“Strange Rites” and the promise of natural religion

The secularization hypothesis, first proposed by atheists and skeptics in the nineteenth century and reiterated ad nauseam by elite commentators today, has been proven wrong.

(Image: Mohamed Nohassi/Unsplash.com)

Along with many other cultural commentators, I have been tracing for the past many years the phenomenon of religious disaffiliation, the sobering fact that armies of people, especially the young, are leaving institutional religion behind. It is simply no good denying the statistics, which have been borne out in study after study, and the truth of massive disaffiliation is evident to any priest, minister, or rabbi who looks out, week after week, to see ever dwindling congregations.

However, I wonder whether the insistence upon the existence of so many “nones” has led to a certain misperception—namely, that all or most of those who have left the churches have simply become atheists, skeptics, and materialists. In point of fact, the closer we look at the “nones,” the stranger, more variegated, and oddly religious they seem.

My thoughts on this matter have been prompted by a remarkable book I just read called Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, written by Tara Isabella Burton. Herself a millennial and in possession of a doctorate in theology, and having made her own journey through this world on her way to becoming a Christian, Burton is particularly qualified to explore the rather dense jungle of religions and spiritualities proliferating especially among those under forty.

She observes that actually very few of the religiously disaffiliated would identify as atheists or strict materialists. In fact, a large number of them would fit neatly into the category of “spiritual but not religious” (SBNRs, to use the preferred acronym). Most SBNRs, though they disdain the traditional churches, remain hungry for four elements that religion has classically offered: meaning, purpose, community, and ritual. And they have found these values in some odd places.

For instance, there is, Burton shows, a vibrant community that has grown up around their common love for the Harry Potter stories, which they treat as practically sacred texts and with whose characters they deeply identify. She makes the incontestable but still startling observation: “Given that 61 percent 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 beliefs and spiritual 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 kind of creative visualization ubiquitous in the New Thought movement” (p. 123). Others discover meaning in their shared commitment to social justice and their concomitant disdain for those individuals and groups who stand athwart the achievement of racial, political, or gender equity. Among some radical feminists, witchcraft has taken on a tremendous spiritual significance: “Combining progressive feminist politics with a fervent opposition to institutional Christianity . . . modern witchcraft embraces its power to transgress” (p. 121).

In the course of her well-written and fascinating study, Burton gives many more examples of the sometimes wacky contemporary quasi-religions that have supplanted the traditional institutional faiths. Though it might 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 nineteenth century and reiterated ad nauseam by elite commentators today, holds that, as secularist science, technology, and education advance, religion will inevitably decline. Not only has this hypothesis been proven wrong in many parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where various forms of traditional religion are booming; it has also been proven wrong in the West, where religion, despite the thousand predictions of its disappearance, 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 some power appreciated as transcendent. We can blithely condemn all of this, or we can see it as expressive of what the Catholic tradition calls “natural religion,” which is the instinct, deeply rooted in each of us, to search for meaning in the ultimate sense. Despite the claims of the ideological secularists, it is just not that easy to stamp out religion. In the face of obstacles both exterior and interior, it finds a way.

Now, this does not mean for a moment that Christians should be satisfied with the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of natural religion, especially the kinds on offer today, but we should, as St. Paul, St. Irenaeus, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton, and Pope Benedict XVI did in their own day, meet it and engage it with the word of revelation. One of the marks of the natural religious attitude is that the seekers are always in control of the conversation: they set out to find ultimate meaning on their own terms.

Burton in fact argues that this tendency is especially prevalent today, when seekers 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 can be holy, but what finally matters is that God has answered it on his terms.

Again, it would be easy enough to write off the frankly weird forms of religiosity that Burton describes, but this would be seeing glass as half-empty. Rather, we Catholics should rejoice that the religious instinct remains vibrantly alive in the SBNR’s. And then we should eagerly engage that instinct with the liberating challenge of the Gospel.


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About Bishop Robert Barron 203 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

21 Comments

  1. We read: “The secularization hypothesis, first proposed by atheists and skeptics in the nineteenth century and reiterated ad nauseam by elite commentators today, holds that, as secularist science, technology, and education advance, religion will inevitably decline.”

    But rather than pointing to the new infestation of hobby-farm natural religions, might it be that the real new religions are secular scient-ism’s Technocracy, post-Darwin Evolution-ism, and the random meaninglessness of it all under Richard Dawkins?

    The permanent “four elements that religion has classically offered: meaning, purpose, community, and ritual” then become, instead and respectively: statistics, virtual reality, social media, and I-phone apps. But, then, Darwin himself still wondered thusly: “the riddle of God . . . a dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.”

    To which, Bishop Barron concludes that God himself has spoken into Darwin’s and our perplexity. Where the scientific method is convinced by only replicable results, the “Word made flesh” is an historical and once-only event: “The essential thing about Christ himself is not that he proclaimed particular ideas—which he did—but that I become a Christian by believing in this event [!]. God came into the world and he acted. So it is an action, a reality, not just an idea” (Benedict).

