Divine Uniqueness: God among the False Gods

In this episode our plan is to interact with Tara Isabella Burton’s 2020 book Strang Rites: New Religions for a godless world.[1] I want to make some observations from her book—a challenging and sobering read—and then use that as a foil to consider our main question: can we reasonably hold that God is unique and ultimate in a disenchanted world? In other words: is it plausible to hold that there is one true God in the midst of all this religious pluralism and that the God of Christianity is in fact that one true and ultimate divine reality? To get us going today,  we’ll consider five claims by Isabella Burton from her book.

First, the religiously unaffiliated aren’t rejecting religion, they are remixing it.[2] As Isabella Burton notes, remixers aren’t necessarily anti-religious or anti-god or godless. Rather, they are against institutionalized religions and the dogma that is so often associated with those religions. She writes, remixers envision themselves as “creators of their own bespoke religions, mixing and matching spiritual and aesthetic and experiential and philosophical traditions.”[3] She continues, remixers are “shaped by the twin forces of a creative-communicative Internet and consumer capitalism.”[4]

Second, it is important to note, as Isabella Burton points out, that remixers long for “more” than their experiences of organized religion have delivered.[5] The longing for God has not gone away in a disenchanted age. Rather, it’s just be redirected in one of two directions: either to the “fabricating self” or to the mundane world.[6] Like Paul among the Athenians, the rampant idolatry we find in our day does reveal a deep spiritual truth: we long for the sacred, the enchanted, the divine.

Third, conservatively, at least 50% of the American population today are Remixers.[7] Isabella Burton notes three distinct sub-groups that make up the Religious Remixed today in America. First, there is the Spiritual but not Religious (SBNRs), roughly 18% of American population.[8] This group is largely characterized as being slightly whiter, left leaning, political independent, having a college degree, more women than men.[9] Second, there is the Faithful Nones (FN), roughly 18% of American population. The FNs are like the SBNRs, except they don’t see themselves as belonging to any religious community or having any religious identity at all. Still they are spiritual and seek enchantment in various new or quasi-religious movements.[10] Finally, there is the Religious Hybrids (RH), who mix and match various religious beliefs, practices, and communities together and are described by Isabella Burton as “spiritually fluid.”[11] Importantly, and sadly, many Christian’s fall into this third group too, mixing and matching distinctly Christian doctrine and practice with pagan or neo-pagan or other religious or quasi-religious beliefs and practices. Taken together, these three sub-groups make up roughly 50% of America. As a point of reference, evangelicals today roughly make up 15% of our population.

Fourth, the religions that “stick” today among remixers are those that provide enchantment.[12] As Isabella Burton writes,

The most successful new religions of 2020 and beyond are the ones that have taken this intuitional turn and found way to make it both communal and—in an increasingly brand-driven age—salable. They’re the ones that take the extant consumer-capitalist culture of our age—smartphones, social media, Moon Juice, 4chan boards, oat milk—and make interacting with it into a sacred ritual, an avenue to fulfilling a wider purpose in a meaningful world. They’re the ones that alchemize our everyday activities—eating, working out, following the news, posting on social media—and turn them . . . into strange and sacred rites: not hobbies but rituals. They’re the ones that have figured out how to take Twitter, or Instagram, or consumer culture, and enchant it.[13]

Notice in this long quote that those religions that survive in a disenchanted age (and there is a bit of irony here) are those that manage to enchant themselves. But also notice two things: without appeal to a transcendent realm, a sacred order, these will be false re-enchantments. They won’t satisfy. And they will lead to idolatry and despair. Second, notice, given the fragmentation, splintering, and tribalism that comes when the cord that unites the sacred realm and the natural or social realm is severed, these new religions will contribute to the ever increasing “balkanization” we are witnessing in America and around the world.[14]

Finally, I want to end my discussion of Isabella Burton’s book with her concluding thoughts about where things might be headed. Basically no one knows. But her point, which she painfully makes throughout the book, is that we don’t live in a godless world, rather, and this is my last point: we live in a world (as I’ll describe it) surrounded by many, many false idols of our age. In particular, there are three new movements that function as a kind of “whole theology” that she thinks might be contenders for the dominant new religions in a disenchanted age.

