...over the past few years the podcasters have become a significant cultural phenomenon, spiritual entrepreneurs who are filling the gap left as traditional religious organizations erode and modernity frays our face-to-face connections with communities and institutions...By my count, there are at least two dozen members of this podcast ecosystem...Several of these podcasters say they reach millions of listeners each month. In 2016, Joe Rogan put his figure “in the neighborhood of 30 million downloads per month”; his show is ranked second on the iTunes podcast chart, right behind Oprah.
In this secularized age of lonely seekers scrolling social media feeds, they have cultivated a spiritual community. They offer theologies and daily rituals of self-actualization, an appealing alternative to the rhetoric of victimhood and resentment that permeates both the right and the left...All this continues a long American tradition of self-help and creative, market-minded spirituality. The 19th century brimmed with gurus ready to guide you to other dimensions and prophets of the path from rags to riches.
Humans seem to be wired to seek salvation; even if polls suggest that more and more Americans reject traditional notions of God and skip church, it’s appealing to think that the latest lifestyle trend could be your path to existential bliss. The podcasters urge their listeners to experiment with fitness routines, diets, non-Western medicine, meditation and other “biohacks” to think more clearly, sleep more soundly and achieve professional success — and to quit blaming other people or bad luck for their problems.
Underlying this taste for experimentation is a deeper interest in evolutionary biology and psychology: the genes that, some experts believe, leave us programmed for a brutal, tribal, even pre-human past despite the creature comforts of the present...Evolutionary psychology is the secular answer to the doctrine of original sin: a primordial explanation for the anxieties that haunt us even if we have a decent job and a functional family...This is the podcast bro ethos: Ditch your ideologically charged identity. Accept your evolutionary programming. Take responsibility for mastering it, and find a cosmic purpose...Many have a strong interest in spirituality, and see practices like Buddhist meditation or consuming hallucinogenic “plant medicine” as not just a way to improve daily performance, but a path to something deeper.
The common thread linking the podcasters’ interest in evolutionary psychology and their metaphysical dabbling is the quest to transcend the ego, and to overcome the idea that we are personally aggrieved by enemies wholly unlike ourselves. This means mistrusting ideology and identitarian politics...having a one-world tribe, a tribe of human beings, period, is really what’s going to heal us for our next stage of life as a species on this planet.
Is this a postmodern monastic order, passing on breakfast and shivering in the shower while pondering the next step in mastering the ego? These podcasters lead one of the largest quasi-spiritual self-help “denominations” in the United States. It is a far-flung virtual community that gives people solace, a regimen and a sense of like-mindedness at a time when churches and other old-fashioned institutions simultaneously seem to ask too much, yet also fail to provide many people with whatever they’re looking for. The podcasters’ rejection of culture-wars partisanship resonates at a time when many Americans have stopped participating in politics (every listener I spoke to avoids political media the way they avoid, well, non-kale smoothies).
Yet podcasts are not churches. They are not political parties. They don’t patch over the existential void so much as reveal how avidly we yearn to fill it...The podcasters may offer a lesson to politicians and activists: to build a following, find a way to provide the sense of affiliation, daily rhythm and ultimate purpose that humans crave. Slogans of victimhood and grievance may rile up the base. But most people yearn, instead, for a sense of belonging and a path to mastery — even if it starts with a cold shower.