Every year, thousands of adherents gather in different cities in the United States. If you saw them, they would most certainly stick out. Mostly younger—millennials and later—many of them would be dressed in clothes more resembling medieval times than our own.
They gather around a book—a sacred text that offers a different world transcending our own. The book tells a story about good triumphing over evil and offers hope through a hero who stands for truth and justice. They read the book in search of hidden meanings and often debate the validity of their various interpretations on podcasts and in unofficial small groups.
They sometimes go on pilgrimages to sacred sites. Their shared devotion is evident in a common language that outsiders don’t always understand and a set of practiced rituals. Of course, I’m describing “Potterheads,” or fans of the Harry Potter series of books and movies.
According to every major study on American religion conducted in the last decade, American religion is in decline. Church attendance is down. The percentage of adults who indicate “none” as their preferred religion is climbing annually. However, Tara Isabella Burton, in her new book Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, argues that while traditional religions may be declining, a plethora of secular religions—like the one described above—are beginning to dominate the American landscape.
In other words, religion isn’t declining; it’s transforming. The internet is making it possible for individuals to build communities around devotion to all sorts of things, from CrossFit and SoulCycle to Witchcraft and Dungeons and Dragons. According to Burton “religion”—a notoriously difficult concept to define—occurs when a community gathers around something that provides life meaning and purpose and involves its adherents in a set of shared rituals. Based on this definition, one can observe religions forming around wellness culture, social justice, and even sports.
As diverse as these religious alternatives sound, they all have two things in common. First, they are secular, meaning they do not depend upon belief in God or any notion of transcendence. Second, they do not operate through any official channel or organizing body. They have mostly developed via the internet as a result of people with common interests forming online communities. They are bottom up, not top down.
These religions “stick” because the internet provides the perfect format for ensuring that each community’s ritual practices get deeply embodied. It also doesn’t hurt that corporations have figured out that millions of dollars can be made by customizing products that appeal to these communities.
What does it all mean? It means, first, that human beings are inherently religious. The Bible has no category for a human being who does not worship. To be human is to be created in God’s image. We may try to purge that image, but it’s always present. As image-bearing creatures, we are worshipers. We seek ultimate meaning and purpose in community with other fellow image-bearers.
Paul reminds us that the war happening inside every human heart is not between theism or atheism, or faith and unbelief. Those who do not worship the one true and living God have exchanged worship of him for worship of something less than him (Rom. 1:23). Everyone is worshiping. However, only one object is worthy and fulfilling. As Augustine famously wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him.”
But I believe Burton’s work has other profound implications. We all underestimate the power of cultural habits and rituals. When we pick up our smartphones to mindlessly scan our social media feeds, we are being shaped to value certain things. A vision of the good life is being presented. That vision rarely includes God. We are being trained every single day to believe that meaning, fulfillment, and community can all be found outside of the transcendent—outside of Christ.
These secular religions thrive because they soak into our bones through cultural habits that we practice daily without a second thought. Every show, every advertisement, every song, every movie, every second on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook, shouts a religious message.
As Christians, we cannot escape the culture, nor should we try. God has placed us here to bear witness to the fountain of living water (Jer. 2:13), the only one who can truly quench our worshiping thirst forever. But we must be aware of the dangers of uncritical acceptance of secular practices, and we must counter those secular practices with rituals of our own. We must continue to gather in person with other worshipers to baptize, eat and drink, and proclaim Christ’s death until he returns.