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Remixed Religion in America
Ben Klutsey talks with Tara Burton about contemporary expressions of U.S. spirituality
In this installment of a series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of academic outreach at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, speaks with Tara Isabella Burton about religion in America today, encompassing everything from yoga to witchcraft to wellness culture. They discuss the decline of trust in religious institutions, contemporary spirituality’s focus on self-determination, the role of the internet in creating new religious affinities and much more. Burton is the author of the novels “Social Creature” and “The World Cannot Give” and the nonfiction book “Strange Rites.” She has a doctorate in theology from Trinity College, Oxford.
This series also includes interviews with Alan Charles Kors, Emily Chamlee-Wright, Ilana Redstone, Richard Ebeling, Robert Talisse, Danielle Allen, Roger Berkowitz, Virgil Storr, Kevin Vallier, Juliana Schroeder, John Inazu, Jonathan Rauch and Peter Boettke.
BENJAMIN KLUTSEY: Thank you so much, Dr. Burton, for joining us today.
TARA BURTON: I’m delighted to be here.
KLUTSEY: Excellent. I’d like to start off by asking about your own journey into the world of strange rites and new religions. You write about your time visiting “Sleep No More,” and I’m hoping you can share some more about how you came to be interested in the topic of your new book and your own personal experiences in the world of what you call “remixed religion.”
BURTON: Sure. I was about 25, 26 when I came back to New York, where I’m from, and I’d been doing a doctorate in theology over in the U.K., and very much surrounded by a certain very traditional view of religion, say. And then when I came back to New York, I started working for Vox.com as their religion correspondent and ended up covering for them, increasingly, not just religion as traditionally understood but yoga, witchcraft, wellness culture, anything in the broader ambit of contemporary spirituality.
There was something about coming back to New York and having a bit of a toe in each world professionally, but also a toe in each world personally, which is to say, being in your twenties in New York City, you do get exposed to—every fifth party you go to has some slightly witchy vibe. Or wellness is something that you’re just swimming in. I found it incredibly fascinating, especially to have my theologian hat on and see what I was experiencing through that lens.
That became “Strange Rites.” Originally, “Strange Rites” was going to be a book about cults in a much more explicit way. Then as the research went on, as I did more and more work for Vox that brought me into the wellness orbit, the more interested I was in talking about, not distinct organizations or even formal groups that might be termed (pejoratively) cults—things like Nxivm—but rather, what are the ingredients in this cultural soup of remixed religion, and how are these elements of our spiritual lives, our ethical lives, our search for meaning or search for community or search for ritual.
What is encoded in the life of, I won’t say your typical millennial, because I do think that the book definitely has certain parameters. I think that this is more common in, let’s say, cities or politically progressive places. But I would make the case that wherever you are in America, whatever your religious background, your community affiliation, you’ve probably been exposed to some of this. I think that’s only becoming more and more true.
Immersive Theater and Choosing Rituals
KLUTSEY: I see. In the book you mentioned that you were not just a fly on the wall with “Sleep No More”; you became a fan, and at some point you became a fanatic. How did that happen?
BURTON: Oh, gosh. Well, I think there was something—and at the time, I was not particularly religious or observant, but probably spiritually hungry in a way that many people are. The experience of this intense artistic experience, this engagement with another world—so “Sleep No More,” which is a theater production by the British theater company Punchdrunk, based on “Macbeth” and Hitchcock’s “Rebecca.”
They don’t like the term “immersive,” but it’s what it is, immersive theater, that you wander through the space. You’re masked, and you have these interactions with various cast members who might take you into a private room, give you a private scene. What’s really interesting about that theater experience is it centers the audience; the audience has choice. You decide what character you want to follow. You decide what rooms you want to enter. There’s about a hundred different rooms, full of different things to see and explore.
What I think is so fascinating about “Sleep No More” and the fandom that arose around it is that I think the popularity of immersive theater, or the experiential theatrical production, I think says something about the way in which we are increasingly called to be, want to be active participants in what we’re experiencing. The kind of theater of the 2000s is about the importance of the agency of the audience member/consumer for good and for ill.
