Americans embracing the alternatives of spiritual secularity and secular religiosity?

In recent years, it has not been unusual for secular and cultural movements and trends to be portrayed as religious, spiritual, or at least quasi-religious. Most often, the activity in question may be interpreted as religious in nature even if they are accompanied by beliefs that are considered religious. Such a case can be seen in an article in the conservative magazine First Things (March 2020) on the emergence of “secular monks” – a segment of middle-aged, highly successful American men who lead a secular lifestyle in a religious way. Writer and “practical philosopher,” Andrew Taggart, cites the example of Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey, who “was raised Catholic but is no longer a believer. He is a Stoic, a practitioner of Viprassana meditation and a biohacker. He is forty-three, unmarried, and childless.” Dorsey’s stringent and ascetic lifestyle, including celibacy or childlessness in many cases, is found among a growing number of professional men, who “tend to be secular humanists, scientific materialists, and experimenters on themselves.” If not their beliefs, the lifestyles, practices, and work ethic of these professionals is somewhat similar to the Calvinists described by sociologist Max Weber who adopted a ‘this-worldly” form of asceticism as they “submit themselves to ever more rigorous, monitored forms of self-control: among them, cold showers, intermittent fasting, data driven health optimization, and meditation boot camps.”

The resulting “life design” or “life hacking” allows people to author their own lives as they attempt to achieve perfection. The practice of meditation and other spiritual exercises in the case of Dorsey and others is not about attaining superhuman powers or enlightenment but rather to maintain “clarity” and “focus” in the service of success.  The drive for purity and self control is seen as making for freedom, but this “ascetic conception of the good life leaves no room for marriage and parenthood.” There are also cases of secular movements and practices acquiring religious or spiritual beliefs. This is clear in the case of the anti-consumerist group known as Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping. In the February issue of Nova Religio, a journal on new religious movements, Todd LeVasseur looks at how this parody and satiric performance art group has become an “earth-centered protest religion.” Founded by actor and activist Bill Talen in the late 1990s, the Church of Stop Shopping was actually inspired by an Episcopal priest in New York who familiarized him with ideas of progressive theologians. Talen brought his act to the streets of Times Square to protest against its “Disneyfication,” eventually gaining notoriety for preaching and performing anticonsumerist actions and rituals throughout the U.S. and in other parts of the world. More recently the church has been active in the Black Lives Matter movement, the #NODAPL Dakota pipeline protests and in denouncing Monsanto and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Far from being just performance art or even a protest movement, the Reverend Billy Bob and his church follow in a long line of activism, starting with the environmentalist Earth First movement, that draws on ecological concepts, such as Gaia and contemporary neopaganism (often called “dark green” religion). LeVasseur argues that Reverend Billy is not a “fake preacher,” as he has transitioned from parodying fundamentalist religion in his early work to actually solidifying “his identity as a Gaian animist to the point where he is now a leader of his own branch of this form of dark green religion,” even he retains parody and satire. His recent writings hold that the earth and its sacredness is the reason for his actions against consumerism. There are no figures provided as to how many support this Reverend Billy and his church, but the author argues that it is drawing those who “are either recovering, reforming, or replacing existing religious identities as a response to the ecological crisis.”

(First Things, Nova Religio)