About a decade ago, I came across a video on YouTube that profoundly shaped my view of how culture works.
Everything Is A Remix by documentary filmmaker Kirby Ferguson argues that all new creative works are built from preexisting ones in an endless process of what he calls “remixing.”
From music to movies to video games to technological inventions, he presents countless examples of how even the seemingly most original works are part of a long lineage of influences.
Or as hip-hop artist Questlove puts it, “The DNA of every song lies in another song. All creative ideas are derivative of another.” This hilarious video by the Australian comedy group Axis Of Awesome demonstrates that that is no exaggeration.
It was the first time I had encountered the concept of creative remixing, and it unshackled me from the ridiculous expectation that I had to sit alone in a room and somehow dream up something completely unprecedented.
Growing up in a family of gifted painters, musicians, and dancers, I was always the black sheep with no particular creative talent to offer. But I knew, I was good at collecting, organizing, and cataloguing things, and suddenly I saw how those skills could give me a chance to shine. I began to repurpose the same notetaking system I had been using to manage my health to fuel my writing.
Since that time, I had assumed that “everything is a remix” was just a quirky observation about an obscure aspect of culture. That is, until I read Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (affiliate link) by Tara Isabella Burton.
Based on extensive research combined with her own commentary, this book shows how that same practice of remixing is now entering the realm of spirituality and religion. Our most deeply held beliefs about the nature of reality, truth, and the human soul are rapidly shifting from unquestionable doctrine to yet another creative medium ripe for remixing.
The decline of organized religion
According to polls, traditional organized religion is in steep decline across the United States and the developed world.
Mainline Protestants, once the backbone of American Christianity, have been shrinking since the 1980s and as of 2017 constitute only 10% of the American public. Of those, barely a quarter attend church.
Evangelicals, a much younger and more conservative strand of Christianity, have fared better than older denominations but are also now in decline. Only 8% of white millennials today identify as evangelical, compared to 26% of seniors. Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2012) are the least religious yet, with 34% saying they are religiously unaffiliated. 13% of them – twice the rate of the general population – identify as atheists.
Almost one in five Americans was raised in a religious household, only to leave it later in life. Meanwhile, just 4% who were raised in non-religious households later join an organized faith. All these trends seem to tell a simple story: organized religion is dying. I found it an easy one to believe, since it reflects my own experience of leaving my childhood faith.
But there is a deeper, much more interesting shift happening: even those who continue to identify with organized religions are incorporating new elements into their beliefs at an unprecedented rate.
For example, 29% of self-proclaimed Christians believe in reincarnation, which isn’t a part of mainstream doctrine. In 2018, 42% of Americans said they believed that “spiritual energy can be located in physical things,” with an astonishing 37% of Christians agreeing. Three-quarters of millennials say they agree with the statement “Whatever is right for your life or works best for you is the only truth you can know.”
Religious remixing represents a wholesale shift in how we conceive of faith, and it’s sweeping Christians along with it, not leaving them behind.
What is a religion?
In her research, Burton identified 4 fundamental needs that people typically seek to fulfill through belief in a higher power:
- Meaning: A bigger-picture sense of why the world is the way it is, including where good and evil come from.
- Purpose: The need to have a role to play in the overarching structure of reality, whether it is to evangelize the gospel, fight in a holy war, or engage in political activism.
- Community: Warm ties to a group that shares and reinforces common values.
- Rituals: The solemnized occasions through which people reaffirm their commitment to those values.
A religion, by this rather utilitarian definition, is any belief system that provides a person with a source of meaning, a sense of purpose, a supportive community, and a set of shared rituals.
Organized religion has always offered these things – what has changed is that we now have permission to meet those needs by combining different spiritual ingredients into a concoction all our own.
There are potentially limitless options for which ingredients we can choose from, but I’m listing the ones below that Burton directly mentions in her book:
- Renewed versions of old traditions, such as paganism and atavism
- Traditional religions such as Christianity (and its various sects and denominations), Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Deism
- Secularized versions of traditional practices like meditation, mindfulness, and yoga
- Practices from alternative spirituality such as tarot, astrology, and the occult
- Political movements such as progressivism, conservatism, and the alt-right
- Alternative lifestyles such as LGBTQ+
- Prophetic visions of the future, such as techno-utopianism and transhumanism
- Self-care and wellness culture, including weight-lifting, paleo and other diets, and self-help books
- Online communities such as Reddit, YouTube, 4chan, Instagram, the Rationalist community, multiplayer video games, and fanfiction communities
A “progressive witch” might combine practices from the occult like tarot decks and spells with the theistic belief in a cosmic battle between good (marginalized groups fighting for justice) and evil (the repressive forces of organized religion).
