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Explaining our Secular Age in Three Acts - Issue #6

This week's newsletter is a different format. Tara Isabella Burton has written three important pieces
Explaining our Secular Age in Three Acts - Issue #6
By John Starke • Issue #6 • View online
This week’s newsletter is a different format. Tara Isabella Burton has written three important pieces over the past few weeks that explore how our secular world is not so secular (as she likes to remind us on social media) and I think it’s worth unpacking what she has dug up. She’s not the first to work some of this out, though. In 1979, Christopher Lasch wrote in his The Culture of Narcissism that our modern secular world has experienced “the dream of fame and the anguished sense of failure.” We had longings to find transcendence in our accomplishments, wealth, and sexual freedom but have found it less than satisfying. A life that seeks for nothing beyond self-fulfillment feels flat and a has a “fragility of meaning” (as Charles Taylor calls it). The subtitle to Lasch’s book is apt, American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations.
Our modern world, Lasch points out, senses that fragility, so it adds “urgency to the quest for spiritual panaceas.” Our longings for transcendence don’t go away. We’re stuck with them. And so we continue to seek and these searches look and sound very spiritual (in other words, not as secular as we often think). However, says Lasch, they “share a quality of intense preoccupation with the self” (so maybe still a bit secular).
If Lasch’s secularism was 40 years ago, Burton gives us today’s version in three acts:

