Metamodernism, Russell Brand and Spiritual-But-not-Religious Soteriology

Linda Ceriello
Oct 24, 2020 · 25 min read

A version of this essay was first presented at the International Society of Humor Studies conference in 2014 in Utrecht, Netherlands as “Exploding the Serenity of the Moment: Russell Brand’s Comedy as a Contemporary Metaphysics of Transgression.” I also presented a version of this material in 2016 at the American Academy of Religions Annual Meeting in San Antonio, USA under the title, “Russell Brand’s Dialectic Of Comedy, Spirituality and Political Activism As Metamodern Soteriology.” A longer and quite a bit more in-depth analysis of Russell Brand as exemplar of metamodernism exists as a chapter in my doctoral dissertation, Metamodern Mysticisms: Narrative Encounters with Contemporary Western Secular Spiritualities (Rice University 2018).


Russell Brand is a contemporary comedian, author, actor, activist, TM meditator and yoga practitioner. Cards on the table, I am an unabashed fan-girl of his comedy. He is also one of an increasing number of outspokenly “spiritual” celebrities today. Brand is unique among contemporary comedians in unapologetically integrating religious truth claims into both his stage act and his public persona. As such he represents a new kind of public figure whose popularity, I will contend here, reflects wide cultural acceptance of some of the central principles that underlie the spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR) movement. The SBNR will be taken here as a loose grouping of a number of contemporary secular spiritualities, united in their willingness to be called “spiritual,” but, importantly, on their own terms.¹

Important work has been done in the last couple of years examining the constitutive elements of SBNR as well as The Nones (short for none-of-the-above, as in “no religious affiliation”) including problematizing assumptions about religious institutionality (e.g. is someone “religious” if they support a broad organizational body and/or attend some form of service, and “spiritual” if they don’t? Such specious conclusions are sometimes drawn by the polls that employ — and often then reify — such terms); and applying race and critical theory, as well as popular culture theories, to understand who is embracing these categories and what constitutes an “affiliation” to such a category.² Alongside this work are ethnographies that try to chart the meanings that individuals make of their affiliations with these terms. Extending in a different direction which I believe to be under-theorized, I try to understand the “epistemic” backdrop of the SBNR, and particularly to distinguish it from its predecessor, the New Age. My approach is to situate the fall of the New Age and rise of the SBNR as occurring in response to specific narratives that no longer fit the constituents. So what I’m speaking of is something of a “generational shift”; but there is more to trace here than just “millennial behaviors.”

In my work, I lay emphasis on the Western metaphysical religious movements and appropriated Asian religious traditions that have informed their beliefs and practices. Historically speaking, this trajectory is well documented.³ My focus is where most historiographies leave off: I highlight the widely-evidenced shift in the relationship between secular culture and public sharing of truth claims that occurs between the decline of the New Age (circa mid-1990s) and today.⁴ To do so I ask whether the Foucauldian model of epistemes — tradition, modernism, postmodernism, and now metamodernism, can go some distance toward connecting of these dots.

I started tracking Russell Brand, my exemplar here, in about 2012, noticing that he utilizes several identity markers associated with the SBNR and Nones. Chief among them is his embrace of “Eastern” (or more properly Asian) spiritual philosophies— that is, Western assimilations and syncretizations of concepts and practices from Hinduism, Buddhism, Tantra and Daoism. His presentation of these philosophies whilst performing in inherently non-religious settings such as the comedy stage caught my attention as a scholar of religion and popular culture. Even more noteworthy was that he could talk openly about truth, consciousness and enlightenment and somehow generally manage to avoid being dismissed as a New Age woo-woo.⁵ How was he getting away with it? Has contemporary Western culture become less hostile to certain kinds of overt religious claims? I believe that the answer is yes, and that a metamodern reading of the SBNR holds the key to understanding why.⁶

Let’s unpack first how Brand has created a public persona capable of simultaneously engaging ancient wisdom traditions of the East, progressive social reform agendas, contemporary spiritualities, and outrageously profane secular themes, all the while, as one fan in 2014 commented, “doing a brilliant job keeping the average Joe off balance intellectually”; and second, why this type of hybridized celebrity persona would find a wide audience today. We’ll consider a 2012 stage performance in which Brand appeared with the Dalai Lama, a clip from his 2014 comedy tour, Messiah Complex, and selections from interviews and fan comments. Here we see spiritual and political activisms directly mediating one another through performance that includes a necessary (in Brand’s view) dose of bawdy humor. What makes this dialectic significant for those in the study of religion and popular culture is how his persona reflects a kind of performed soteriology — one that makes use of a sacred-transgressive found as much in the immanent as it is in the transcendent.

