02 July 2020, The Tablet

Religion remixed

Spirit of the times

Religion remixed

Tara Isabella Burton
Photo: Rose Callahan


It is often said that we live in a godless age – that Western society is secular and “post-Christian”. In fact, something more nuanced is happening: we remain “religious” but spirituality is both personal and elusive – and outside the institutional status quo

We live in a godless age. Don’t we? The dominant cultural narrative holds, of course, that we do. Once upon a time, this prevailing narrative goes, we – at least, we in the modern West – lived in a religious age; moreover, we lived in a specifically Christian age. For centuries – indeed, millennia – people were united by their shared beliefs, their shared values, their shared investment in a community suffused with an appreciation for, and with the influence of, the transcendent.

People lived their lives in dialogue with the sacred. They structured their days, their weeks, their months, their years, around religious rituals and liturgical calendars. They lit candles in churches. They prayed for deliverance from sickness, and sometimes tried to effect healing with folk magic or herb-based spells. They believed that material objects – the relics of saints, say – could be charged with spiritual energy, and that just touching them could transform your body and your health.

For these believers, the world was what German political and economic theorist Max Weber described as an “enchanted garden”: a world in which the boundaries between the sacred and the profane are often porous, slippery, and ill-defined.

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