I think that my love of “Sleep No More,” which was, at the time, very pure and is now somewhat more adulterated by time and perspective, although I still appreciate it as an art form. The idea that at the same time, we are hungering to be in these spaces, be in these moments that are transcendent, that suggest ritual, that suggest a moment of the sacred. But that the way in which we generally want to approach them is as someone who is actively making a choice about the kind of experiences we have and having an agency that is not necessarily the case in, let’s say, going to Sunday Mass.
I think that there’s a lot to be said for it, but also that this is very much the paradigm through which we can talk about broader approaches to cultural experience, broader approaches to spiritual experience. Which is to say, this isn’t just—this theater is not just a cool thing that is popular in New York because it’s trendy, but rather that more consistently, culturally speaking, when it comes to the most aesthetically, spiritually fulfilling or intense experiences that we seek out, the common factor there is a fascination with the primacy of the individual to curate it.
That became a window into “Strange Rites” more broadly, which posits that our religious lives look like this, that it is about wanting to curate a hyper-bespoke experience predicated on our own desires and interests to create our own religion.
KLUTSEY: Right. Now, before we get further into the ideas of the book, you had mentioned earlier that before, that term you were thinking about was “cult,” but then as you did your research and as you went about writing the book, you decided to talk about religion more broadly. Can you unpack for us what religion is? It seemed you use a fairly broad definition. Help us understand the framework or criteria you use to identify various subcultures or ecosystems as a religion.
BURTON: Sure. The caveat there is I don’t think you can necessarily define religion easily. I think there have been as many definitions of religion as there are scholars of religion, and to say it requires this or that, chances are, you are going to find at least one if not several systems commonly thought of as religions that don’t fit into the category. I do think when we talk—a more useful way to talk about the question of religious life is to talk about what are some of the elements that an organized religion would traditionally be composed of, and what are the roles that it might play in a person’s life or a community’s life.
Then how are these particular needs being met by things that we don’t necessarily traditionally think of as a religion? In my book, I identify a few. There is meaning, which is to say, pretty reductionistically, what’s it all about? What’s it all for? These broader questions about the universe. There’s purpose, which is related to meaning but more intimate. It is, okay, here is what the world is. Here is the status of the world. What is my place in it? How do I, with my own life, interface in some way with the cosmic narratives underlying the world as it is?
There is community, relatively self-explanatory. How does meaning and purpose—how do these things interact with my relationship with those people around me? Who are these people around me? How do I understand them? How do we work together? Then there’s ritual. What are the concrete, regular practices that I can do in my life, with community or alone, that help me feel connected to this wider story that I’m telling or experiencing?
Obviously, the way that I’m talking about these things now are a little bit individualistic. There’s a little bit of a sense of these are needs that are being filled. I’m not sure if that is the ontologically right framing, but I think in the contemporary American religious landscape, I think these are increasingly framed as individual human needs that need to be met by certain organizations.
Obviously something that’s missing there is truth claims. Is it true? Is it right? I think increasingly the narrative around that has shifted to, does this work for you? Does this make your life better? Are you improved by it? Are your needs being met by it? Which are, I think, separate kinds of questions from, is God real? What does this mean? I think that there is a way in which the contemporary approach to these building blocks of religious life does tend to be quite hyperindividualistic.
Spirituality Versus Organized Religion
KLUTSEY: Really interesting. I guess our desire for these things—meaning, purpose, community and rituals—they’ve driven us towards certain things, away from institutionalized religion. What you observe is that we’ve become a more religiously remixed culture, and you talk about three categories: the SBNR, spiritual but not religious; the faithful nones; and the religious hybrids. As I was reading, I often would get lost in where the distinctions are. Can you talk about what the distinguishing features are of each of these?