  2. “Spiritual but not religious” SBNR fits the current new wave of the disenchanted young Catholic well. Although agreeable to this informative, insightful Bishop Barron essay, I would rather say that they’re not seeking God in new and strange rituals. Rather beginning with always suspect, despite rave reviews by many Catholics Rowling’s Harry Potter, Crystals, Wicca they’re willingly many unwittingly offering their obeisance to The Spirit of the Air. That putrid Ghost whom The Apostle warns of.

  3. This, again, is nothing new — even when Pope Gregory XVI labeled it “novelties” in 1832 and “new things” (rerum novarum) in 1834. Modernism and socialism (the internal and external attacks on the Church, respectively, according to Chesterton) were first known as “the Democratic Religion” and intended to replace traditional forms of Christianity (Saint-Simon’s “New Christianity”; de Lamennais’s “Neo-Catholicism,” etc.), politics and marriage and family, combining religious, civil and domestic society to establish the Kingdom of God on Earth. As Fulton Sheen explained in “Religion Without God” (1927), this inverts the order of creation, and man becomes God-maker rather than God-made; God becomes immanent as Émile Durkheim’s divinized society and religion consists of the group’s worship of itself.

    Every effort by the Church to promote social justice instead of socialism and the Reign of Christ the King instead of the Kingdom of God on Earth has been subverted to the point where many people even at the highest levels in the Church are unable to see any distinction, while those attempting to promote a better understanding of Catholic social teaching are silenced or dismissed as dissenters or heretics. Some of this is explained in the upcoming (March 15, 2022) book from TAN Books, “The Greater Reset” that is based on the social doctrine of Pius XI and the personalism of St. John Paul II:

    https://www.amazon.com/Greater-Reset-Reclaiming-Personal-Sovereignty/dp/1505122597/ref=sr_1_1?Adv-Srch-Books-Submit.x=45&Adv-Srch-Books-Submit.y=8&qid=1640624611&refinements=p_28%3AThe+Greater+Reset&s=books&sr=1-1&unfiltered=1

  4. It strikes me that too many young people have been raised by “Catholic ” parents who rarely darkened the door of the church on a Sunday as a family. For Christmas and Easter, maybe. Possibly the odd wedding or funeral. But on an ongoing basis? I think not. Most of the faces I see at Mass presently are senior citizens. Oddly enough, given the damage done by Vatican II, the church seems intent on making MORE changes in a desperate attempt to get “with it” and modernize the church into something near secular that they seem to think would be appealing. They strive to make it all “easier”. God forbid any demands are made on the congregation–issues of morals and ethics, the importance of worship, rules for living an ethical life as taught by the church. No, making such demands might offend some and drive others away ( with their wallets!). As a result, all that is presented is a very uninspired beige and boring offering which attracts none.I can’t recall the last time a Priest spoke about abortion, drug use, living together, or sin. And frankly, that is what is desperately needed as the whole country skids off the road. I say, better to attract the committed and informed FEW, than the “do my own thing” types who obey no religious laws, make no commitments to morality, and attract no other believers.In our own catholic schools, do the children still bring in their coins to help support a child in the missions? If not, why not? This is how, as small kids, they learn the love of Christ and how He acts through THEM. They learn the world is not just about THEM. And they learn how richly God has blessed them to live in a country like THIS. Not a perfect place, but trying. Do they pray before the start of each class? So that God is in their minds frequently through the day,and they know He is watching their actions, the good and the bad for which they are accountable? And when they do something inappropriate, they can go tell God in confession and get a fresh start to do better? Do the learn the church hymns? Or have these things all gone by the wayside as “old fashioned?” I have observed that the children at my catholic school who attend First Friday Mass appear not to know when to stand or kneel , or the responses. My guess is, that it is because their families do not attend church. Why is this demand for a commitment to worship not made on the parents when they register? Its time to bring back some of the old but very good traditions before we have yet another lost generation.

  5. Talk about lowering the bar. This is sad – and ridiculous. A Catholic Bishop who has vowed and made a commitment to be a shepherd for Christ to his flock never even mentions Jesus Christ. Unbelievable. The new standard to get to heaven is to love Harry Potter? Bp. Baron should be ashamed. Jesus said Himself that NO ONE COMES TO THE FATHER EXCEPT BY ME. What part of thst is unclear to Bp. Baron?

    • Not a good reading, Mike, of the essay. As Bishop Barron states:

      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 some power appreciated as transcendent. We can blithely condemn all of this, or we can see it as expressive of what the Catholic tradition calls “natural religion,” which is the instinct, deeply rooted in each of us, to search for meaning in the ultimate sense. Despite the claims of the ideological secularists, it is just not that easy to stamp out religion. In the face of obstacles both exterior and interior, it finds a way.

      Now, this does not mean for a moment that Christians should be satisfied with the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of natural religion, especially the kinds on offer today, but we should, as St. Paul, St. Irenaeus, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton, and Pope Benedict XVI did in their own day, meet it and engage it with the word of revelation.

      Frankly, I don’t get Christians who are troubled by those of us who actually want to understand what and why others believe. Is it threatening to them?