Oscillating While “Exploding the Serenity of the Moment”

For British comedian Russell Brand, performing is a transgressive act.

“Comedy is inherently transgressive,” he said in an interview, “You’ve got to be … exploding the serenity of the moment; exploding what people assume to be the truth in any given moment. … Comedy is constantly aware of the invisible reality that supports the reality within which we consensually live.”⁷

This deconstructive, disruptive, metacritical mode of comedic engagement runs directly alongside Brand’s metaphysic — his unequivocal espousal of a universal truth of consciousness as an all-pervasive oneness. The two might seem incompatible, even contradictory. According to beliefs articulated by many who align as SBNR, however, the contradiction is not only tolerable, but is itself a key component of an SBNR soteriology that I will attempt to unfold here.

Viewing his stage act as well as the persona he puts forth in interviews, one notes that Brand is presenting himself as several figures at once: on the one hand, he supports certain grand narratives and ideals of social progress, and on the other, his discursive style is steeped in constructionism and irony. The former are, we might say, more characteristic of a modernist epistemic view, while the latter would be more reflective of a postmodern position. This sort of oscillative, combinatory figure he constructs resembles one of the hallmarks of an epistemic turn being theorized of late by the term “metamodernism.”

The term has been posited as a replacement for the nebulous and vaguely ouroboric “post-postmodernism.” While its ideological underpinnings are located by some with Frederic Jameson (though Jameson never used the term himself) and his theory of late capitalism,⁸ metamodernism as I employ it here is observed as a new cultural sensibility that arrives in the late 1990s-early 2000s, and comes into active scholarly use in literary critical, art historical and cultural studies capacities during the latter part of the decade.⁹ (New Romanticism and The New Sincerity are literary schools that some feel express the metamodern cultural sentiment.)

In the words of cultural critic Timotheus Vermeulen, and cultural philosopher Robin van den Akker, the term metamodernism names an emotional logic characterized by

…a constant repositioning between attitudes and mindsets that are evocative of the modern and of the postmodern but are ultimately suggestive of another sensibility that is neither of them; one that negotiates between a yearning for universal truths and relativism, between a desire for sense and a doubt about the sense of it all, between hope and melancholy, sincerity and irony, knowingness and naivety, construction and deconstruction.¹⁰

A full encapsulation of metamodernism is beyond the scope of this presentation. (For more, I refer you to works in this ever-growing Working Bibliography of scholarly writings on the theory, compiled by Rutgers librarian Katie Elson Anderson.) Here I will home in on just a few relevant characteristics. This oscillation I have just mentioned between epistemic perspectives is the first one to keep in mind.

Brand as Compere to His Holiness the Dalai Lama

At a Manchester, UK event for youth in June 2012 called “Stand Up and Be the Change” for which Brand was asked to act as the Dalai Lama’s compere.

I was curious to understand what may have made Brand — who was then perhaps still associated more with his drug and sex addiction than with spiritual views or practices, fired from the BBC in 2008 for pulling too many pranks, and who moreover does not practice as a Buddhist — the choice of His Holiness to share the stage for that event. The pairing, an interviewer suggested afterward, had raised many eyebrows. “Yes,” Brand quipped, “eyebrows have shot through the roof. Some people can’t tell their eyebrows from their hairline any more. Some peoples’ eyebrows are on the ceiling.”¹¹

The event was widely reported on as a kind of curious success. Brand seemed to have done what he was asked, which was to “form a kind of wobbly rope bridge between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the young people of Manchester.” But he wasn’t simply “on good behavior” that day. The comedian in fact did dare to have a little public fun with the Dalai Lama on the stage. Riding a characteristic edge of mannered egotism and irreverent temerity, Russell Brand asked the Dalai Lama whether, in watching from backstage as the comic warmed up the audience, he might have “picked up any spiritual tips?” He elicited another easy chortle from one of the world’s most influential spiritual figures by speculating that His Holiness is so jolly because he might actually be sipping booze from his tea thermos.