BURTON: Sure. I will say that there actually is a little bit of an overlap between those groups. The wider question that I wanted to ask is, who are the group of people or the groups of people who have what they would think of as a rich spiritual life or a belief in something, but who do not fit into the easy category of “I belong to this religion; I’m checking it on a form” and also, “This is what I believe, this is what I practice—or at least, this is what I affirm that I believe in and practice”?
Often, the bigger picture of religion in America is easily given as, we are getting more secular. And statistics that are often trotted out to defend this include the fact that about a quarter of Americans are religiously unaffiliated. They do not belong to the organized religion that exists in a check box on a census. That number goes up to about 36% of young millennials and zoomers, so generation Z.
However, while it is completely fair to say that the American religious landscape is tilting against organized religion, it is not true to say that America is more secular or less religious. And there’s a few different statistics that bear that out. My personal favorite is that 72% of self-proclaimed religiously unaffiliated say that they either believe in God or some higher power. With that in mind, there’s a few different ways of looking at identifying people who might be remixed, but who might not show up on a form as easily, because they might check the “none,” N-O-N-E box, the religiously unaffiliated box on a form, and yet actually be quite spiritually active.
How do you find these people? One way is who self-describes as spiritual but not religious. That’s about, I’m going to say about 20% of the population. It depends on the exact study, but it’s usually around there. These are people who may or may not also tick another box on the form. They might say “I’m Jewish,” or “I’m Christian. I guess Christmas and Easter are fine.” Their primary self-identification is, “I am not religious. My religious life is not wedded to the tradition with which I might, for cultural reasons or for family reasons, identify. But I do identify as spiritual.”
Related to that group, the faithful nones are people who might say, “I’m nothing; I don’t identify with any religious group,” but who will on follow-up questions say, “I do believe in a higher power. Or I practice certain kinds of—whether it’s meditation or something in the witch orbit—that there are spiritual practices I do to get in touch with the divine.” That’s group two.
And group three, which is another way of looking at it, is saying, all right, who are people that say, “I’m Christian, I’m Jewish, I’m Muslim” on the form, but who, again, in follow-up questions or breaking down their actual beliefs and practices have a hybrid model where they’re incorporating different practices, different beliefs into their own, perhaps a little bit contradictory but individualistic tradition?
A number that I always go back to is that I think it’s about—I want to say 28% of Christians, self-identified Christians, say they believe in reincarnation. That is, of course, not something that an orthodox Christian theology would say is even within the realm of Christian views of the afterlife. It’s actually pretty incompatible with doctrinal tenants about what Christians generally view of the—even within—there’s a range depending on your denomination. This is pretty much not something you would find as orthodox. Yet, to say, what does it mean to say, “Well, I’m Christian. That is how I identify. I identify as at least a little bit religious on that front, but I also believe that.”
By looking at these different categories together, we can get a picture of people who are, in some way, what I call “religiously remixed,” who are taking elements of their religious life from organized religion, from the world of New Age, from what I call intuitionalist models of religion that tend to focus on the self, feeling, what works for you as a guiding principle and from the panoply of contemporary cultural options that are religion adjacent. Things like wellness culture or mindfulness that are somewhat spiritual or designed for spiritual well-being, but exist very much in the contemporary capitalistic marketplace.
That’s how you get your remixed. Numerically, if you put all these groups together, I think a conservative estimate is about 50% of Americans. But I would venture to say through a mix of, I think, study and conjecture that almost every single American has been exposed to this, is involved in some way in this, because this is just part of the cultural landscape now.
Religious Remixing in America
KLUTSEY: That’s really, really interesting. I guess all of this remixing is not new. In your book, you talk about Thomas Jefferson, that in 1820, he created for himself a bespoke Bible. He cut and pasted the lines from the Gospels that he thought best reflected his vision of Christ, excluding those passages, like miracles, that didn’t quite fit. He produced what came to be known as “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.”
In a sense, Jefferson was one of the first religious hybrids, and I guess we’re all doing the same. None of this is new. Can you trace some of this stuff for us, where this American remixing practice began?
