Americans are turning to highly personalized, unorthodox religion to get fulfillment.
Churches are bleeding members and less and less people are identifying as Christian but it doesn't mean that most people are turning into type of aggressive atheist we're used to seeing online all the time. Instead we're seeing a sort of non-Christian hyper-Protestantism where people are adopting whatever sort of beliefs they feel suits their spiritual needs.
There has been much discussion in the last few years about the rise of religious “nones,” or those who do not identify with a particular religion. The Pew Research Center reported in October 2019 that 26 percent of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, up from 17 percent in 2009. Among Millennials, 40 percent are nones.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean that America is becoming a more “secular” society. Burton suggests a more complicated religious landscape, one in which people are still very much seeking something spiritual in their lives. Their spirituality is “a blend of what you might call traditional religious practices and personal, intuitional spirituality: privileging feelings and experiences over institutions and creeds.”
Indeed, Burton considers the social-justice activism of the Left to be perhaps the most compelling of the new godless religions: it provides adherents with a meaningful framework for understanding reality (original sin is rooted in the patriarchy and the other unjust institutions of society) and a sense of purpose in showing solidarity with the oppressed. These are reinforced by a church-like moral community that performs “call-out” rituals against oppressors on social media and at rallies. Burton continues in this vein throughout her book, chronicling the meaning-making and at times bizarre rituals of wellness culture, social-justice witches, the techno-utopians of Silicon Valley who want to turn us all into machines, acolytes of Jordan Peterson’s masculinist self-help, other “atavistic” men’s-rights groups, and even polyamorists and sexual utopians. (Sexual acts you shouldn’t Google are described by practitioners as “transcendent.”)
Something that I was a bit surprised about was a claim in the article about how only 15% of people in the US belonged to a church during the Revolutionary War era. My impression was that the decline of religion that we see right now is something that is unique in US history but it's actually something that has taken place before.
These “intuitional” religions and forms of spirituality are not exactly a new phenomenon, however. They have deep roots in American religious history. During the Revolutionary War era, just 15 percent of American adults belonged to a church. Christians at the time dabbled in fortune-telling and astrology. Ever since the birth of our country, there have been battles between institutional religion and more personal forms of piety.
A lot of the New Agey "you are God" stuff we see these days isn't new either.
One 19th-century craze known as “New Thought,” a precursor to the modern self-help movement, was particularly influential. New Thought founder Phineas Parkhurst Quimby believed that, as Burton puts it, “God—or at least a nebulously defined higher power—was in you, and you had both the right and the responsibility to channel that spiritual relationship in order to gain personally fulfilling results.” American religious affiliation hit its apex in the mid-20th century (an incredible 75 to 80 percent of Americans belonged to a local congregation in the 1950s) and subsequently declined, as the intuitional strain identified by Burton came roaring back. Traces of New Thought ideas like the “God within” and willing oneself to health and wealth can be found all over this renewed intuitionism, from the New Age and self-care movements, to the “pray and grow rich” prosperity gospel, to the belief on the social-justice Left that subjective feelings and experiences are inherently authoritative.