The Dalai Lama’s spokesperson stated that Russell Brand was chosen for this event as a person who has turned his life around through spiritual practice. While it is true that Brand had by that point swapped substance abuse excesses with a daily yoga and meditation practice, I suggest the choice actually reveals an even more interesting story.

Firstly, for the Dalai Lama to choose someone whose act relies on “exploding the serenity of the moment” suggests he was making use of the historical relationship of transgression to spiritual transformation. Perhaps also, he may have been banking on the increased palatability of religion to millennials when paired with laughter and irreverence. Brand makes frequent use of these connections.¹² Ultimately, his multivalent persona makes sense for audiences because it draws from the socio-cultural soil in which the current SBNR has developed. So let me now continue to describe that soil, historiologically and epistemically, by adding to my sketch of the metamodern cultural turn.

What I find useful about the term metamodernism is the way in which it enables one to clarify a kind of positive terrain, after postmodernism left us with no there there” — a phrase we often hear describing the post-structuralist, deconstructionist idea of no unmediated meaning — and also no stable subject. One was left then with only what is “post” — that is, a negation of what was, but no replacement with another graspable meaning. It became embarrassing in the postmodern era to express any earnest sense of an uncomplicated truth, or to openly identify with sentimentality. In more recent history, the newest crop of culture makers — millennials — have found this rejection of the personal and of emotion/affect rather intolerable.

However — and this is where my analysis may differ from others working with metamodern theory who do not attend to religious historiographies, I find it important to conceptualize metamodernism as an epistemological response to the New Age, and particularly to the polarization created by the universalized truth claims, emphasis on goodness, positivity and a dualistic transcendence-model soteriology that typified that movement. That polarization was followed by some level of disenchantment and disavowal of such meanings. The ensuing emergence of the SBNR, the Nones and other such unaffilliateds then reflect the decisive disenchantment with disenchantment, as well as a desire to reclaim affect, emotional sincerity and personal agency. This is a second characteristic of the metamodern cultural shift that I want to highlight.¹³

The distinguishing of metamodernism helps us understand what brought Russell Brand and the Dalai Lama to the stage together because “it names the move out from the shadow of the ironic, one that allows for persons to declare ownership of a breadth of human vicissitudes that are experientially felt to be more real when they stand entangled together rather than tidily sorted out.”¹⁴

To summarize so far, the SBNR, caught between its attraction to the grand theories and universalisms of modernism (as inherited from the New Age) and its identifications with constructivist, relativistic worldviews of postmodernism, gives rise to a mash-up, if you will — not about adhering to one or the other as an epistemological or ontological ground, but oscillating between, and therefore reconciling, in a sense, the bifurcations inherent in the other epistemes.

Again, the move here is not to be thought of as a simple reinvesting in the notion of the universal and moving away from irony. Nor, conversely, is it about eschewing truth claims and embracing irony. Rather, the metamodern epistemic move reflects the concurrence of multiple arenas and vectors, mined for their truths and meanings, which then generate, gestalt-like, a confluence — one with a decidedly new aesthetic signature quality or sensibility. When the search is off for the immaculate moment in which one might find the answer; in religious terms this means no one moment or point of view is thought of as necessarily salvific. This sounds rather postmodern. But, what I am seeing is that the performative meeting of these epistemes — the modern and the postmodern — allows for constructive destabilization (whereas the postmodern anxiety is of nihilistic destabilization). It is an approach that seems to allow for earnest pursuit of truth, while acknowledging truth as constantly on the move.