BURTON: Absolutely. There’s two answers to that question. I think one is that for the entirety of its history, for a variety of reasons, there’s always been what I want to call the “intuitionalist” strain in American religious thought, which is to say, a general tendency towards a religion as something private, intimate, relational. And I think you can trace that to the separation of church and state. You can trace that to the influence of English evangelical movements in the country. You can trace it to Protestant Reformation. There’s so much there that you can say, okay, we’ve got a general tendency that is distinctly American from Jefferson onward.
That said, I think the very particular intuitionalist model that we see today, I would trace back to the transcendentalists via New Thought, which is to say the American Romantic vision of the emotional self as you would see in Thoreau or, particularly, in Ralph Waldo Emerson, where the underlying vision of the self is as divine, but trapped by society in a particular way. The bad guy out there, the thing that is holding us back from being who we truly are, is external and is other people, or is the construct of society as something that is holding us back from our most authentic selves.
That’s something that Emerson is quite explicit about. I think that mid-19th-century, largely New England-based philosophical movement got really popularized in the 1860s and onward with the development of something called New Thought, which we can think of as the first self-help craze in America.
It started out as faith healing and became something much more intense. But basically the idea behind it was that there are spiritual forces or energies out there in the universe that you can be in touch with. By focusing your energy, you can actually affect your material life. And this began with Phineas Quimby, a New England clockmaker, very much as a way of curing ailments—“if you want to get better, you will”—and then became much more about, “Do you want to make money? Then you will.”
In the Gilded Age, there was a whole set of New Thought books by people like William Walker Atkinson about things like “Think and grow rich.” Imagine yourself making money, manifesting it, to use a term that is popular nowadays. Basically, your desire is a magical force. That I think, in particular, sets the stage for more contemporary iterations of the intuitionalist model which blend focus on inwardness, a focus on the self and a suspicion of society and societal institutions, with the promise of, let’s say, material or financial or aesthetic reward.
Which is to say, your skin will clear up and you’ll be super healthy and you’ll look great and you’ll be rich and you’ll have everything you want. And you’ll have everything you want in this world if you focus your spiritual energy correctly. This is not exclusive to the religiously unaffiliated. The proliferation of the prosperity gospel in as many as 40% of American evangelical churches I think is testament to the fact that this tendency can be embedded within religious orthodoxy as well as outside of it.
I think the legacy of New Thought in America, the blend of self-help, faith in the capitalist system and this inward-looking divinization of the self, those things—I think we have New Thought to thank for all of that.
The Self-Focus of Intuitional Religion
KLUTSEY: I guess it’s all very broadly embedded in society. There are certain phrases that have become very common in our vocabulary today that seem to have emerged from the development of the new set of intuitional religions. These are phrases like self-care, best life, lived experience. What do these things mean? Are they a reflection of the self-focused nature of the intuitional ethos?
BURTON: I think so. Self-care of course has its own particular legacy in activist circles before being popularized in a much less politically engaged way now.
I think that we don’t really have robust notions—culturally shared, collectivist civic notions—about what the good life looks like. What our purpose is, our telos—to use a pretentious Greek word—I think in the absence of a shared sense of what are we for, as well as the absence of trust in any institution that might help us encounter a sense of purpose or community.
I think statistically if you look at institutional trust by age, it’s astonishing, the drop-off. Whether we’re talking about the military or the political establishment, journalistic establishment, the police—basically any institution you can think of—you will have seniors display massively higher levels or percentages of trust than younger people, and it just gets more and more true.
I think in the absence of trusted institutions, self becomes the closest thing you have to something you know you can rely on. The narrative would go something like, “Well, at least you know you’re not lying to you.” Not that self-deception isn’t possible. I think that the focus on the self, and the focus on not just self-care and this secondary meaning of meaning pure self-focus rather than its original activist context.
Self-care does become about, or the best life does become about the fact that our experience of our life is the only thing that we know that we have, even as we don’t necessarily have a sense, a shared collective sense, of what our life is actually for. In the absence of that purpose, what is there but our best life? In the absence of the good life, let’s say, the best life becomes the thing on which we hang all of her impulses towards meaning or purpose or perfection.
