There was a recent article in “The Atlantic” entitled “American Religion Is Not Dead”. The author lays out four items that religion does for people
American Religion is not dead; The Atlantic
- It provides a framework for meaning-making, whether helping our ancient ancestors explain why it rained when it rained, or helping us today make sense of why bad things happen to good people.
- Religion offers rituals that enable us to mark time, process loss, and celebrate joys—from births to coming of age to family formation to death.
- It creates and supports communities, allowing each of us to find a place of belonging.
- Finally, fueled by each of the first three, religion inspires us to take prophetic action—to partake in building a world that is more just, more kind, and more loving
While the author admits that attendance and allegiance to churches are down, they change the question:
So rather than asking how many people went to church last Sunday morning, we should ask, “Where are Americans finding meaning in their lives? How are they marking the passing of sacred time? Where are they building pockets of vibrant communities? And what are they doing to answer the prophetic call, however it is that they hear it?”American Religion is not dead; The Atlantic
For number 1, it is obvious we don’t need religion anymore to explain why there is a rainbow (sign to Noah that there would be no more floods?). It was once believed that the sky/heavens was a solid dome. The bible calls it a firmament, which has made its way into our temple liturgy. Since it is solid, we needed “windows of heaven” for the rain to be able to come down. We don’t need religion to explain why there are so many languages, or why the indigenous people of North America build mounds. Science can now explain all of this, and religion is no longer needed for this purpose.
For number 2, the LDS church has these rituals in spades. Baby blessings, baptisms, priesthood ordination, missions, temple sealings, etc. So what are replacing these rituals for non-religious people, or for ex-Mormons? Is going off to collage, getting married, having kids enough in a secular society to meet these needs? Maybe we don’t need to mark time with anything more than a birthday party?
Where does the non-religious person find the communities spoken of in number 3? Can social media groups on the internet fill this need? What about school clubs, boy/girl scouts, Rotary clubs? I’ve heard from people who have left the church that the one thing they miss is the community of the ward, the sense of belonging to something.
For number 4, I think there are several ways that people “build a better world” without it being a prophetic call from deity. Habitat for Humanity, Doctors Without Borders, Peace Corps, and even Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen are answers to a secular prophetic calling. Do we need to believe in a God to volunteer at the battered women’s shelter, hold preemie babies at the hospital, or just pick up trash in our neighborhood?
What do you think of this? If you don’t attend church, where are you getting the needs listed above? Do you think any of the Q15 are concerned about anything other than attendance (church and temple) and tithing as metrics of faithfulness? Could they learn something by asking what is fulfilling the former members now that they don’t have the Church?
As a child growing up outside the jello belt, the church community was only one small community that I was involved in. For my parents, it was their only community. But for me, as the only member in my elementary school, you had to find community elsewhere. Going forward I married a non-member so I was kept on the fringe of the ward community as an adult. I made friends with a few other outliers and made it work for a long time. I don’t attend now and my children are grown, so the community opportunities take more effort, but are there. I’m in a book club with some women I used to work with, I’ve made friends in the community, I’ve taken classes with people with similar interests. You have to make an effort, but choosing your community is satisfying.
There are plenty of “rituals” or milestones to mark in everyday life – births, starting school, hitting double digits, becoming a teenager, turning 16, graduating high school, starting college, etc. It’s kind of sad to me now when my active grandchildren get baptized. I realize they really have no idea what they’re actually entering into – they’re not truly making an informed decision. Perhaps I would enjoy it more if baptism was one thing – a covenant to follow Christ and obedience to the command for all to be baptized – and joining the Church was a separate thing that you choose to do at 21.
Mormonism was totally failing to meet any of those needs for me for about the last 15 years I attended. But the perfectionism, the judgmentalism, the prosperity gospel, the blatant sexism, and other things about Mormonism was doing more harm than attending to keep my husband happy could compensate for. So I quit.
Where am I meeting those needs? Well, for marking time, my body is doing that for me. No problem realizing I am getting older. I burned out badly working as a counselor at a rape crisis center, so now I am protecting myself from all the crap in the world. I guess I kind of crawled in my cave to hide from all the neediness in the world. So, no thanks on giving to others, I just don’t have anything left to give. Community, no I haven’t found anything that replaces what Mormonism was 40 years ago, but it sure is not anything I need. And as for the first one, I have butterflies, sunsets, the big outdoors and my family for meaning. That is all I need.
It’s been about 6 weeks since I stepped back and I’m surprised I do miss the community a little. That said, nobody has reached out and said we miss you. It sort of confirms the twin mistakes of “caring what they think or thinking that they care.”
That said I’m going to have to replace my previous 6-8 hours of Sunday church obligations with something else. Perhaps sleep, volunteering, mountain biking, etc…. I’ll find a community elsewhere, already have a framework, don’t need ritual, and still have a desire to make the world a better place. #4 (making the world better) doesn’t depend on a religion for me, or I’ll wager for most people.
3/4 of my kids are not interested in any religion. Our last stake conference featured a big name Q15 and still resulted in about 70% of the hoped for attendance. American religion and perhaps the LDS isn’t dead but it seems to be pretty sick.
What is the purpose of religion and what should be its’ purpose ? I see 2 different answers.
I believe that religion can be a good force when it is there to encourage, to uplift, and to enlighten.
However, when its’ purpose turns to: do not listen to other people in outside groups, blindly follow our leader and your life’s difficulties are due directly to not following the church……we got a problem. This is now the LDS approach.
When Mormonism focused on improving your self and family. Plant a garden, gain a skill. Serve the community. Organize a roadshow, build the chapel, collect money to build Primary Children’s’ Hospital. Improve your lot in life. It worked for many people, while simultaneously strengthening the institution. However, now the narrative has changed so much. No longer does LDS church speak on these topics, it is only about helping the institution, not individuals.