Affective Shifts, Performed Aporias

When asked in a 2012 interview about his religious identity — “Are you a Buddhist?” — Brand was careful to demur, “No, I don’t have any kind of theology or religion yet, I’m just learning all about it.” From his interviews and autobiographical writings, however, his belief system might be typified as a hybridized form of Vedanta and westernized Tantra:¹⁵ “I do transcendental meditation, which is, I suppose, derived from Vedic or Ayurvedic principles, which is sort of Hindu principles. I also do a lot of Kundalini yoga.”¹⁶

Brand’s thick filter of qualifiers and positioning of himself as a newcomer to religion reveal several things: His desire to distance himself from tradition-specific allegiance marks him as SBNR — those who have a fierce need to assert their independence from organized religions, who wish to locate their spiritualities as outside institutional control, who generally prefer not to commit monogamously to membership in a single spiritual path, and who tend to comfortably practice a smorgasbord of contemplative techniques.

The “strategic slipperiness,” as Steven Ramey has called it,¹⁷ of terms like “SBNR” and “Nones” would appeal to many who, like Brand, feel quite comfortable in the ambiguity surrounding what such identities relate to — e.g., belief, affiliation, practice, or the satisfaction of reflecting Advaita’s apophatic ontology of neti neti or “not-this, not that.”¹⁸ This formation of religious/spiritual identity around this very ambiguity is an example of the ongoing rescripting of the sacred, to borrow a phrase from popular culture and religion scholars Richard Santana and Timothy Erickson, taking place in pop culture as we speak. The sense that identities are continually being written and shaped may bring about the sense of agency, participation and creativity that characterizes millennials and plurals. All that said, when Brand expounds upon Asian philosophical concepts, using phrases like “objective truth,” it becomes clear that he has indeed adopted some beliefs, and that his form of spirituality does have a specific origin, albeit a detraditionalized one.

Another part of Brand’s appeal may be due to his use of affective shifts during a given performance or interview. My sense is that he uses these with great skill to accommodate the variety of social perspectives that comprise his audience, and in particular as a mollifying effect around the fact of the secular West’s generally uneasy relationship with figures who act as if they have spiritual authority.

Shifting discursive styles, he slides between a low-brow persona and a more learned one, as can be heard in interviews or on his former talk show, Brand X (2012–2013) and his YouTube news show, The Trews (2014-present).

The “low-brow” affect effectively paints him, as well as his spiritual discoveries, as earnest, naive, and nonthreatening. Hackles are less likely to be raised by a wide-eyed lad with poor grammar who comes across as if nuggets of profound wisdom are objects he himself just stumbled across. He often uses the first-person when speaking on the spiritual, which functions as an important marker separating him from Western wanna-be gurus. In other words, he effectively encodes himself as someone who is himself in a process of discovery (and I don’t doubt that this is genuinely felt); that is, as one of the regular people. Brand’s common-Joe vernacular and use of the confessional first-person function to reflect the credo of the contemporary SBNR — that the “inner-self” must be respected as the locus of epistemologic determinations — also allows him to be seen as backing away from professing any real knowledge of, or commitment to, a particular tradition. Not interpreting him as proselytizing, the public then senses that they can let their guard down against truth claims that would surely rankle some.

In sum, when Brand uses expressions of childlike wondrousness, combined with his simplifying of Vedanta for the uninitiated (whereas he shows in other moments that he is quite aware of it as a several millennia-old body of complex philosophy) it’s an affect that I have suggested functions to dispel any feelings of spiritual self-importance that might threaten fans. Then, shifting gears, he is able to launch into a didactic lecture on spiritual worldviews in which he speaks not just of his own experience but of a universal path to “truth.” In the following passage he answers with an earnest delivery to the interviewer’s question by, in effect, keeping it personal. The questioner asks whether Brand might have recently begun to want to contribute something “bigger” through his work of late.

I think I want to be really truthful now. For me what’s happened is, when I was a little kid I felt troubled, and then I was a drug addict, and that was kind of troubling, then I got successful and had some money, and that’s kind of, in a different way, troubling. And what my personal experience has been…Obviously I can only speak with any degree of integrity about my own experiences. But what I’m discovering… the only thing that’s really important is my spirituality, my relationship with myself, a higher power, and the way I treat other people.

