Friday, April 12, 2024

What Has Robbed The American People Of Their Outwardly Expressed Religion?

theatlantic  | 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.

Klinenberg doesn’t blame individual Americans for these changes. He sees our civic retreat as a story about place. In his book Palaces for the People, Klinenberg reported that Americans today have fewer shared spaces where connections are formed. “People today say they just have fewer places to go for collective life,” he said. “Places that used to anchor community life, like libraries and school gyms and union halls, have become less accessible or shuttered altogether.” Many people, having lost the scaffolding of organized religion, seem to have found no alternative method to build a sense of community.

Imagine, by analogy, a parallel universe where Americans suddenly gave up on sit-down restaurants. In surveys, they named many reasonable motivations for their abstinence: the expense, the overuse of salt and sugar and butter, the temptation to drink alcohol. As restaurants disappeared by the hundreds, some mourned their closure, while others said it simply didn’t matter. After all, there were still plenty of ways for people to feed themselves. Over time, however, Americans as a group never found another social activity to replace their dining-out time. They saw less of one another with each passing decade. Sociologists noted that the demise of restaurants had correlated with a rise in aloneness, just as the CDC noticed an increase in anxiety and depression.

I’ve come to believe that something like this story is happening, except with organized religion playing the role of restaurants. On an individual basis, people can give any number of valid-sounding reasons for not frequenting a house of worship. But a behavioral shift that is fully understandable on the individual level has coincided with, and even partly exacerbated, a great rewiring of our social relations.

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.

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