Is Customized Spirituality a Good Thing?
KLUTSEY: Now, in the context of liberalism, a society that is based on freedom, equality and pluralism, one might say that the emergence of multiple intuitional religions with people customizing their own religious experiences and practices is a good thing. There’s a growing demand for meaning, purpose, community and rituals, and there’s a supply to meet that demand. Is there anything wrong with this phenomenon?
BURTON: Yes, is my short answer. I think that the model whereby religion is reduced from the attempt to make truth claims about the meaningfulness of the universe and to put them into narrative form, say—when that becomes replaced by a sense of religion as a set of needs that we can fill, perhaps even through purchasing the right products or subscribing to the right Substacks, it becomes very much about the building of a personal brand through the curation of a spiritual experience.
What feels good to me? What do I want to say about myself? When I have my wedding or a funeral or what have you, what story am I telling about who I am? These all no longer have any reference to a concept of “objective truth” or to truth claims about the world. As a result, I think there’s a danger that they can become unchallenging in certain ways, reifications and divinizations of our most unchallenged self.
I think that, at worst—and I think we see this in certain elements of the wellness community in particular—spiritual well-being starts to look a lot like spending a lot of money on products to make you conventionally attractive or to look expensively put together. There’s an odd, disingenuous link between, “Well, this is actually a form of spiritual wellness for me,” but actually it’s just looking a lot like material success with a little veneer of moral purity on it. And that’s the part where I’m suspicious.
KLUTSEY: I see.
BURTON: At the same time, though—and I think this is a really important caveat—I think there’s an often conservative (though not exclusively) narrative that goes like, “Kids these days, they’re all so selfish. If we just had returned to the Catholic Church and returned to Mother Church, and then all the evils of liberal modernity will be solved.” That is also not true.
I think, particularly, it cannot be overstated that ecclesiastical institutions, to say nothing of institutions more broadly, have profoundly failed. Why should the Catholic Church or any other church with a history of, whether it’s sex abuse scandals, whether it’s a history of marginalizing queer people—40% of queer Americans are religiously unaffiliated, almost twice the national average.
Whether there’s any legacy that a lot of these institutions have is a legacy of marginalization, of causing pain, of spiritual abuse, either on the level of the abuse of individuals or ideologically the marginalization of people on a collective level. Why should we trust these institutions? I think that against that background, certain kinds of grassroots spiritual, new religions or ways in which people find spiritual meaning outside of institutions, they’re not doing this because all millennials are selfish narcissists.
They’re doing this because this is the only way that they’re able to access, in many cases, spiritual life or spiritual communities that are not toxic and harmful. I think that those two things always have to be looked at against—in tandem, which is to say, yes, there are many reasons to be suspicious of remixed religion, but it’s also vital to keep in mind the ways in which religious remixing has provided an avenue for people experiencing marginalization from traditional religious communities to have robust spiritual and sometimes communal lives.
KLUTSEY: Does this affect—particularly the rejection of truth claims, objective truth, and these things—does this also affect the way that we get facts and information? How does this affect the accuracy of claims of information, people in different echo chambers in their own subcultures and deciding to trust news sources that exist, and so on and so forth? I think you talk about the issues of balkanization and tribalism as well in the book. Is this related?
BURTON: Absolutely. I think maybe the way that I would frame the problem is that distrust in institutions, including in the knowledge traditionally produced by institutions such as scientific papers, let’s say, means that there’s an increasing tendency—and this is perhaps most commonly talked about as a right-wing phenomenon, which is to say because QAnon or anti-vax theories or what have you, but I think it’s more broadly true that we don’t trust institutions.
We do not trust, as a polity, the “mainstream media.” I think that even people who largely do are increasingly willing to entertain suspicion of a post-Trump era, post-coronavirus in particular. There is a sense in which existing cultural biases towards intuitionalism, towards the self as an authoritative source on all of life, including perhaps instinct as a key to scientific truths—I think this has already been true. The intensification of the past five years has only made that more true.