This simplicity, with its universally applicable redemptive tone, then shifts in the following passage, in which he expresses his excitement about the insights that yoga practice has garnered him:

What I think those things do. . .it [sic] increases your awareness of other forms of reality, [of an] objective oneness of all things. . . . There is an ultimate frequency from which all other frequencies are derived; they know this in physics now; they’ve always believed it in Vedic philosophy — that there is one unifying field of energy — the big bang in science… what’s that thing? Quantum entanglement . . . everything is One… and you can recognize that if you are prepared to temporarily annihilate your belief that you are [merely] a material individual. The senses of course are there for the necessary survival of the human vessel; but we are surviving now … we’ve got everything we need. So we need, I think, [now] to be constantly aligning ourselves with the ultimate reality, with the ultimate oneness. Yoga helps me to do that, transcendental meditation helps me to do that, sex helps me to do it, sometimes playing with my cat helps me to do that. It’s not about an ethical or moral evaluation or judgment of which part of reality is better or higher. … but just accepting that there’s a higher reality of which we are all part.¹⁹

Again, after such metaphysical explanations, he may well revert to the more well-recognized, secular comedic material that made him famous. He has quipped that this would be about the right juncture to throw in a penis joke.

The flip flop from earnest and wide-eyed, to spiritually savvy, back to sardonic social commentator, I hypothesize, may be employed to provide a sort of 3-tiered access to him. Fans have their pick of at least three Russell Brands: the simple, stripped-down bloke, the universalist spiritual philosopher, or the material-worldly comedian. As mentioned, this shift between personae assures his secular fans who might otherwise worry that he has been duped by a guru or has converted to a New Age cult, that his caustic wit is as sharp as ever, and he can signal that has therefore not abandoned them, nor the world, nor his role as progressive social change agitator and norm-transgressor. Fans are comforted not only by the comedic register, but by the fact that he came to his apparent access to spiritual wisdom without becoming a world-denying ascetic. And so neither, it is implied, must they.

Some may catch the fact that, in moving across and between these personae, he has sought to convey all of them as a unity. When asked by an interviewer whether he thinks his audience wants “yoga-practicing Russell Brand or. . . ‘Russell Brand, author of chaos?’” Brand replies, “They’re all the same person, so they are getting all of it. When I’m doing a show, I’m talking about sex and chaos and mayhem, but I’m looking at the relationship between [them] and divinity, and higher things, and there is a relationship.”²⁰ This performed aporia is the move that interests us here as we examine it through the lens of metamodern theory.

When enacting these meetings of the secular, the contemporary spiritual, and the ancient, I noticed that the performance of these combined worldviews is engaged in a manner that neither reduces nor essentializes, nor pits them against one another, nor asserts the supremacy of any one, but rather, accounts for all of them. I suggest, then, that the pairing of two individuals such as HHDL and Brand begins to make a particular kind of sense when viewed from an SBNR soteriology that circumvents hard-fast bifurcations of good and bad, immanent and transcendent, savior and sinner, meaning and no-meaning. Rather, a range of human vicissitudes is welcomed. “The deal now,” as I’ve written elsewhere, trying to describe the affective tone of metamodernism, “is to celebrate expressions of human frailty and foible that are so authentic as to defy previous narratives of what’s accepted, expected, or desirable.” … [to revere] those instances in life…in which humanity is revealed to be as quirky and lovably strange, charmingly vile, base, human, as it is.”²¹ In short, the two figures found themselves on stage together not in spite of but directly due to Brand’s reputation, his often transgressive orientation, and the manner in which he delivers it.

Messiah Complex

Russell Brand’s comedy show, Messiah Complex, toured around the world in 2013 and 2014. To know just how ingeniously replete with religious material-made-palatable to secular audiences it is, you must watch it in full. He enters the stage to the tune of Depeche Mode’s song, “Personal Jesus.” Early in the show, Brand assembles the salvific figures of Gandhi, Che Guevara, Malcolm X and Jesus Christ on stage with him, where they are each first admired for their courageous upholding of strong progressive values, and then humanized: discussion of their flaws, Brand reveals conspiratorily, is necessary to perform the important role of discomfiting the audience.