A tech worker might describe themselves as an atheist, while swearing by practices like meditation, mindfulness, and fasting in order to give their lives meaning and structure as they work toward a vision of a technology-transformed society.
An LBGTQ+ activist might attend a local church for a sense of community and the comfort of ancient rituals, adding on self-care practices to rejuvenate themselves in their fight for gay rights, while connecting with like-minded friends and promoting their ideas via social media.
Burton calls the people who engage in spiritual remixing the “Remixed.”
While the combinatorial possibilities are staggering, and growing all the time, there are a few aspects that the Remixed tend to have in common:
- They often challenge traditional beliefs and lifestyles, including sexual, romantic, and familial norms.
- They tend to harness the resources of the free market, even if they otherwise espouse opposition to capitalism and consumerism.
- They are often focused on individualistic self-improvement, treating self-actualization as a secular form of enlightenment.
- Remixed believers reject the authority of tradition, institutions, and “default life scripts,” looking instead to personal experience and intuition as the highest sources of truth.
In an era in which traditional religion seems to have lost much of its appeal, we’ve begun to fuse different beliefs drawn from a competitive free market of ideas. Like shoppers perusing the windows of retail stores, we construct bespoke packages of meaning according to our individual needs and tastes.
The very definition of “religion” is in a state of flux. Younger generations are reimagining what it means to be part of something greater than themselves, without necessarily believing in a supernatural deity at all.
Burton has found that people aren’t necessarily rejecting religion wholesale so much as they are “remixing” different elements into their own personalized belief systems. Using this more flexible definition of faith, there’s evidence that we’ve become more religious than ever.
The so-called “faithful Nones” in the US – those who don’t identify with any organized religion yet incorporate spiritual beliefs and practices into their lives – score at least as highly on many measures of religiosity, like daily prayer and a stated belief in God, as European Christians.
The Remixed are people who demand agency and creative expression in their spiritual lives.
They claim the right to mix and match various spiritual, aesthetic, experiential, and philosophical traditions. They craft spiritual experiences based on intuition and personal experience rather than any sacred text or institution.
They have been called the “Nones” (referring to the box they check on surveys of religious affiliation), “religious hybrids,” or SBNRs (for “Spiritual But Not Religious”) – when you combine these groups together, the Remixed make up at least 50% of the US population.
Origins of the Remixed
The roots of “personalized” religion in the United States go back nearly 200 years.
The US was founded on a strict separation of church and state, in stark contrast to nearly every other nation in the world. Transcendentalism, popularized by philosophers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau starting in the 1830s, promoted the view that religious institutions only obscured our true nature and gained widespread appeal.
Even the Jesus Movement, a 1970s phenomenon that brought evangelicals to the forefront of American culture and politics, was based on the idea of a direct, personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The more recent Prosperity Gospel might be the ultimate fusion of Christianity and capitalism, with a staggering 61% of American Christians agreeing with the statement “God wants you to be rich.”
But Burton identifies the most direct origins of the Remixed in a much more recent time: the Internet-driven “fan culture” of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The millennials (born between 1982 and 1996) were the first generation to come of age online, which means they were also the first to use the Internet not just to consume content but to form relationships and communities. Nearly a quarter of teenagers reported that they had made friends online by 2007. By 2015, that number had risen to 57%, with 25% saying they had met at least one online friend in person.
Media scholar Henry Jenkins terms this phenomenon “participatory culture.” We no longer passively absorb the stories that others have decided are good for us. Now, we participate in stories as active agents, creating the content that we want to see out of the raw material available to us online.
Scholars of religion have long pointed out that the Protestant Reformation couldn’t have happened without the printing press. Only a technology that allowed people to sit with a text in the privacy of their own homes and interpret its message for themselves could have given rise to such a personal faith.
If Protestantism is the religion of the printed book, then the Remixed represent the religion of the Internet.
Social justice versus Silicon Valley
Amidst the countless options for what to believe, Burton identifies two as the leading contenders for the title of official civic religion of the Remixed: social justice culture and Silicon Valley utopianism.
