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Friday, April 5, 2024

The Civic Cost of Religious Decline

Many posts have discussed the role of religion in American life.   

Derek Thompson -- an agnostic -- writes at The Atlantic:

The sudden decline of religion likely relates to changes in both politics and family life. In the 1970s and ’80s, the religious right became a formidable fundraising machine for the Republican Party. As the GOP consolidated its advantage among conservative Christians, religion seemed less appealing to liberal young people, especially if they or their parents already had a tenuous relationship with the Church. In the late 1980s, only one in 10 liberals said they didn’t belong to any religion; 30 years later, that figure was about four in 10. Meanwhile, the decline of marriage, especially among low-income Americans, accompanied their move away from the Church.

That relationship with organized religion provided many things at once: not only a connection to the divine, but also a historical narrative of identity, a set of rituals to organize the week and year, and a community of families. PRRI found that the most important feature of religion for the dwindling number of Americans who still attend services a few times a year included “experiencing religion in a community” and “instilling values in their children.”


Did the decline of religion cut some people off from a crucial gateway to civic engagement, or is religion just one part of a broader retreat from associations and memberships in America? “It’s hard to know what the causal story is here,” Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at NYU, told me. But what’s undeniable is that nonreligious Americans are also less civically engaged. This year, the Pew Research Center reported that religiously unaffiliated Americans are less likely to volunteer, less likely to feel satisfied with their community and social life, and more likely to say they feel lonely. “Clearly more Americans are spending Sunday mornings on their couches, and it’s affected the quality of our collective life,” he said.


And America didn’t simply lose its religion without finding a communal replacement. Just as America’s churches were depopulated, Americans developed a new relationship with a technology that, in many ways, is the diabolical opposite of a religious ritual: the smartphone. As the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes in his new book, The Anxious Generation, to stare into a piece of glass in our hands is to be removed from our bodies, to float placelessly in a content cosmos, to skim our attention from one piece of ephemera to the next. The internet is timeless in the best and worst of ways—an everything store with no opening or closing times. “In the virtual world, there is no daily, weekly, or annual calendar that structures when people can and cannot do things,” Haidt writes. In other words, digital life is disembodied, asynchronous, shallow, and solitary.

Religious rituals are the opposite in almost every respect. They put us in our body, Haidt writes, many of them requiring “some kind of movement that marks the activity as devotional.” Christians kneel, Muslims prostrate, and Jews daven. Religious ritual also fixes us in time, forcing us to set aside an hour or day for prayer, reflection, or separation from daily habit. (It’s no surprise that people describe a scheduled break from their digital devices as a “Sabbath.”) Finally, religious ritual often requires that we make contact with the sacred in the presence of other people, whether in a church, mosque, synagogue, or over a dinner-table prayer. In other words, the religious ritual is typically embodied, synchronous, deep, and collective.