Brand also makes plenty of fun of his own messiah complex, disarming his own authority and godlike celebrity status in front of our eyes with self-deprecation and goofy, sexually explicit material. The performance consistently oscillates between deference and disdain, mockery and sincerity, the juxtaposition of which both creates an “unsettling subversion” and also somehow feels completely cogent with respect to contemporary Western life.²²

A significant number of response comments to Messiah Complex and to other videos posted by fans on YouTube or Facebook posit Brand, himself, as a savior, or even a sacrificial figure (reader: please presume “[sic]” throughout):

•Thank god “someone famous” just gets it! He can spreed the word of truth

•I’m excited someone like him is talking about this. Im ready for the shift. We’ve been waiting a long time for this.

•This is basically the core teachings of eastern philosophy. Are we the same person we are before? Yes we are the same person yet at the same time we are not. We exist as a constant but we change invariably. Eastern philosophy may sound contradictory at first but then it explains perfectly the complexities that we cannot explain with linear logic. Yin and Yang is the embodiment of everything in the universe, and that is the truth. And lastly with Yin and Yang comes the law of Oneness and unity.

•When Russell Brand first came out the scene I just thought he was an attention grabbing gobshite and I had no time for him. I know different now I know some of his back story and what he has been through and I love him now. I agree with this message whole heartedly. It is so good to feel others waking up around me!! I feel like I’ve been living with this alone since night Dianna died!!

• Many people have tried to get on the centre stage to put these ideas forwards. I don’t think Russel ever truely thought it would be him that would be at the centre of the media attention. He has used his position wisely and turned many a planned public character assassination to his advantage. Jesus had many followers and he stood on a hill and preached to a multitude. The media mountain that Russel Brand stands on can be measured in incomprehensable volumes of views on Youtube multinational television channels, the radio, the stage. This pales the following that Jesus apparently had in his living years. This is too often played down or ignored. … He is one of many who are trying to help people understand our predicament.

•Jesus said the same in other words, Russel Brand is great and Jesus also…showimg us the true Love without interest at all…..long long time ago we could have avoided the greed that is the real enemy inside us giving way to the destruction of the planet, destruction of the family society and people of all nations. …Jesus [presented] these way of being and now we see the results, Russell sees the same too….will he give his life for this purpose I wonder….

With comments like these we can see that the salvific accompanies the former drug and sex addiction, to the point of becoming an accepted part of the package. This calls attention to the point that, in a metamodern reading, saviors are those who embrace the light and the dark. So we see a pluralistic, immanence-model of salvation. Rather than being focused on a transcendent “beyond” metamodern soteriologies show a conviction that what happens in the world matters.

A Sustained Questioning: Brand’s Constructive Destabilizations

Brand’s ideas for progressive social reform seem to be undergirded both by a (Bataillian) notion of excessive expenditures of laughter and spectacle and by his universalist metaphysics — one secular/ constructivist; one spiritual/universalist; together, a kind of contemporary Tantra.²³ In Brand’s comedy routines, James Brassett writes, one hears “a sustained questioning of the state form of politics and its role in upholding structures of domination and inequality on a global scale.”²⁴ Brand likewise leads audiences into sustained questioning of psychosocial and metaphysical constructs that define the nature of the self and reality.

The cultural force of Brand’s “brand” is particularly apparent where these micro and macro-level deconstructions become reconstructions. In his seamless shifting from bawdy humorist to devotee and publicly vocal espouser of Eastern religious forms, to social activist, Brand performs the notion that a narrative of sincere spirituality can exist alongside sociopolitical interventions. The belief that “we are all one” and the quest for personal spiritual awakening here are not seen as negating the call for political revolution but rather perhaps as an invitation to engage on any or all of these projects, according to one’s own calling.


I have interpreted Russell Brand’s performance here as a bridging of several modalities and a reflection of a post-postmodern generation of millennials (Gen Ys) and plurals (Gen Zs) who are putting emotional sincerity and worldly concern back “in,” all the while exploding the serenity of any moment that threatens to become too staid.

