Why religion still matters

Oct 12, 2015 by

Church attendance is down, but those who go are more devout. Here’s what draws them.

By Mary Beth McCauley –

It could be hard to make your way to pray at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan on Sunday mornings. There’s the distraction of New York City pulling you elsewhere – the pace, the intensity, the famousness of it all. Then there are the thoughtful, sometimes vital, diversions of the St. Bart’s community itself: the outdoor cafe, the homeless shelter, the Thomas Merton books in the lobby. There are invitations to programs ranging from mindful eating to Bible study, yoga, and tai chi.

Amid these distractions, hundreds nevertheless do find their way to pray on Sunday mornings at the imposing complex on Park Avenue. They filter into the vast space, gradually replacing the tourists who have been tiptoeing down the side aisles, taking pictures of the dark Byzantine interior. Soon, richly vested clergy, cross bearers, torch holders, and choir members begin making their way up the center aisle – in an entrance procession 30-strong.

The congregation knows its job: Sit, stand, recite familiar prayers in between the Scripture readings, sermon, and announcements. Pass the collection plate. Periodically, in Latin and English, the legendary St. Bart’s choir leads a hymn, sometimes in a crystalline a cappella. Finally, the worshipers’ own moment seems to arrive, as row by row they stand and slowly make their way forward to the communion rail. They are of all races, men and women, old and young, singles and couples, families with carefully dressed, well-behaved children in tow.

“I don’t think it’s just the desire to have prayers answered that brings people to church,” says the Rev. F.M. Stallings Jr., recently retired rector of the church. “I think people do want to come for a sense of peace.”

The tableau on Sundays at St. Bart’s symbolizes an important reality about religion in America: It is far from dead, even though it may not always seem that way.

While headlines often decry the “dechurching of America,” and experts talk about the country becoming more secular, like Europe, people are going to church – and embracing religion – in numbers that defy popular perceptions.

True, recent figures from the Pew Research Center show that 35 percent of Millennials – adults born between 1981 and 1996 – identify as “nones,” saying they are atheists or agnostics, or have no religious affiliation. And, yes, a host of other studies have, over the years, noted a similar drop in religious attendance in the United States, especially among the young. Many mainstream denominations, too, have been closing or consolidating churches.

But, experts note, America is far from becoming a churchless nation. On any given Sabbath, for instance, some 4 out of 10 Americans will make their way to churches and synagogues, mosques and temples – a number that hasn’t fluctuated dramatically in the past half century.

Gallup polls, along with other data, seem to support religion’s resilience. More than 81 percent of Americans say they identify with a specific religion or denomination; 78 percent say religion is a very or fairly important part of their lives; 57 percent believe that religion is able to solve today’s problems.

Organized religion this summer ranked fourth among 15 American institutions in the degree of public confidence it inspired – ahead of the presidency, the US Supreme Court, and medicine, behind small business, the military, and (perhaps surprisingly) police. The company’s data also suggest that the secularization trend may have slowed if not halted.

In fact, Gallup reported recently that while attendance may be off, Americans are no less likely now to attend religious services than they were in the 1940s and ’50s. This was the period just before the über-religious years of the mid-1950s and early ’60s, when Americans, in lockstep, got married, had children, and went to church. The lesson, says Frank Newport, editor in chief at Gallup, whose company has tracked church attendance for 70 years, is that religious worship in the US is cyclical.

Forecasts for the future don’t portend a religious resurgence in the US, but neither do they predict a faith-free culture. Pew predicts a drop in the number of Americans identifying as Christian, for instance, from three-quarters of the population today to two-thirds in 2050. Many consider that a slim decline over 35 years – especially in a material age and when society no longer exerts the pressure it once did to believe in God.

More than anything, some experts argue that the US isn’t becoming more secular as much as it’s becoming more devout – a country with fewer followers but ones who are more serious about their faith.

“There’s a greater willingness now to say ‘I’m not religious,’ ” says Christian Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame and co-principal investigator of the noted National Study of Youth and Religion. As a result, he adds, “for people who do continue to practice religion, [their communities] tend to be made up of the seriously committed, not just those swept along by obligation.”

Source: Why religion still matters – CSMonitor.com

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