Americans are running away from church but they don't have to run from each other
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Americans are running away from church but they don't have to run from each other

A recent study from the Public Religion Research Institute found that more than a quarter of Americans consider themselves religiously unaffiliated. The perceived importance of religion also has declined. A decade ago, 63% of Americans cited religion as the most or one of the most important things in their lives; now, that number stands at 52%. 

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This decline is not random, however. Those most likely to leave religion are white, formerly Christian-affiliated Americans. The majority say they have stopped believing in the religion’s teachings as their primary reason for stepping away.

But sizable numbers also leave because they believe religion has become too politicized. Additionally, the growing share of “nonverts” (those formerly, but not currently, affiliated with a religion) when added to a rise in what scholar Stephen Bullivant calls “cradle nones” (those whose parents claimed no religious membership) mean that, each year, fewer Americans are connected to houses of worship. 

As professors of sociology and religious studies, we know that declining religious connection can have negative consequences for our society; however, the answer is broader than simply, “Go (back) to church.” 

Religion helps to shape community bonds

Religion serves multiple functions: to solidify and nourish one’s identity, to shape community values and to form bonds of trust with others. With declining religious practice in American society, we risk losing one of the great organizing structures we share with our ancestors and, with it, the positives of being a part of a larger whole.

The disconnection from our neighbors, the fostering of distrust and the lack of belonging further imperil our society.

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Encouragingly, recent data suggests that those who attend religious services at least a few times a year are more deeply civically involved, so real change in our society is possible. In contrast, those who never attend religious services tend to engage in the most shallow forms of civic engagement, like posting on social media or signing a petition, rather than more involved activities – like volunteering for a campaign or contacting their governmental officials for change. 

Given that faith and community and civic engagement seem inextricably linked, what is the way forward?

We think an appeal to the mainstream nonverts and cradle nones would help reconnect the broken bits of our public spaces. Moderate voices are paramount at this juncture of history because mainstream religious beliefs and actions based on those beliefs have a stabilizing effect on society.

Yet, research suggests that moderates caught in the political crossfire of extreme positions have retreated to private religious beliefs rather than communal disagreement.

Can they be blamed?

If one sees religion as a refuge from a volatile world, the whole participatory event becomes exhausting. 

Americans are increasingly disconnected with each other

It is not just religious organizations that have declined. In 2000, sociologist Robert Putnam coined the term “bowling alone” to lament the decline of community support systems like bowling leagues and the Elks lodge.

Such recreational and voluntary associations served many of the same purposes as houses of worship. As a result of these declines, the second half of the 20th century saw a huge drop in “social capital.” 

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So, are we saying that individuals should become more religious? No.

We are advocating for community in many forms. Some may argue that an ultramarathon club or the Chamber of Commerce should not be viewed as equivalent to religious services. While not necessarily forming identities and providing a way to consider life’s big questions, social connection does provide the benefit of personal solace and communal trust in our neighbors. 

One of the responsibilities of citizenship is leaving your community a better place than you found it. Participation in a house of worship may be one way to promote social change and connectedness. But joining a book group or gardening club also could be ways to achieve many of the same societal ends. 

Beyond simply joining a group, however, in hopes that doing so may restore your trust in your fellow humans or even your own faith, we’d ask that you go a step further. Social institutions are human-made, which means they can be changed by us as well. The broken bits can be lifted up together and reassembled.

To reclaim our social capital, get genuinely involved in something that lets you make personal connections with a wide swath of humanity. And, to reclaim our lost communities, work to make those institutions inviting, welcoming places for others. Doing so will repair trust in our neighbors and community – a bedrock of American society. 

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Amanda Jayne Miller is a professor of sociology and co-director of the Teaching and Learning Center at the University of Indianapolis. James Willis III is an assistant professor of practice for religion at the University of Indianapolis.

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