I have suggested that postmodernism’s death of the subject became metamodernism’s resurrection, as exemplified in the rise and multi-modal popularity of a sometime-salvific figure like Russell Brand. The metamodern turn was explored as a way to name the full reflexive awareness of the human desire to seek an “answer” and the simultaneous contemporary understanding that history will continually belie that effort. I have also used metamodern theory to explain certain oxymoronic aspects of the SBNR’s secular spirituality: how Brand can joke on a stage with the Dalai Lama, expound on deeply personal spiritual experiences, promote Transcendental Meditation, lead a political protest rally, and seamlessly swing back to overtly licentious comedic material. Brand’s performance was shown to bridge several contemporary identities: an ironically dressed chap in stylish leather boots and purposefully tattered jeans, a sincere seeker on an ancient spiritual path, and a thought leader for contemporary secular spirituals writing their own new cultural narrative.


[1] Ethnographic literature on the SBNR shows clearly that this category is embraced by a very wide gamut of individuals, from seculars willing to admit to spiritual proclivities, to those who strongly identify as spiritual and are excited to embrace a moniker with which they can proclaim differentiation from religiosity, and all points in between. See ethnographies including Linda Mercadante, Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious (2014); Courtney Bender, The New Metaphysicals (2010).

[2] See Chip Callahan, Patricia O’Connell Killen, Sean McCloud, Monica Miller, Steven Ramey, Panel, Religion and Popular Culture Group, “Discussing the ‘Nones’: What They Say about the Category of Religion and American Society” AAR November 25, 2013.

[3] See for example historiographic works by Catherine Albanese, Wouter Hanegraaff, Philip Goldberg, Adam Crabtree, Arthur Versluis, Alex Owen, Leigh Eric Schmidt, Jason Josephson Storm.…

[4] Robert Fuller’s groundbreaking work, Spiritual but not Religious (2001) suggested that the SBNR differs little from the New Age with respect to its roots in the human potential movement, the counterculture and the “me” generation, which to some extent I agree with. With the benefit of hindsight, though, I believe we can see that there is more going on. The cache of the moniker “New Age” more or less went down in the late 1990s. As noted in a sociology panel on the Nones at the 2013 America Academy of Religions Annual Meeting, we actually have no idea how many “New Agers” might be out there at this point because you just cannot use that phrase on a questionnaire anymore — so few are willing to check the box. The salient point here is that though the designation “New Age” is sullied, many of the beliefs and practices still persist, now under the banner of SBNR.

[5] Reception of Brand’s public spirituality certainly includes its detractors, but from my own monitoring of comments on YouTube between 2013 and 2017, I notice that supporters and fans outweigh critics by increasing margins.

[6] It may be important to clarify that while metamodernism is associated with the millennial generation, its cultural expression is by no means exclusively the purview of people who are of the age range considered “millennial.” The epistemic mapping of traditional, modern, postmodern, metamodern does NOT mean to imply generational association necessarily. In other words, not everything the millennials say and do is metamodern, and not everything that can be taken to be metamodern comes from a millennial. Gen Y Millennials and Gen Z, the so-called Plurals, however, are the groups that most embody a metamodern sensibility since they have come of age when metamodernism is becoming a cultural dominant for the first time..

[7] (“Extended Interview: Russell Brand.” 3News. Accessed May 13, 2013.

[8] Jameson’s influential essay written in 1984 and later developed into a book by the same title was “Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism(1991). There he pronounced an intensification period “in which culture and capitalism were collapsing into one another and beginning to share the same logic” (qtd in Matthew Mullins, “The Long 1980s,” a review of a follow-up text by Jeffrey T. Nealon: Post-postmodernism: or, The Cultural Logic of Just-In-Time Capitalism, American Book Review 34, no. 4 [May-June 2013] 13).

[9] Mus’ad Zavarzadeh seemingly coins the term as early as 1975, while examining an emerging aesthetic in fiction in which the sharp division between life and art does not exist. While he is arguably outlining a postmodern move, he does lay ground for later engagement with just such a sentiment. It has also reportedly been used since the 1970s in writings on law, politics, economics, data analysis and architecture, according to an essay on previous uses of the term. (

[10] Vermeulen and van den Akker, “Notes on metamodernism.”