      My Fundamentalist father, learning that I was becoming Catholic back in 1997, said (with obvious frustration), “Well, if you had read books about Hinduism, you’d become a Hindu.” To which I replied: “I have read books on Hinduism. And Buddhism. And atheism. And I’m becoming Catholic.”

      If we as Catholics are going to evangelize, we need to know something about who we are evangelize. To think otherwise is contrary to both faith and reason.

      • “Frankly, I don’t get Christians who are troubled by those of us who actually want to understand what and why others believe. Is it threatening to them?”

        Hmmm. I see what Bp. Barron is saying, but I basically agree with Mike’s disappointment in his comment above, and I don’t share Barron’s call to rejoice. Does this mean I now a fundamentalist and have no interest in understanding what and why others believe what they believe? If so, its news to me. People generally conform themselves (or allow themselves to be conformed) to the truth, which is an ongoing process, or try to conform the truth to themselves with the self. Barron seems to want to avoid certain things that I don’t think can be avoided. I thought this article was a useful read: https://www.lifesitenews.com/blogs/is-jesus-christ-the-privileged-way-to-salvationor-the-only-way/

  6. I have said time and again that Paganism is the proof that man is Homo religioso.

    When atheists demand proof from Christians/theists for the existence of God, I say that the burden of proof rests not on the believers but on the atheists, because since the beginning of time, man has always worshipped something other. Man is naturally ordered towards worship of an other, a transcendent being.

    Anyone therefore who proposes a new theory (there is no God) has the burden of disproving the existing belief ( there is a God/gods).

  7. The problem of “disaffiliation” is simply because almost no bishop or priest can lead seekers to experience God.

    There is near zero spiritual catechisis, not even in most religious orders, only the blind leading the blind, despite the vast riches of the Catholic Church, and folk seeking can also see this, and can also see those who are supposed to be their guides cannot separate all the fluff from authentic spiritual direction, and also see their guides do not practice such whatsoever.

    And so, when those questions are unanswered, when seekers see their shepherds are just as ignorant, they leave. They can intuit a phony and they leave.

  8. We didn’t receive any snow this season in Columbia County, Oregon until Christmas Night. Then, the light snowfall became a blinding snowfall as Christmas drew to a close. Approximately four inches of snow fell, and remained with us until rain began to melt it on the night following New Year’s Day. That simply is not supposed to happen. We are told that “climate change” is what is supposed to happen.

    It would help if the Catholic Church would get up to speed concerning the most important archeological discovery of our generation. The Turkish government has officially declared that the remains of Noah’s Ark have been discovered, and excava-
    tions are in the planning stage. (Visit arkdig.com) I have been involved with this research since 1979, and have made the acquaintance of some very notable archeologists.

    It would help if people were given to understand that the sun actually did recently complete its 36-year transit of the galactic equator, thus completing a nearly 26,OOO year, “Great Year” cycle. The dawn of the calendar ages in India (3OO2 B.C.) and Mexico (3114 B.C.) are nearly identical, and coincide with the dawn of the first cities on the planet (Sumerian, c. 31OO B.C.), and the approximate time of the Great Flood, (which is remembered in cultures across the planet).

    God is present, and dwells among us. It is possible to see the revelation of the presence of God, and to teach others to seek that revelation. “The priests did not ask, ‘Where is God?’ . . .” Jeremiah) Our clerics could seek the revelation of the presence of God, and then teach others to seek that revelation.

    • One can seek God in wonderful coincidence, in beautiful sunsets, astronomical telescopes, burn units and cancer treatment centers, ancient forests, battlefields, amber waves of grain, gas chambers, the Amazon basin, and the Himalayas….but it is ever so much easier when one starts inside one’s soul first, in quiet and solitude daily. Same with attempting love of neighbor, which is impossible without first loving God above all things and spending daily time with the beloved.

  9. Bishop Barron, the direct consequence of the supression of Catholicism engineered by the ennemies of the Church within is The Great Apostasy you describe so well. As young people seek what the Church has robbed them of outside and beyond, his holiness PPBXVI began an unstoppable movement of a return of what was denied. Just as the Churches refilled in Russia when anti-Church Communism collapsed, so too they could refill in Occident when the anti-Church Post-Conciliarism finally collapses. That total collapse is today in full sight…

  10. Bishop Barron highlights the direct consequence of the supression of Catholicism engineered by the ennemies of the Church. The Great Apostasy? As young people seek what the Church has robbed them of outside and beyond, his holiness PPBXVI began an unstoppable movement of a return of what was denied: Real Deal Catholicism. Just as the Churches refilled in Russia when Communism collapsed, so too they could refill in Occident Post-Post-Conciliarism.
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=e6HHnHDeFqg

    • Natural Religion is present in Traditional Catholicism. Traditional Latin Mass was dynamited for the deliberate bad reason.

  11. I understand why Bishop Barron rejoices: you can’t build on what people don’t have. You have to find what foundation they are standing on and use whatever truth it contains to draw out further truths that they have probably not paid attention to, or that frighten them. I have found that even very religious Catholics are afraid of a relationship with a personal God. They prefer to live a moral code with a ritual expression. They are afraid to open up to a God who is Someone rather than Something. I think that a lot of “nones” have this difficulty.

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