Losing Its Religion? Orange Is the New Black’s Postsecular Spiritual Turn

By Geoffrey Pollick

Spoiler Alert: Plot details from season four of Orange Is the New Black appear below.


Jenji Kohan’s acclaimed Netflix series Orange Is the New Black released a much-anticipated fourth season on June 17. Where religion has heretofore served as a primary thematic emphasis for the program, in its most recent iteration religion recedes to the narrative edges.

In earlier seasons, Orange Is the New Black addressed richly detailed and widely varying accounts of religion. Over the course of season three, for example, Norma Romano (played by Annie Golden) cultivated a new religious movement dedicated to her own veneration; Cindy Hayes (Adrienne Moore) pursued religious education and eventually converted to Judaism; and Suzanne Warren’s (Uzo Aduba) serial fiction garnered a fandom that Kohan presents as at least a quasi-religious formation. Even minor characters like Leanne Taylor (Emma Myles) received significant treatment in relation to religion, with the revelation that she grew up in an Amish community and found her way to prison after a Rumspringa misadventure. And where the season concluded with mass escape into Litchfield Penitentiary’s adjacent lake, its depths served as a mikveh to seal Cindy’s adoption of Judaism with ritual immersion. Religion, in other words, has been a consistent preoccupation for Orange Is the New Black.

In its fourth season, however, Kohan employs religious symbols and practices as background elements that function in service of other themes. The season emphasizes the role of racial and ethnic prejudice at Litchfield and the hierarchies and inequalities of wealth and social class, underscoring tensions created in the assertion of collective identities. Kohan has explained that, in the fourth season, “[w]e start with political agendas, the corporatization of the prison, the stratification of people into their little mosaic groups.” This includes “all the fun stuff like race and hate and some things from current events that we wanted to filter through our lens.”

Skirmishes over identity indeed supply much of the season’s narrative fodder. Dominicans denounce Puerto Ricans. African-Americans, Latinas, and Euro-Americans all brook conflict with one another. The massive Management & Corrections Corporation disregards the local needs and human rights of Litchfield’s residents, pitting tribes of correctional officers and inmates against one another. And the variable treatment of inmates within and between minimum security, maximum security, and solitary confinement stratifies wealth and privilege behind Litchfield’s walls.

In this conflictual mélange, religion plays a secondary yet significant role. Without entirely erasing religion, the show’s new installment holds in tension religion’s role in facilitating violent political forms with individual expressions of religion imagined as spirituality.


Where earlier seasons represented the religious vibrancy and innovation among Litchfield Penitentiary’s inhabitants, its recent episodes reveal forms of disenchantment and the trivialization of religion. As the season begins, for example, and a horde of new inmates are introduced to the population, the newly converted Cindy is assigned a Muslim bunkmate, Alison Abdullah. The two are initially portrayed as locked in a microcosmic emulation of conflict between Judaism and Islam. Kohan bluntly establishes the terms of their engagement, depicting Cindy’s installation of a handicraft mezuzah on her bunk wall, and drawing attention to Abdullah’s headscarf. Here, the program makes recourse to perceptions of religion as a source of violence and division by referencing obvious religious objects and garments. But this squabble is ultimately shown to be superficial: by the sixth episode, the bunkmates share jokes about the absurdity of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, and Abdullah’s veil is shown to be a convenient cover to hide a contraband smartphone.

Such trivializing portrayals of religion come alongside more profound expressions of disenchantment. Midway through the season, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) falls out with a faction of Latina inmates with whom she has competed in a contraband-profit enterprise. In order to protect her profit-making operations, Piper exploits Litchfield’s racial tensions, pitting her Latina business rivals against a racist white nationalist faction of inmates. Taking revenge, Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel) oversees the capture of Piper, holding her forearm over a stovetop burner in the prison kitchen and searing a swastika brand into her skin. In episode eight, Piper’s friends return with her to the kitchen in order to disguise the brand by burning additional marks around its edges to form the shape of a square window. Presiding over this ritual of rectification, Galina “Red” Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew) pronounces: “When God gives you a swastika, he opens a window. And then you remember, there is no God.” Here, Kohan turns to the question of theodicy by depicting her characters’ grappling with belief in a god when confronted by obvious evil, exemplified in Piper’s torture and amplified by the allusions to Nazism in her brand and to communism in Red’s Russian heritage, unmistakable in Mulgrew’s thickly pronounced accent. Through Red’s incantation, recited alongside images of Piper’s scarred flesh, Kohan gestures to the experience of disenchantment, of the loss of faith in traditional religious beliefs and practices in the face of political violence and human cruelty. If Orange Is the New Black has previously given voice to the creativity and vitality inspired by religion, in this scene, it ponders the futility of religion.

Despite the gravity of Red’s reflections on theism, recognizably religious elements appear infrequently in season four. But Kohan introduces a subtle depiction of spirituality, increasing in prominence as the episodes proceed, that represents an important shift in the program’s contemplation of religion. Even though Red announces a weighty negation of religion, she also exemplifies season four’s spiritual turn.

In the concluding episode, as Litchfield’s community reels from the death of Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), Red gathers the members of her chosen prison family to recite a passage from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Supported by quiet music, Red reads:

The garden is one of the two great metaphors for humanity. … [T]he garden is about life and beauty and the impermanence of all living things. The garden is about feeding your children, providing food for the tribe. It’s part of an urgent territorial drive that we can probably trace back to animals storing food. It’s a competitive display mechanism, like having a prize bull, this greed for the best tomatoes and English tea roses; it’s about winning, about providing society with superior things, and about proving that you have taste and good values and you work hard. And what a wonderful relief every so often to know who the enemy is—because in the garden, the enemy is everything: the aphids, the weather, time. And so you pour yourself into it, care so much, and see up close so much birth and growth and beauty and danger and triumph—and then everything dies anyway, right? But you just keep doing it. What a great metaphor!