Social justice culture started as a small movement on liberal college campuses in the US, and in the last couple decades has grown into a major sociocultural force. Its core article of faith is that the goliaths of society – racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry and injustice – must be struck down at all costs in order to achieve a better, fairer world. The think tank More in Common estimates that 8% of the US population subscribes to its tenets.
Social justice culture extends the Remixed faith in individual human potential explicitly to marginalized and oppressed groups, linking all of our fates with their liberation.
Silicon Valley utopianism is less well defined, but includes several influential movements such as the Rationalists, Transhumanists, and Effective Altruists. This family of beliefs shares an equally radical view of human potential, including a deep faith in our ability to hack, improve upon, and optimize human performance. The utopia envisioned by this group involves the emergence of a “post-human” – a man-machine hybrid capable of transcending all human limitations.
Although this group’s prevalence is more difficult to measure, a telling sign is that half of all tech workers say they’re not just religiously unaffiliated, but outright agnostic or atheistic, compared to just 7% of the overall population.
Burton makes a fascinating observation about the relationship between these two rival ideologies: that they are really two versions of the same underlying belief system.
Both social justice culture and Silicon Valley utopianism are obsessed with tearing down orthodoxy and groupthink in order to bring about a shining new vision of what humanity could be. Both treat the body (and its care and improvement) as the ultimate site of meaning.
For rightward-leaning utopians, it’s about intense weightlifting, rigorous “paleo” and ketogenic diets, and other forms of “masculine” self-improvement. For leftward-leaning progressives, it more often takes the form of the “feminized” wellness industry with its emphasis on self-care.
What’s the difference between Alex Jones’ Super Male Vitality (sold on his website Infowars) and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Sex Dust (sold on goop)? Spoiler alert: they are very similar products with many of the same ingredients, just marketed differently to different audiences.
Both social justice culture and Silicon Valley utopianism promise earthly self-actualization in an entirely materialist universe – either through transcending deep-rooted prejudices or the limits of our biology.
The choice of which path to take is yours, but you are also free to find your own.
Religion is a remix
Religious beliefs used to come in discrete, all-in-one packages.
By choosing a religion or denomination (or being born into one), all the other choices were more or less automatically made for you. You didn’t have the option to accept or reject specific tenets.
But now, even religion is a remix. You get to personalize it for your needs.
For example, your beliefs about the nature (or existence) of sin. About how the universe started, and will end. About whether humans have a soul, where it was before you were born, and where it will go after you die. And the nature of morality and the hierarchy of values you choose to honor through your actions.
Nothing is sacred anymore!
No doctrine is safe from the vortex of cultural crosscurrents that roil mainstream culture. Or in other words, everything is now potentially sacred, a fundamentally pagan way of seeing the world that in some ways predates all of the organized religions.
Religious institutions have long been one of the chief patrons of the arts. But now spirituality itself – the structure of beliefs, commitments, values, and rituals – is just another freeform canvas for us to play with, alongside music, film, photography, and art. The most fundamental parts of our identities, previously not open to reinterpretation, can now be shaped and molded like clay.
The idea of “remixing” is not just about online content creation – it’s a deep shift in our relationship to all the information that structures our reality.
Whether we like it or not, we are rapidly being introduced to a level of self-expressive freedom previously only available to the gods; that you can construct your own reality and live in it.
That much freedom, of course, is terrifying. Our psychology did not evolve to radically restructure our reality at will. The cognitive and emotional burden is too overwhelming. While in theory we are free to construct entirely new belief systems from scratch, in practice we continue to choose from the available options. And those options are constantly evolving and competing for our allegience in the cutthroat spiritual marketplace that is the Internet.
Remixing demands a kind of radical honesty, because you have to be willing to divulge your sources and trust that your contribution still adds value. It requires courage, because you don’t know if the pieces will hold together or if you’ve left out some critical component. And it requires humility, because your spiritual life is founded on doubt instead of faith.
In the short term, the permission to remix our beliefs may hurt us. Online spaces where it’s most prevalent can often feel like vacuums of meaning, creating favorable conditions for extremism, tribalism, cults, and conspiracy theories. Letting go of the old moral code enforced by organized religions may seem to cast us headlong into depravity. But it also opens the door for us to rebuild a new code of ethics grounded in modern times.
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