word on fire
“Strange Rites” and the Promise of a Natural Religion
Bishop Robert Barron
In the course of his well-written and fascinating study, Burton gives many other examples of the sometimes goofy contemporary quasi-religions that have supplanted traditional institutional beliefs.
Along with many other cultural commentators, I have traced in recent years the phenomenon of religious disaffiliation, the sobering fact that armies of people, especially young people, are abandoning institutional religion. There is simply no point in denying the statistics, which have been confirmed in study after study, and the truth of mass disaffiliation is obvious to any priest, minister or rabbi who watches, week after week, to see ever-diminishing congregations. However, I wonder if the insistence on the existence of so many ‘no’s has led to some misperception – namely, that all or most of those who have left the churches have simply become atheists, skeptics and materialists. In fact, the closer we look at the “nones”, the weirder, more varied and oddly religious they seem.
My thoughts on this were inspired by a remarkable book I just read called “Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World,” written by Tara Isabella Burton. Herself a millennial with a doctorate in theology, and having made her own journey through this world to become a Christian, Burton is uniquely qualified to explore the rather dense jungle of religions and spiritualities that proliferate especially among those under 40. year. She observes that in reality very few religiously disaffiliated people would identify as atheists or strict materialists. In fact, many of them would fit neatly into the category of “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR, to use the preferred acronym). Most SBNRs, though they disdain traditional churches, still crave four things that religion has traditionally offered: meaning, purpose, community, and ritual. And they found these values in strange places.
For example, there is, Burton shows, a vibrant community that has grown up around their shared love of the “Harry Potter” stories, which they treat as practically sacred texts and with whose characters they identify. deeply. She makes the indisputable but nonetheless surprising observation: “Given that 61% of Americans have seen at least one ‘Harry Potter’ film, it is very likely that more Americans can name the four Hogwarts houses than can name the Gospels” (p. 69). Still others find the four religious values in that farrago of spiritual beliefs and practices that goes by the name “New Age”. Think of the communities and rituals that have formed around “UFOs, Reiki, acupuncture, crystal healing, and the type of creative visualization that is ubiquitous in the New Thought movement” (p. 123). Others find meaning in their shared commitment to social justice and their concomitant disregard for individuals and groups who oppose the achievement of racial, political or gender equity. Among some radical feminists, witchcraft has taken on enormous spiritual significance: “Combining progressive feminist politics with fervent opposition to institutional Christianity…Modern witchcraft embraces its power of transgression” (p. 121).
In the course of his well-written and fascinating study, Burton gives many other examples of the sometimes goofy contemporary quasi-religions that have supplanted traditional institutional beliefs. Although it may surprise my readers a bit, this Catholic bishop would like to say something positive about all of this. The secularization hypothesis, first proposed by atheists and skeptics in the 19th century and repeated ad nauseam by elite commentators today, holds that as science, technology and secular education will progress, religion will inevitably decline. Not only has this assumption been proven wrong in many parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, where various forms of traditional religion are flourishing; it has also proven false in the West, where religion, despite the thousand predictions of its demise, continues to reassert itself. What we see in “Harry Potter” religion, New Age spirituality, Wicca and witchcraft, etc., are attempts to find community and purpose precisely in a ritualized relationship to a power enjoyed as transcendent. We can blithely condemn all this, or we can see in it the expression of what the Catholic tradition calls “natural religion”, which is the instinct, deeply rooted in each of us, to seek meaning in the ultimate sense. Despite the claims of ideological secularists, it is simply not so easy to eradicate religion. Faced with both external and internal obstacles, he finds a way.
Now, this does not mean for a moment that Christians should be content with the “blooming and buzzing confusion” of natural religion, especially that offered today by natural religions, but we should, like St. Paul, St. Irenaeus, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, GK Chesterton and Pope Benedict XVI did this in their day, met him and engaged him with the word of revelation. One of the marks of the natural religious attitude is that seekers are always masters of the conversation: they strive to find the ultimate meaning on their own terms. Burton actually argues that this trend is particularly prevalent today, when scholars claim the right to rewrite sacred texts and reconfigure sacred rituals to suit their personal preferences. But a revealed religion, like Catholic Christianity, holds that God has spoken. Our quest is real and it may be holy, but what ultimately matters is that God answered it on his terms.
Again, it would be easy enough to undo the frankly odd forms of religiosity described by Burton, but that would be seeing the glass half empty. On the contrary, we Catholics should rejoice that the religious instinct remains vividly alive in the SBNRs. And then we should eagerly engage that instinct with the liberating challenge of the gospel.
– Bishop Robert Barron is the founder of the worldwide ministry, Word on Fire, and is an Auxiliary Bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
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