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Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Opinion | Religion Creates Community. We’re Losing That. - The New York Times

Religion Creates Community. We’re Losing That.

An illustration of giant hands, each holding a community of people, as a lone individual falls in between.
Eleanor Davis

You’re reading the Jessica Grose newsletter, for Times subscribers only.  A journalist and novelist offers her perspective on the American family, culture, politics and the way we live now.

This is the fifth and final newsletter in a series about Americans moving away from religion. Read part one, part two, part three and part four.

I started this series because I felt that the rise of “nones” — Americans who say they have no formal religious affiliation — was one of the biggest, most complicated and most misunderstood changes in society in the past half-century. And my sense was that the subject had been discussed mostly among people who had strong, polarizing opinions about this change: either atheists who cheered it or the religiously observant who decried it.

As I started my reporting, my own feelings about the rise of nones were somewhat ambivalent; I’m Jewish and still have a strong cultural identity, but I’m not observant. I don’t miss shul and have little desire to return, yet I feel a bit heartsick about not passing down Jewish rituals with more consistency for my children.

After months of reading about this massive change, and having had quite a few deep and very moving conversations with some of the over 7,000 readers who responded to my initial call-out about becoming less religious over time, the one aspect of religion in America that I unquestionably see as an overall positive for society is the ready-made supportive community that churchgoers can access.

When I say “churchgoers,” of course, I mean those who attend a church, temple, mosque, gurdwara, friends meeting or any of the many traditional houses of worship in America. The idea of community connects them all.

“Community” was mentioned in over 2,300 reader responses. As the reader Julie Prado, 50, from Washington State, wrote to me: “I was raised Pentecostal and went to church three or more times a week, so I desperately miss the community. It was where my friendships came from. I have very few friends now.” Prado told me she isn’t part of a church because she hasn’t found one that fully affirms gay people or believes as strongly as she does in the separation of church and state. “I have joined groups that are fighting for these things,” she said, like Christians Against Christian Nationalism, but they don’t provide the same kind of social fabric that her church did.

I asked every sociologist I interviewed whether communities created around secular activities outside of houses of worship could give the same level of wraparound support that churches, temples and mosques are able to offer. Nearly across the board, the answer was no.

Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College, put it this way: “I can go play soccer on a Sunday morning and hang out with people from different races and different class backgrounds, and we can bond. But I’m not doing that with my grandparents and my grandchildren.” A soccer team can’t provide spiritual solace in the face of death, it probably doesn’t have a weekly charitable call and there’s no sense of connection to a heritage that goes back generations. You can get bits and pieces of these disparate qualities elsewhere, he said, but there’s no “one-stop shop” — at least not right now.

That doesn’t mean Americans can’t or don’t cobble together their own support networks and senses of meaning without organized religion; clearly, many do. But the group of Americans who are moving away from religion in the most significant percentages may have the hardest time building community from scratch, because they are often shortest on time and resources. As I noted in part four of this series, every demographic group in the United States is becoming less religious, but groups that are overrepresented among people with no religion in particular are those without high school diplomas, who are single, who don’t have children and who earn less than $50,000 a year.

This trend complicates, if not contradicts, the commonly held notion that religion is most deeply rooted among everyday working Americans and less among the chattering class. But as Ryan Burge explains in “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are and Where They Are Going,” data from the comprehensive Cooperative Election Study show that in America, “those with the lowest level of education are more likely to say that they have no religious affiliation than those with the highest level of education.”

In his book, Burge, a pastor and a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University, disaggregates the umbrella category of nones into three groups: atheists, agnostics and “nothing in particulars.” Atheists believe there is no God, agnostics are open to the possibility, but not convinced, that God or gods exist, and “nothing in particulars” don’t align themselves with any specific faith tradition.

And Burge has a helpful way of roughing out the terrain: “If all the nones were represented by just five people, one of them would be an atheist, another one would be agnostic and three of them would be nothing in particulars.”

He writes that “32 percent of those who did not earn a high school diploma identified as nones — the highest percentage of any educational level” and “while half of the overall population of the United States earns less than $50,000 per year in household income, 60 percent of the nothing in particulars earn less.” He notes that “nothing in particulars are one of the most educationally and economically disadvantaged groups in the United States today, while atheists and agnostics enjoy much higher levels of economic success.”

What this suggests to me, and to the scholars I’ve spoken to over the past few months, is that there’s a substantial group of Americans who are grappling with societal pressures on multiple fronts. Americans who are “further down the socioeconomic ladder” are lonelier than their more economically well-off counterparts. Americans with lower levels of education have higher mortality rates. And those are some of the same Americans who are alienated from religious institutions, even if many of them still believe in God.

As the authors of “The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?,” all of whom are pastors, write:

In our opinion, America is largely built for a specific type of person. If you belong to a nuclear family, graduate from college, and have children after marriage, America’s institutions tend to work better for you. If you get off that track (or never started on it), the U.S. is a more difficult place in which to thrive.

They go on to say that church culture can feel unwelcoming and even shaming to people who are struggling financially or have family structures outside of the model they describe. What’s more, they write:

Modern American churches are financially incentivized to target the wealthy and create a space where those on track feel comfortable. Biblical hospitality, though, is so much more than just throwing money at a problem, and the net result is that the average American church is not truly hospitable to the less fortunate, making them feel like outsiders in our midst.

Many readers who replied to my query mentioned leaving churches that rejected them during their divorces. Others talked about being constantly hit up for money they couldn’t afford to donate.

I’d like to see faith communities do a better job of including people who aren’t on that, if you will, ordained track. Not because I think people need to be religious to live good lives — I don’t believe that — but because almost everyone needs community to flourish. As the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, whom I spoke to for this series and who wrote “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” has been preaching for decades, increasing social isolation is bad for all of us.

As Carson Curtis, 36, who lives in Arizona, wrote about missing a general sense of community from attending church, “Being socially atomized is hard on the spirit.”

Burge told me a story about his church that illustrated organized religion at its best. He described a section of the service where they asked for “prayers of the people,” where members of the congregation would describe a tough situation and ask for prayers. A young man, probably in his early 20s, with a baby, said he had just lost his job and wouldn’t make rent that month, and asked if the congregation would pray for him. Burge said an older man in the congregation went up to the young man after the service and said, “Son, if you need a job, you can come work for me tomorrow.” While that might sound like a scene from a Frank Capra movie, church really does wind up being one of the few places that people from different walks of life can interact with and help one another.

At the same time, examples of that kind of grace don’t erase the damage that is sometimes done in the name of religion. Americans of all backgrounds are clearly in the midst of a profound shift away from trusting many different kinds of institutionsbeyond just religious ones, and sometimes there are good reasons behind this lack of trust. There is a lot of pain and alienation fueling many people’s rejections of their religious upbringings: I’ve heard so many stories of racial prejudice, misogyny and outright abuse over the course of my reporting. That is a betrayal and a failure.

This shift is ongoing and gaining speed. After talking to readers searching for fresh answers to life’s eternal questions, I believe that there is potential for new kinds of meaningful, lasting communities to be created in the coming years that have nothing to do with organized religion as we know it. I’m eager to see what comes next, because I believe that out of this evolution, Americans can create something nurturing that is also suited to modern life.

Jessica Grose

A journalist and novelist offers her perspective on the American family, culture, politics and the way we live now. 

Opinion | Religion Creates Community. We’re Losing That. - The New York Times

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