We’re living in the middle of a religious revival; it’s just that the movements are not what we normally call “religion.”
The first is astrology. According to a 2018 Pew poll, 29% of Americans say they believe in astrology. That’s more than are members of mainline Protestant churches.
This surge in belief is primarily among the young. According to a National Science Foundation survey, 44% of 18- to 24-year-olds say that astrology is somewhat or very “scientific.” Unsurprisingly, online horoscope sites are booming. Stella Bugbee, editor of The Cut, told The Atlantic that in 2017 the typical horoscope got 150% more traffic than it had the year before.
Another surging spiritual movement is witchcraft. In 1990, only 8,000 Americans self-identified as Wiccans. Ten years later, there were 134,000, and today, along with other neo-pagans, there are more than 1 million. As Tara Isabella Burton put it in an excellent essay in The American Interest, “Wicca, by that estimation, is technically the fastest-growing religion in America.”
The third great rising spiritual force is mindfulness, which seems to be everywhere. The fourth is wokeness, what some have called the Great Awokening. Burton’s essay is really about how astrology and witchcraft have become important spiritual vocabularies within parts of the social justice movement.
In March, she wrote, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shared her birth time with astrologer Arthur Lipp-Bonewits, who then shared her birth chart, creating an online sensation. “AOC’s Aries Moon indicates that she’s emotionally fed by a certain amount of independence, self-determination, and spontaneity,” Jeanna Kadlec wrote in Allure.
During the Kavanaugh hearings, 13,000 “resistance witches” cast a hex on Brett Kavanaugh. There are now guidebooks for how to use astrology and witchcraft to advance left-wing causes. They have names like “Magic for Resistance: Rituals and Spells for Change” and “The New Aradia: A Witch’s Handbook to Magical Resistance.”
These surging movements are people’s attempts to solve the major needs of the current moment.
The first need is simply to find a way to be spiritual. People are always saying we live in a more secular age, but secularism never really comes. Humans are transcendent creatures who have spiritual experiences and instinctively appeal to supernatural powers. Even in the most secular parts of society, there is great and unfulfilled spiritual yearning.
Second, there is a need to slow down, to escape the pace of life technology wants and to live at a human pace.
Third, there is a widespread need to express alienation. Interest in the occult rises during periods of transition and disillusion. It happened in the late 1960s, and it’s happening today. For many, the traditional organized religions are implicated in the existing power structures. Being occult is a way to announce that you stand on the fringe of society, that you stand against the patriarchy, against the hetero-normative culture and against the structures of oppression. Political alienation manifests itself in the alt-right and the energized radical left. It makes sense that it would manifest itself in the spiritual realm, too.
Fourth is the need for identity markers. We live when many of the traditional sources of identity (ethnicity, rooted neighborhood) are being erased. Astrology tells you who you are. In a highly diverse society, it also tells you what sort of people you’re likely to be compatible with. When I hear people talk about astrology, this is how they are using it.
Fifth is the desire to live within a coherent creed and community, but without having that creed impinge on your individual autonomy. Being an Orthodox Jew is a thick but binding life. The emerging spirituality is a hodgepodge spirituality. Each person borrows practices from, say, Native American, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish and SoulCycle traditions and blends them in a way he or she finds moving. There is no grand narrative, no specific way one is expected to live, no set of laws you have to obey or even a specific cult leader who might boss you around. Religion bows before individualism.
Finally, many people seem to want to be alternative without actually leaving the mainstream world. The people I know who talk about astrology sort of believe it and sort of don’t. Their attitude is attached and detached all at once.
Even the occultists are not really that counter-cultural. For example, David Salisbury’s book “Witchcraft Activism: A Toolkit for Magical Resistance” is surprisingly normal. Salisbury gives standard advice on how to be an activist. It’s just that he asks you to say a prayer to Hermes, the messenger god, when you send an important email.
I doubt that much of this will be sustainable. I doubt it’s possible to have tight community and also total autonomy, that it’s possible to detach spiritual practices from the larger narratives and cultures and still have something life-shaping. But society is groaning. New forms are coming into being. We really are living through a moment of major transitional change.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.