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

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