Silicon Valley’s Pseudo-Religious Awakening

May 16, 2023 | Tara Isabella Burton
About the author: Tara Isabella Burton is the author of Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World and the forthcoming Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic​Granta, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.

Investigating various strange corners of the Internet, Tara Isabella Burton finds a subculture of educated computer programmers and engineers who are losing their faith in the power of gizmos and apps to bring forth a better world, and are turning instead to mysticism, magic, and ritual. The most devoted adherents call themselves “postrationalists” or members of “the metatribe.”

[T]his tendency is all the more striking for the fact that its genesis lies in a subculture ostensibly dedicated to the destruction of all thoughts non-rational. For example, when I was writing a piece on the rationalists for Religion News Service in 2018, I attended a rationalist-affiliated “Secular Solstice” in New York—a non-theistic version of Hanukkah in which a series of (battery-operated) candles were lit and subsequently extinguished to represent the snuffing out of superstitions. The ceremony culminated (or would have culminated, if a stubborn candle hadn’t refused to go out) in total darkness, during which we were invited to meditate upon the finality of death, the non-existence of God, and the sole avenue for hope: supporting—financially, intellectually, or otherwise—quixotic scientific initiatives capable of prolonging life, or of eliminating death altogether.

And while few of them find a home among the seemingly implausible dogmas of traditional, organized religion, they’re far more willing than their rationalist forebears to see in religious, spiritual, or even esoteric or occult practice an avenue toward self-transformation in the service of a meaningful life.

If the metatribe reflects anything about our wider cultural moment, it is our shared disillusionment with the broader liberal optimism the rationalists have come to embody. The promise proffered by so much of Silicon Valley—that we can hack our way to Enlightenment, transcending our humanity along the way—no longer seems plausible amid the broad ennui and general pessimism that has settled into our culture over the last decade.

But it’s also true that metatribe discourse remains more wedded to contemporary liberal individualism than many of its members might care to admit.

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