I think now the, “Well, sure, this newspaper says that, but it feels fishy to me; it doesn’t seem right,” combined with the fact that we have access now, whoever we are, whatever political affiliation, to a wealth of algorithmically selected sources propping up our own intuitions—literally whatever we think is true, we’re likely to reflect that in our social media posts or Google search history, which is just going to put us on the algorithm train to being reinforced in certain ways.
All of that means that we are all surrounded by little miniature bespoke-ified worldviews that are constantly supported by new information that we lead ourselves/are led to find online. Absolutely.
The Role of the Internet
KLUTSEY: That’s really interesting. Now, the role of the internet. I think you talk about the printing press ushering in a new age of transmitting information and sharing knowledge, which transformed religion, the rise of Protestantism. Is this what the internet is doing for the remixing of religions?
BURTON: Absolutely. I do think that the printing press of the remixed age is very much the internet. I think particularly the way in which the internet primed us to think of ourselves as having the right, perhaps even the entitlement, to be active consumers of information, to shape that information in ways that we want, and to let the algorithms underpinning everything help us with a curation of the self.
I think all of this arose out of internet culture. And in particular, those of us who grew up with it, which is to say millennials and younger who grew up online, learned to develop and in adulthood reproduce this. I often think fandom in particular, online fandom is a really good window into this tendency because you have people who started out reading a text, appreciating a text.
“Harry Potter” fan fiction, I think, is actually the best example here, because it was the most popular. It also came out at the right time; the “Harry Potter” books coming out just at the dawn of personal home internet access in the United States. But you’d start out talking about a text. You’d find other people to talk about this text online with; then you’d form communities around your personal interpretations and interests of the text.
You start writing fan fiction, re-imagining the characters in ways that you prefer. Maybe Harry is not supposed to end up with Ginny, he’s supposed to end up with Hermoine, and so we’re going to re-imagine that. Suddenly, the model for how we think about engaging with artistic phenomena, firstly, but I think this is now as true of spiritual texts as it is of artistic texts.
The fan culture is very much, “This is something that I own as much as the author owns. This is something that is for me to reshape.” In some ways, there is actually the shade of something much older there into pre-written traditions, where stories could be reformed in that way. I think that that fan culture, which absolutely dominates how media works now—we think of the ways in which movies, like Marvel movies, are constructed for the fans in a way that is quite explicit.
I think that that is more broadly true, that we’re all used to re-imagining things in ways that work for us. This is just the basic way that culturally we in 21st-century America approach most information. What do we do with it? How do we shape it? How do we create ourselves or recreate our worlds around it? I think that is very much the legacy of internet culture. I don’t know how you go back to a more receptive rather than active, creative model of interaction or ownership.
KLUTSEY: You’d say that the fan culture gave us a lot of experience with meaning, community, ritual and purpose? We were learning how to develop a culture around that.
BURTON: Absolutely, and specifically cultures that are—and I think this was true in the case of internet fandom—organized around affinity rather than geography or physical presence. You can meet someone halfway across the country or halfway across the world. You both have the same ship in whatever fandom. Suddenly you’re all in whether it’s a message board together or a list server or a closed LiveJournal.
The precise medium depends on exactly what you’re talking. But you can forge an online community, online friendships and a sense of purpose and identity around something that you love rather than perhaps facts about you that might seem given, but not chosen: where you grow up, the street you live on, the religious community your family belongs to. I think that that way of thinking about affinity as the force underpinning social interaction—“How do I find my tribe, and what does my tribe consist of? It consists of people who like the same things as me.” I think that’s a very specific move that the internet and internet culture made possible.
KLUTSEY: I find very interesting, on page 163 of your book you cite a 2019 study that found that about 30% of millennials report experiencing loneliness, compared to 20% of Gen Xers and 15% of baby boomers. If there’s all this community and connecting with people who have a shared affinity and so on, how come we see this high level of loneliness?