In March of this year, newly elected New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shared her birth chart on Twitter with Arther Lipp-Bonewitts (he describes himself as: Tarot reader, astrologer, angel medium, psychic. At the intersection of Astrology and Sexuality). Burton gives us an explanation:
For an increasing number of left-leaning millennials—more and more of whom do not belong to any organized religion—occult spirituality isn’t just a form of personal practice, self-care with more sage. Rather, it’s a metaphysical canvas for the American culture wars in the post-Trump era: pitting the self-identified Davids of seemingly secular progressivism against the Goliath of nationalist evangelical Christianity.
Rather than a mere conversion story towards the occult, Burton points out, progressive millennials have “appropriated the rhetoric, imagery, and rituals of what was once called the “New Age”—from astrology to witchcraft—as both a political and spiritual statement of identity.” It’s a “cosmic counterbalance to Trumpian evangelicalism.” If popular conservatism has used religious rhetoric to accomplish and sustain its power (just consider Jerry Falwell and Robert Jeffress’ “religious” defenses for Trump), then progressives are now doing the same.
Burton gives some background to where this development may have come from:
A full 72 percent of “nones” say they believe in God, or at least some kind of nebulously defined Higher Power; 17 percent say they believe in the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible. Suspicious of institutions, authorities, and creeds, this demographic is less likely to attend a house of worship, but more likely to practice the phenomenon Harvard Divinity School researchers Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston have termed “unbundling”: a willingness to effectively “mix and match” spiritual, ritualistic, and religious practices from a range of traditions, divorced from their original institutional context. A member of this “remixed” generation, for example, might attend yoga classes, practice Buddhist meditation, read Tarot cards, cleanse their apartment with sage, and also attend Christmas carol concerts or Shabbat dinners. They might tap into the perceived psychic energy of their surroundings at a boutique fitness studio like SoulCycle, which openly bills itself as a “cult,” and whose charismatic trainers frequently post spiritually tinged motivational mantras like “You were created by a purpose, for a purpose” on SoulCycle’s social media platforms.
In other words, while Wicca as a worldview and religion has a well-structured set of metaphysical assumptions, the “unbundled” millennials do not. Instead they have began to seize the rhetoric for political purposes.
Granted, most millennial denizens of “Witchblr” are more likely to cleanse their homes with sage, say, or practice mindfulness meditation than to cast a curse on Republican lawmakers. But the rhetorical and spiritual popularization of “resistance magic” in the age of Trump reveals the degree to which one of America’s supposedly most “secular” demographics—urbane, progressive millennials—aren’t quite so secular after all.
Followers of Ocasio-Cortez’s star chart, contemporary witch feminists, serious proponents of Satanic feminism, and dabblers in Sephora-accessible Tarot cards alike all share both a hunger for the grounding effects of spiritual presence and a fervent conviction that personal spirituality should resist, rather than renew, the newly waning power of institutional religion.
The secular person may be more spiritual than we think, but their spirituality takes on a different form. In previous ages and societies, spirituality shaped and formed convictions (whether moral or political). But the modern person sees spirituality as an enhancement to their already held convictions. Spirituality is something to use for our their purposes rather than to be shaped and corrected by.
If act one was concerning progressive millennials, act two is on the other end of the spectrum. In the world of neo- and hyper-masculinity, Roosh V, a popular online figure, converted to Christianity—or a sort of “Alt-right” Christianity. Roosh V promoted a promiscuous manhood, calling himself a pick-up artist guru, counseling sexually frustrated young men on how to get girls they meet to go to bed with them as quickly as possible. He also holds rather oppressive views of gender roles, in that women aren’t capable of regulating their own behavior or decisions and must be controlled by men, that there are terrible consequences for women when allowed the freedom to choose their own sexual partner, go college, vote, or when to have kids.
However, when he announced his conversion, he changed—or at least he changed his views on promiscuity. The rest of his views, more extreme sides of conservatism, he uses his newly established faith to support.
Burton writes:
Roosh V, for his part, also seems to be using his newfound Christianity not to call for neighborly love but to advocate for a war on modern culture.
Alt-right “Christianity” of this sort is not a theology so much as a reactionary shibboleth: a way to condemn not only Islam but such societal “degeneracy” (a favorite Roosh V term) as feminism and political correctness… Roosh V wrote that we “are now stuck with a clown country where we suffer daily humiliations and degradations at the hands of sodomites, man-jawed feminists, pedophiles, cuckolds, and aliens” — and proposed, as a partial solution, the establishment of Orthodox Christianity as the official state religion. 
Now for orthodox, traditional Christians, it’s worth reflecting a moment on this dynamic. There is a tendency among human beings to become reactionary and fearful, and we will use whatever means possible to stay safe, even if it means using our faith as a weapon instead of a means of love and assurance. I don’t know the state of Roosh V’s heart, nor the legitimacy of his faith, but this reactionary impulse is not singularly “Alt-Right”, but of any person or group feeling the potential of being socially marginalized, of losing social capital.
Like act one, part of our “secular” culture is an adoption of spiritual realities for political or cultural purposes. For the progressives its the occult, for the conservatives, it’s Atavism—"the obsession with looking backward to an imagined “primal” past.“ "The manosphere and the alt-right references to Christianity in a similar way — as shorthand for a supposedly purer time.
A “supposedly purer time.” Let’s call this nostalgia. Now I happen to think nostalgia is an “ordinary evil” Christians often adopt from secularism, normally by conservatives. It sometimes comes in the form of nationalism and even racism. But nostalgia is idolatry that easily turns into bitter emptiness because things were never really as good (or pure) as they seem in our memory. Nostalgia is really an edited form of ourselves or our history, that never really existed the way we imagine it. Nostalgia just ends up driving you back to old slave-masters. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic” (Numbers 11:5).
“The lines between ‘religion’ ,” says Burton, “and these online ideologies grow blurrier by the day.” The pattern of nostalgic-to-angry white men who pivot to Christianity might stop them from posting explicitly about pre-marital sex, she says, “but it’s unlikely to change his or his followers’ fundamental ideology: a “revolt against the modern world,” this time dressed in Christian garb.”
Secularism—in progressive or conservative forms—will use spiritual traditions to uphold their cultural ideology rather than knock down their cultural and idealogical idols.
“ Wellness culture may not have an established creed, but it has an implicit metaphysic,” writes Burton in this final article. Here’s a topic that on the surface looks materialistic, but at bottom is spiritual.
But to talk about wellness exclusively as a code-word for diet is to overlook wellness culture’s provenance not just in old-school beauty tips, but in old-school spirituality. The language of wellness isn’t just coded diet culture. It’s also encoded with religious promise.
The most famous example is Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness empire GOOP, which is “designed not just to improve physical health (or appearance), but to tap into this wider network of “good” versus “bad” energy,” where you can purchase “ a $27 elixir that calls itself “Psychic Vampire Repellent” not for real vampires, but those who drain your positive energy.”
To put it more plainly, wellness culture is fundamentally about purity, with laws that seem levitical.
In her 1966 book, “Purity and Danger,” anthropologist Mary Douglas explores what she sees as the fundamental human root of religious observance: the separation of the “pure” from the “impure,” and in particular the establishing of clear and fundamental categories for human cognition: this goes here, this goes there. What is dirt, after all, she famously posits, but matter out of place?
Dr. Alejandro Junger, a GOOP approved specialist says things like global warming is just a symptom of a deeper toxicity from what we eat, what we drink, and the water we shower with. “ The solution Junger holds out is a detox plan that will help our overwhelmed systems right themselves when combined with “skin brushing,” meditation, saunas and sunshine.” Here, observes Burton, is a religious program we can participate in and, of course, buy into.
Burton points to a strong segment of secularism (a $4.2 trillion market—we spend half as much on wellness as we do on actual health care) that isn’t concerned with just beauty and macros, but purity and separation. But wellness culture also seems to be providing a service to the spiritually disenchanted. For the “religiously affiliated” there are several sacred moments in life, birth, marriage, and death. Charles Taylor points out that those who “have no other connection or felt affinity with religion, go on using the ritual of the church for these rites of passage,” but have no real grounding for their sacredness. So we have cosplay themed weddings and epic gender reveals to force some transcendence into what feels empty of meaning and substance.
Wellness culture provides categories and vocabulary for our longings for sacred things. We want something holy in our mundane normal life. We want our bodies and our foods to be clean because we want to be clean.
——
Despite what we may think, secularism hasn’t been freed from aligning itself with spiritual transcendence in some form or another. But the running theme is not a spirituality that confronts, transforms, or calls for repentance, but a spirituality that only enhances already held convictions and upholds engrained ideologies. As Lasch puts it, with secular spirituality there remains an “intense preoccupation with the self.” We long for transcendence and need the categories of the sacred, but not at the displacement of the self. As Flemming Rutledge writes:
We have not become a secular society so much as we have become a generically religious one. Undifferentiated spiritual objects, therapies, and programs are widely marketed. Popular religion in America tends to be an amalgam of whatever presents itself. Discerning observers have noted that these new forms of spirituality are typically American; highly individualistic, self-referential, and self-indulgent.
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John Starke

John Starke

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Pastor of Apostles Church Uptown, New York City