First, there is (what I’ll call) the social justice gospel. The social justice movement has become an integral part of the American cultural landscape today. Roughly, 8% of Americans identify with the movement. It has fueled the #Metoo movement and the BLM movement. Importantly, it has a complete meta-narrative, something like: “society—oppressed—liberated.”

Second, there is techo-utopianism of movements like transhumanism and posthumanism. These movements too, offer a whole theology and function as a kind of secular religion in a godless world. This is a secular religion of the elites, of Silicon Valley. They are the “Conditioners” of a new world, as described by C. S. Lewis and The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength. Techno-utopianism too has a metanarrative: matter—death/finitude—this-worldly eternal life.[17]

Finally, there is one more possible contender for a secular religion in a godless or disenchanted age, what Isabella Burton calls atavism, which is a word that means “reverting to something ancient or ancestral.” She seems a moderate version of this embodied in the teachings of those like Jordan Peterson, Steven Pinker, Ben Shapiro, and others and a more extreme version that she dubs “alt-right” atavism.[19] In general, this meta-narrative goes something like this: In the beginning was “pure nature,” a nature that is hierarchic al, biologically immutable, godless. But then civilization developed and, in the name of equality, removed hierarchy and order and distinctions between male and female, good and evil, and so on. As Isabella Burton writes, Civilization—feminine, effete, potentially homosexual—has eliminated biology and hierarchy alike.”[20] What we must do then, is return to nature and hierarchies, we must submit to reality as it is (that is pure nature).

All three of these new faiths provide a powerful vision of the world that offers meaning and enchantment without institutional religion or the God of Christianity. There is no one God, rather there are many gods, and they are all made in man’s image. Where we shall go, no one knows. As Burton concludes, when considering our three new faith contenders: “Only time will tell which one will win.”[21]

Our question: is it possible to believe in one true God in the face of this idolatry?

Let me begin with the claims of Scripture. The Bible is very clear that there is but one God and all other gods are false gods, they are idols. In the Old Testament, for example, we read in Deuteronomy 6:4-6:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.

Or in the New Testament, we read in 1 Corinthians 8: 4-6:

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

There are reasons from philosophy for thinking that there is one true God among all the false gods on offer. And perhaps the easiest way to get at this is by way of a two-step argument. That argument would go like this:

First, we have good reasons to think that theism is true. In other words, there is a successful cosmological argument, the conclusion of which shows that there is a single cause that is responsible for the universe yet distinct from the universe.

Second, focusing on Jesus, we have good reasons to think that Christianity is the religion founded by God himself. While I’ll not go into the details, the basic idea is that Jesus claimed be the Messiah, the divine savior of the world and vindicated that claim by raising from the dead. I’d further argue that we have good reasons to think Jesus existed, claimed be divine, and that he was crucified and resurrected three days later.

If we add these two arguments together, what we find are good reasons (from Scripture and philosophy) for thinking that there is one true God among all the false gods, and that God is the God of Christianity.

In closing then, how are we to make sense of the new secular religions, and the plethora of new secular religions in a disenchanted world?

First, it is important to remember that these new secular religions remind us of the deep longing of the human heart for meaning, purpose, and transcendence. People are searching. This is good.

Second, and this is bad: People have not found Christianity, or the institutional church, to be a safe place to explore their doubts and find a story that is true to the way the world is and true to the way the world ought to be. We’ve got to do a better job telling, living, and showing others that Christianity is true and satisfying.

Finally, don’t give up hope. God hasn’t given up on people. God hasn’t given up on culture. Our job is to faithfully witness in our words and lives to what God—the true God—has done in our lives.

[1] Tara Isabella Burton’s Strang Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (New York: Public Affairs, 2020).

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid. 10.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 11.

[6] The language of “fabricating self” is from Paul Tyson, Seven Brief Lessons on Magic; quoted in Jeremy Begbie, Abundantly More(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2023), 17, FN 49.

[7] Isabella Burton, Strange Rites, 25.

[8] Ibid., 19.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 20–21.

[11] Ibid., 23.

[12] Ibid., 34.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 190.

[19] Ibid., 206.

[20] Ibid., 204.

[21] Ibid., 246.

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