BURTON: I will say, I don’t know for sure. But my conjecture based on my work in “Strange Rites” is that it is generally good for us as people to have the kinds of rootedness that we don’t choose. That when we think of ourselves exclusively as creatures of affinity, in some ways, that causes us to think about what we do and who we do it with as being downstream of who we are and what we want.
I’m doing this hobby, and I’m doing this hobby that I like with these people who also like this thing, and at the end of it’s something that I am getting. It is at times difficult to forge the communal bonds that I think make us all—maybe I’m letting my idealism show here—but making us all better.
I think there has to be some contingency to human relationships, some sense in which this is our community, this is—whether it’s biological family, chosen family—these are the people in our lives. And at times we will not always agree in certain ways or see eye to eye in certain ways, but we still have to experience what it is to live together and live in common.
I think that, at worst, especially when they are (as is the case with a lot of online communities) exclusively online, these are not people that we are confronted with day to day or in the flesh, so to speak. I think that there is a real risk that we forget what life in common looks like. I think certainly, this is not always true. I can think of online communities in which I met real-life friends and where I developed communities from online, and that’s one thing.
I think that when communities stay on the level of simulacra of social engagement, and that’s all disembodied, those are precisely the surface-level connections that vanish when we need something real.
Describing the New Civil Religions
KLUTSEY: Right. Now, so you talk about three emerging civil religions: social justice movement folks, techno-utopians and the atavistic right. Basically, they challenge orthodox ideas and institutions. But one thing I kept thinking about, though, was the first two, social justice and techno-utopians—they seem to reflect the views of coastal elites, whereas the third is a reaction to both. Did you get that sense?
BURTON: Yes. That’s not actually the framing that I would use. I think that coastal elites is a complicated phenomenon, and I think that these—I’m not even sure that I would call these things groups. I actually think trends, or hermeneutic trends might be the better way of thinking about it because—I want to make a quick caveat. I think of the social justice movement, of techno-utopianism and of reactionary atavism as not necessarily morally comparable to each other at all, but just ways in which disparate remixed culture is coalescing around certain worldviews.
I don’t actually think that they’re, in some ways, incompatible. On the surface, they seem quite incompatible with each other. But I think we actually see, for example, the conflation of certain atavistic attitudes and the techno-utopian attitudes in fans of Peter Thiel, where those two things are quite closely linked or the extreme versions—extremely online far right do tend to take elements there.
Or you can talk about hyperliberal in a sense of—not in the sense of progressive, in the sense of liberalism liberal—hyperliberal news organizations that also want to talk about individualistic best life, but want to use the ethos and language of social justice and post-liberal leftist rhetoric, but will want to use it for their own ends because it is more—let me think of a better way to put this—because they have an economic interest in seeming progressive.
I think that there’s actually a lot of fluidity between these movements, that these are not “some are elite, some are anti-elite.” I think increasingly there is—it is porous, the ways in which these trends interact with one another.
KLUTSEY: Do you get any pushback from those in any one of these three categories? Let’s say fans of Peter Thiel or fans of Jordan Peterson who would say, “No, no, no, we don’t think of ourselves as religions.” Did you get that pushback?
BURTON: Sometimes. Less than I think I would have thought, which is to say, I think that the claims I make are sufficiently—I don’t think, I don’t want to say (and I think this is a popular trope) social justice is a religion. I think this is something that gets bandied about a lot, particularly in conservative spaces, and is often a code of saying these people are crazy cultists.
That’s a subtext. That’s not at all what I’m interested in saying. I think the more perhaps cautious read, which is that there are ways in which our ideas about—collective cultural ideas about the self, about what we owe to each other, about how we process information and what it means to be human—I think these questions are coalescing in certain ways around certain shared vocabularies.
I think the word orthodoxies would be overstating it, but certain shared ideas. I think that there are fewer people who would say, belonging to any of these intellectual spaces, no. I think people are quite willing to say, “Yes, this is a discursive corner, and there is a shared ideology here, and this does impact how I form community. This does impact how I perceive the world around me.” I think that that gentler claim has been perhaps easier to defend.