[12]He is not the only comedian to do so. But what makes him different from the other comedians who comment on religion such as Bill Maher, is that he shifts from smart-ass to sincere without sacrificing half of his audience. Maher’s jokes are generally made at someone else’s expense. Whereas, Brand seems to see himself as a bridge-builder.

[13]Elsewhere I write in more detail about the role of technology and social media in how millennials have come to understand their identities as multivalent, fluid, and mediated; and how metamodernism helps explain that an emphasis on the affective addresses anxieties and stereotypes of nihilism and narcissism. See Linda Ceriello, “Toward a Metamodern Reading of Spiritual But Not Religious Mysticisms” chapter in forthcoming volume, Being Spiritual but not Religious: Past, Present, Future(s), William Parsons, ed.

[14] Linda Ceriello, “’That’s AWEsome!!’” — The Evolution of a Phrase (or… Why It’s Now Cooler to be AWEsome Than Cool)” 2013

[15] To clarify how I am employing Tantra here: I am borrowing from Jeffrey Kripal who writes that Tantra’s transgressive arm was the primary form of “Hindu” philosophy appropriated in the 1950s and 60s countercultural movements in the West. Neo-Advaita, the westernized form of Advaita Vedanta, is effectively lumped in with westernized Tantra, and accounts for the Western emphasis on the transgressive aspect. However, I suggest, it is under the steam of the Neo-Advaita movement that the hybridized version into the 1990s and 2000s becomes instantiated. For more, see Philip Goldberg’s American Veda (2010).

[16] 3news.Extended-Interview

[17] Steven Ramey in Notes from the Field: Nones and the AAR

[18] Brand’s statement demonstrates the tendency for SBNR spiritualities to in some cases more comfortably center not on the beliefs but on the practices of a religious culture. Often those practices have been partly or largely dislodged from their home traditions. In short, beliefs can be loosely held, combined, essentialized, or even largely ignored; and the traditions that seem, from a Western perspective, to tolerate such (read: westernized versions of so-called “Eastern” traditions) have tended to do well with SBNRs.

[19] 3news.Extended-Interview.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Linda Ceriello,

[22] The wonderful phrase “the promise of unsettling subversion” I borrow from Luciano Nuzzo, “Foucault and the enigma of the monster,” International Journal for the Semiotics of Law — Revue Internationale de Sémiotique Juridique 26 (1):55–72 (2013).

[23] In a longer version of this paper, I delve more thoroughly into Brand’s Siva-like oscillation between two excessive interests: spiritual seeking and Dionysian engagement with samsara (the worldly), using Wendy Doniger’s characterization of the figure of Siva as one who “brings to a head the extreme and therefore least reconcilable aspects of the oppositions” (Siva: The Erotic Aescetic, 36). I suggest that Brand’s trademark disruptive, salacious comic material performed next to the arguably also deeply disruptive spiritual profundities he offers, may unwittingly be making the spiritual mythos of Siva, and hence Vedantic and Tantric traditions, available to the West in a manner outside the confines of ashrams, retreat centers, interreligious churches and the other gathering places of the SBNR. See ch. 4 of my 2018 dissertation, Metamodern Mysticisms: Narrative Encounters with Contemporary Western Secular Spiritualities.

[24] James Brassett, “British Comedy, Global Resistance: Russell Brand, Charlie Brooker, and Stewart Lee,” European Journal of International Relations 22, no. 1, 2016. Brassett refers to the ascendency of “radical comedians” and “satirical interventions”: “Comedians like Russell Brand, Charlie Brooker and Stewart Lee have consolidated already strong careers with a new tranche of material that meets a widespread public mood of disdain for the failure and excess of ‘global capitalism’.”

WiM on Med

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WiM on Med

Offshoot of We explore metamodernism, the new episteme that engages the tension between modernist conviction and postmodern relativism by emphasizing ~felt experience~. Our articles here on Medium will tend to be the longer/more abstract ones.

Linda Ceriello

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Ph.D., scholar of comparative religions and popular culture,

WiM on Med

Offshoot of We explore metamodernism, the new episteme that engages the tension between modernist conviction and postmodern relativism by emphasizing ~felt experience~. Our articles here on Medium will tend to be the longer/more abstract ones.