In this passage, Lamott emphasizes immanence, the importance of living in the here-and-now and recognition of the connections between humans and nature. Not referencing scripture or tradition, this garden metaphor offers its own free-floating insights into identity and community and meaning. Memorializing Poussey in this way, already having acknowledged her abandonment of religion, Red invokes the independence and individuality of spiritual contemplation and practice.

Kohan’s use of Lamott furnishes a substantial link to contemporary expressions of spirituality. Bird by Bird—which made an earlier appearance in episode six, showing up in the hands of celebrity-chef-turned-inmate Judy King (Blair Brown) as she reclined in her luxury bunk—launched Lamott’s writing career with its 1994 publication, and made her into an icon of the static1.squarespacespiritual-but-not-religious demographic in American society. She serves as a complex emblem of this group, entertaining a vivid conception of spirituality as a broad and open form of connection that contrasts with the narrowness she perceives in religions. During a 2003 interview with Krista Tippett, Lamott explained her understanding of the relation between religion and spirituality: “Sober people say that religion is for people who are afraid to go to hell, and spirituality is for people who’ve been there. And I think faith, for me, is a word that speaks much more to a belief and an interest in matters that are spiritual rather than the institution and creeds that you associate with religion.” As people who have, in some respects, “been to hell,” Litchfield’s inmates, and Red in particular, seem predisposed to adopting such improvisational forms of making meaning and explaining experience.

Where season four of Orange Is the New Black ponders the limits traditional religion’s use and significance, its introduction of spirituality alongside narratives of religious conflict and violence points to Kohan’s interest in contemporary social dynamics. As scholars of religion have attempted to explain the shifting terrain on which religion comes to expression in the present moment of individual consumerism, globalism, terrorism, and political extremism, the concept of the post-secular has emerged as a model to explain the overlapping identities and practices that take shape between the religious and the secular. Post-secularism speaks to both the individualized experiences of connection and contemplation in spiritual practice and the perception and role of religion as a legitimating force for political violence as they are referenced in Orange Is the New Black.

The philosopher and social theorist Jürgen Habermas articulated this concept nearly a decade ago, in an essay entitled “Notes on a post-secular society.” He observed that modern societies have come to be characterized by “a political unleashing of the potential for violence innate in religion”—as exemplified by “Islamic terrorism,” right-wing Hindu nationalists, and the U.S. American religious right—at the same time that societies have seen the “individualisation of religious practice.” Both elements, the presence of religion-related political violence and the turn towards individualism in religious experience and practice, hold importance because they contradict the expectations held by many mid-twentieth-century sociologists, who imagined that a process of secularization would eliminate religion from modern society by demonstrating its uselessness, and would, thus, decrease conflict and violence overall.

In place of this model, Habermas sees a “change in consciousness” that prompts his description of Euro-American societies as “post-secular.” If secularization occurred, he avers, it did so in a piecemeal fashion. Where mechanisms of state control were structurally differentiated from religious institutions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, creating secular publics, religion persisted in shaping perception and action. More than this, the proximity that globalism fosters between secular and non-secular societies—and those somewhere in between—prevents any discussion of social life from ignoring religion. As Habermas writes, “[t]he awareness of living in a secular society is no longer bound up with the certainty that cultural and social modernisation can advance only at the cost of the public influence and personal relevance of religion.”

With the emergence of this polyvalent reality, religious and secular formations have adapted alike. Borrowing a phrase from theologian Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, Habermas observes that persistent forms of organized religion have shifted in their social function, increasingly embodying “communities of interpretation” that exert public influence. This new modality succeeds in post-secular contexts because it allows religion to provide “a responsive sounding board” that can help to address “[societies that] are increasingly split on value conflicts requiring political regulation.” In Orange Is the New Black, Red’s spiritual practice follows this sort of “responsive” trajectory as she grieves with her Litchfield family, helping that community to interpret its loss and confinement.

Reflecting on these social dynamics after secularism, religion scholars Ann Taves and Courtney Bender write that, “[o]ur moment might…be viewed not as resulting from a simple decline in religious and traditional authority but rather from the recalibration of relations between competing forms of authority in which ‘secularities’ are invested with their own theories, imaginations, and integrities.” Taves and Bender want us to “attend to the issues of how people in our contemporary moment…confront the question of what it means to live in the world and how they do this.” Jenji Kohan’s characters open a window into this confrontation. For them, religion and spirituality, even if they have receded to the background, provide strategies and practices for addressing the complicated forms of identity and community they encounter, within and outside of prison. Even if it sometimes resorts to simplistic depictions, Orange Is the New Black’s new season unmasks religion as a stable or universal category. “Secular, religious, and spiritual authorities, experiences, and beliefs,” write Taves and Bender, “jostle for attention, make different claims, mark different spatial and political territory.”

Religion isn’t enough in a post-secular society, and neither is a strict secularism. If violent forms of politicized religion are to be confronted, and if atomizing spirituality is to possess some connection to the social whole, wider conceptions are needed for understanding the ways in which humans make meaning in variegated social worlds. In its fourth season, Orange Is the New Black struggles to imagine these more capacious modes of thought and practice by allowing religion to recede to the background.


Geoffrey Pollick, Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Sweet Briar College, teaches and researches the history of religion in the United States. His work emphasizes religion’s entanglements with political radicalism, the role and dimensions of religious liberalism, critical theory of religion, and the cultural history and historiography of religion.

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