KLUTSEY: Yes. Now, before we move on, can you explain to our audience what social justice and techno-utopian and atavistic categories are?
BURTON: Sure, with the caveat that all of this is a bit reductionist, as any categorization is. I think, broadly speaking, the three ways that we see contemporary remixed culture coalesce into bodies of thought that are slightly more established, though still themselves fluid . . .
Broadly speaking, social justice movement: progressive, suspicious of certain liberal notions of neutrality wedded to ideas of truth that take seriously ways in which different people, as a result of their experiences both in a particular body and in a particular society, might experience the world extremely differently in ways in which that perspective is not immediately transferable.
Then I think you have the hyperliberal techno-utopians, of whom the Silicon Valley crowd is the most obvious. But also visions of using technology, using expertise, using “the facts” to have mastery over technology and by—mastery over technology for the purpose of hacking human life that we are going to optimize. I think that’s the vision of the techno-utopians.
Finally, what I call the reactionary atavists. People who think—also an anti-liberal group, who basically want to return to certain kinds of essentialism often to do with gender or to do at the far right end with race. Where there’s a sense that the liberal order is flawed in certain kinds of distinction, and that there is a fascination with hierarchy, a fascination with evolution, a fascination with human beings as animals who exist in a very particular biological order.
Obviously, these groups are quite distinct from one another. I want to be clear that I’m making absolutely no moral claims about parity between or among any of them. I do think that there are different ways in which America has responded to questions about liberalism, about the self, about what we are for, and what parts of us are really us or authentically us, and what parts of us are changeable or subject to change. These are three distinct and politically loaded responses to that question.
Is There Cause for Optimism?
KLUTSEY: Very interesting. Which one are you most concerned about and which one are you most optimistic about?
BURTON: Sure. I think I am by far most concerned about the reactionary atavism. I think that of the groups we’ve seen, this is the group in which violence has most frequently broken out, whether we’re talking about things like January 6 or we’re talking about various killings, like the Alek Minassian or Elliot Rodger killings by self-proclaimed incels. I think that is the corner of the internet about which I am most concerned of the three.
That said, I am most optimistic—conversely, I think the questions being asked by the social justice movement are generally the most fruitful. I think that the vision of a better world and a world that is structured along certain kinds of mutuality and interdependence, I think that is a vital point that does need to be reiterated in the public sphere.
I think the challenge of liberal notions of neutrality, specifically when recognizing that we are in bodies, we are in culture, we are not fully self-creating beings. Our experiences are shaped by ways in which we do not choose. I think that that is something that is certain—I think that is something that we need to recover in the public square, and it is something that I am very glad that we are, through this kind of discourse, recovering.
I think that is where my optimism lies. I think I’m just also generally suspicious of the techno-utopians, but as a general healthy suspicion rather than worrying about the accidental creation of sentient AI or something.
KLUTSEY: Right. Now, as we close out, do you have any concluding thoughts or call to action that you’d like readers to take away from your book?
BURTON: Yes. On the one hand, I think that there’s something very heartening that particularly younger Americans are actively interested in and hunger for spiritual fulfillment, for a communal mutuality that our modern world does not often allow. I think that there is actually a lot of reason for optimism when we look at the remix as a phenomenon. I think the place to be wary and the place to be critical is not at the level of individual people, but to say, who is trying to make money off this? Who is monetizing this?
I think the nightmarish world that I would like to see changed is the way in which moral hunger gets re-imagined as a consumer good. I’m thinking of the ways that Gillette and Dove and various corporations will use, whether it’s the language of social justice or the language of spiritual well-being in advertisements, in order to sell products as moral goods. I think that that’s what we really have to watch out for culturally, is the commodification of our spiritual lives.
KLUTSEY: Great. Well, on that note, Dr. Tara Burton, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. Really appreciate this. This is a very insightful book, and I learned a lot from this conversation as well. Thank you very much.
BURTON: Thank you for having me.