right now. The biggest examples she gives are wellness culture, witchcraft, social justice advocacies, techno-utopians, and the alt-right movement which she labels as atavistic.

The strength of this book is the interesting nature of the subject. She is an excellent researcher and every chapter has historical, cultural, and religious background that she brings out in explicit and delicious detail. One of her arguments is nothing new is happening in essence because America has always been ‘intuitional’ at its core. She backs this up with lots of historical figures. At the same time she argues something really big and new is happening, because it is now a much bigger deal with more people.

A second strength of the book is the intellect Burton brings. She is very smart and her vocabulary is impressive. Reading this book will make you far more comfortable with words you don’t use every day.

It has some weaknesses, though. One is she repeats herself. The second is she references a lot of cultural phenomena that I am not plugged into. She assumes I know things I do not know. A third weakness is, and forgive me, she COMPLETELY OMITS GEN XERS! I mean, there is one reference to us in the whole book and it is a throw away. She goes on and on about boomers and busters and millennials and genZ and blah blah blah and she forgets about those of us in the middle here who are paying all the bills and taking care of everything for everyone else. Statistics show many Gen Xers are supporting a child and a parent AT THE SAME TIME.

Okay, sorry. I just had to get that out of my system. Us Gen Xers are used to it. We were latchkey kids, after all. Remember. No, you don’t remember, because ALL 66 MILLION OF US ARE USED TO BEING IGNORED.

Where was I? Oh, right, the book. Burton has taken a deep dive into the history of the internet, and one finds this theme throughout, that the internet is what has created the strength and proliferation of these godless religions. She goes on and on about Harry Potter, including some rather interesting footwork on the deification of Severus Snape.

Is she right? Is America blossoming new godless religions which form communities, liturgies, and belief systems all their own? She may be onto something, but she might also be confusing herself and others. My final analysis of her work is that corporate culture is using religious language for its own greedy gain. People are being used to line the pocketbook of people selling something — whether it is Goop or iPhone apps. What we see is really the success of the Christian church. Everyone uses our words, our models, and tends to parasitically adopt our structures.

Her research is thorough and her subject is interesting. I disagree with her religious assumptions, but her book is valuable in knowing what is going on out there from SoulCycle to The Singularity to Jordan Peterson. I just think her evidence that it is religious is flawed. It is no more religious than Marxism or people who love Superman, and both of those have been around for a long time. Americans are prone to fads, and the internet, combined with great prosperity and conspicuous consumption, have made it seem like these things have more of a pull than they really do.

One more caveat on the book. It came out this year, but before COVID-19 became what is. I have some ideas about how the pandemic has impacted these godless communities, but perhaps that is for a different blog post.

I encourage you to read the book, but watch out. I almost didn’t get past the first chapter. I’m not kidding. It was so bizarre I almost put the book down for good. I’m glad I didn’t, but you might want to skip the first chapter and maybe, read it after the third or fourth chapter. Maybe.

The book is loaded with profanity, and lots of very disturbing language, particularly the chapter on sexual communities. It is not appropriate for teenagers or the who are easily offended.