By Tara Isabella Burton by Nick Smith
Religion – or more precisely formal, institutional religion – is facing a crisis in the USA. The number of religiously unaffiliated (or ‘nones’ as Burton labels them) are creeping up: 15 per cent of Americans said they didn’t affiliate with any church in 2007. By 2012, that figure stood at 20 per cent and rising. But here’s the catch: they aren’t turning their backs on faith. Rather, according to Tara Isabella Burton, Americans are now experiencing a new spiritual awakening, that’s powered, as Protestantism was by the printing press, by the growth of internet culture.
In Strange Rites, Tara Isabella Burton chronicles the rise of ‘intuitional’ spirituality, mapping out the new roles of hexing, horoscopes and pseudo-haematology on the USA’s religious landscape. Mixing reportage with her own experiences, Burton traces the recent formation of the ‘religiously remixed’ – those who don’t affiliate with any formalised religion, but still believe in higher powers, a sense of ‘spiritual peace and well-being’, psychics, reincarnation and astrology.
Neatly arguing that what once might have been perceived as the death of religion is actually a reshaping, Burton looks for modern gods in the communities of SoulCycle, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, social justice movements, hyper-masculine alt-lite Reddit groups and polyamorous practitioners. Americans – she claims – are searching for alternative belief systems and finding them online.
It’s a concrete argument which only falters when Burton’s tone creeps towards desperate while discussing the stranger rituals of modern-day witches and occult obsessives. It would have been informative too, to hear directly from the introduced communities rather than the heavy reliance on second-hand sources, but that’s a small complaint. This is a fascinating insight into the changing landscape of America’s ever-broiling religious structures.
Photographer Nick Smith has spent the past three decades travelling with his camera to more than 100 countries. He has crossed the Namib Desert, photographed elephants in the Okavango Delta, penguins in Antarctica and polar bears at the North Pole. Without a doubt, one of the most bizarre ventures of his career was a 75-day, 1,500-mile voyage that took him no more than five-miles from his home in Swansea. This was the limit the Welsh authorities allowed people to travel under the coronavirus lockdown.
The lighthouse provided a landmark, a goal and a symbol of the ‘miniexpedition’ project. ‘It was also really interesting,’ says Smith. ‘In a way, it was better than travelling to far-flung places. Rather than being on the move all the time, enforced restrictions on distance meant I got to know the territory in microscopic detail. I could wait for the best conditions to photograph in and could also make the most of the emptiness of the landscape.’ Each morning’s expedition saw Nick pedalling off to Mumbles Lighthouse, the octagonal tower erected in 1794 to guide vessels along the coast and into Swansea Bay. These daily travels by bicycle culminated in To the Lighthouse, a fine art photography project whose thirty-one images were shot with a smartphone. As such, they have a completely different feel to his usual work, although the images are of a high standard of quality, of composition, colour and light.
Regarding the use of a phone camera: ‘I didn’t want to draw attention to myself or look opportunistic by using flashy professional gear at a time when people were genuinely frightened for their health and financial future,’ he says. An eye-catching feature of the book is the absence of people in the photos, reflecting the emptiness of the first two months of lockdown. The end product is an impressive and important collection.
Gweneth Paltrow – a modern-day goddess? Lockdown Swansea by Smartphone and Bike • Hazel Press
New Religions for a Godless World • PublicAffairs