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Innate human spiritual needs take us from Wicca to SoulCycle

A third-degree elder shows her two pentacles or pentagrams, which signify her ranking in the Gaeanic Wicca religion.
A third-degree elder shows her two pentacles or pentagrams, which signify her ranking in the Gaeanic Wicca religion. Raleigh News & Observer file photo

We’re living in the middle of a religious revival. It’s just that the movements that are rising are not what we normally call “religion.” The first rising movement is astrology, which 29% of Americans say they believe in, according to a 2018 Pew poll. 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, said in 2017 that 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 neopagans, there are more than 1 million. As theologian Tara Isabella Burton put it, “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, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shared her birth time with astrologer Arthur Lipp-Bonewits, who then shared her birth chart with the world, 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 hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh, 13,000 “resistance witches” cast a hex on the nominee. There is now a plethora of guidebooks for how to use astrology and witchcraft to advance left-wing causes, such as “Magic for Resistance: Rituals and Spells for Change.”

These surging movements are our attempts to solve the major needs of the current moment. The first 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.

Second, there is a widespread 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 against the framework of oppression.

Fourth is the need for identity markers. We live at a time when many of the traditional sources of identity (ethnicity, rooted neighborhoods) are being erased. Astrology tells you who you are and what traits you have. In a highly diverse society, it also tells you what sort of people you’re likely to be compatible and incompatible 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.

The people I know who talk about astrology sort of believe it, but they sort of don’t. Their attitude is ironic, attached and detached all at once.

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.