History repeats it’s self. As we examine the past, we understand the present. I am now listening to some fabulous podcasts that are free from Yale University (I encourage all to partake). https://oyc.yale.edu/history/hist-210/lecture-11
In middle ages Kings prosecuted Christians, then adopted their beliefs, then persecuted those who would not conform. When religion helps individuals in what individuals need in their life, it works for good. When religion becomes self centered and thinks only about serving the institution, it deserves to die. For our current generation, any reforms may be too late
My RM son is attending LDS church in a jello belt ward. He has been going to a specific ward for the past 1 year. He has not made friends, due to the cliquishness of members only dealing with their same HS friends. He asked to switch wards and the Stake Pres is frowning on it and very reluctant. And the institution wonders why the youth are leaving ?? They are lucky that he still wants to attend church. We stopped attending 5+ years ago, as some our adult kids still attend. With this approach and attitude, what good is religion/the institution? Does the church exist to serve its’ members, or are the members there to serve the institution? On this blog we know the answer. As more TBM’s encounter this dilemma, we will see if the church survives.
Actually, with respect to item 2, the thing that has struck me about being recorded to certain other Christian denominations that have a robust liturgical calendar is how impoverished in contrast LDS rituals are.
By this I mean that even in the original post, you have milestone-based rituals, but we don’t really “mark time”.
Moving broader than the LDS church, what depresses me about 3 and 4 is how many people have personal experience with religion not doing a great job with these things. In the United States, we see the prophetic call of religion is best employed in fighting gay marriage, but now it also includes multi state initiatives to ban trans healthcare. (And while some may say, “but there are religions that are not conservative/right wing politically”, the data seems to suggest that these denominations and religions are shrinking.)
Because of these preoccupations, many LGBTQ folx already know that religion isn’t a great place for belonging.
Still working on finding community outside the church. The combo of the pandemic and moving states didn’t exactly help the situation either, but the post-Mormon years for my wife and me have so far been marked by some pretty acute isolation.
In fact, if anyone (Chadwick maybe?) has a lead on where to find other exMos to hang out with in SoCal, I would greatly appreciate it.
With #1, I would agree that science has rightly taken the place of religion in being the approach for explaining the physical and often our mental world. But I think their is still a strong need for the way that meaningful religion can create spiritual meaning out of the elements of our lives. I am reflecting on the words of this morning’s sermon on the Sabbath from my local UMC church. Sabbath as a time to say I am enough , not dependent on our capitalistic society demands to prove my worth through late nights at work, through productivity, etc… So religion tells me I can find meaning in a Sabbath spent being entirely unproductive: in reading a book, in paddling on the river, in calling an old friend, in puttering around in the garden. A meaningful religion can help give meaning to everyday acts like eating. I don’t know that is the LDS church any more, (Sabbaths in the LDS church always seemed to demand productivity) but Christianity writ large still has the capacity.
For #2, I don’t think one needs a church to develop meaningful rituals, but I have to say I was deeply moved by the Christmas Eve rituals of the local Presbyterian church just last month. And the weekly call to reflect on my life during the Sabbath
UMC sermon helps give rhythm and joy to each week. And I was also moved by the Chinese new year celebration at the local community park and those certainly have elements of Chinese religious heritage. And I was moved by the speaker at my my university’s annual MLK day speaker , which is really a slightly secular version of a religious ritual, who spoke about the ways that the black church shaped his life for good. If we think of religion more broadly, a large part of US is embracing a wider religion that blends many influences. Early Mormonism was a crazy chaotic movement because Joseph Smith grabbed at every new and interesting idea that flowed by on the Mississippi river and tried to incorporate it. Late Mormonism has lost all that vitality, but that same spirit of finding pieces of good everywhere still exists in a lot of former Mormons. I would also say the LGBTQ community is a vibrant place making new rituals and creating new meaning.
In terms of #3, I would agree that I am still looking for a community to belong to like the community of belonging that I felt at times in the LDS church. There is a good number of us former Mormons that do things together in my little Southern community, but it’s not on a weekly basis. I feel some sadness that I am so de-energized by the realization I devoted so much energy, time, and resources to the LDS community that I can’t get up the courage to give the same energy to a new one.
For #4, I once believed that the LDS church was going to build a better world. That illusion was shatter in 2003 and if anything, I now see the institutional LDS church as trying to making a darker, more toxic world. But I will say that the zeal and call to built a just and fair society (I e. Zion) inspired by my early days in Mormonism definitely still deeply resonates with me. I just approach it via secular means and my idea of what Zion looks like would give DHO nightmares.
If we would have had the better padded, non stackable chairs, like the BB post picture, we would all still be attending, and be good with the 3 hour time block.
Religion, to be relevant, needs to make its members better people. I lost that feeling about Mormonism while on my mission and at BYU. The absurdism of Albert Camus made more sense than the religion I was born into and proselytizing for.
Christianity is simple: love your neighbor. Prez Oaks’ assertion that sometimes loving God supersedes loving your neighbors is not defensible. How does hoarding $100B, LBGT discrimination, building mctemples, prosperity gospel, not drinking coffee and tea, etc. make the world a better place?
I’m basically an introvert. Being in group situations is difficult. I also don’t relate to organizations. But given today’s technology, I can try to do my part in loving my global neighbors. I don’t need religion or an NGO to do that.
The Church leaders preach that we live in troubling times. But in reality we live at a wonderful time. The opportunities for individuals to make a difference are limitless. Too bad religion isn’t more supportive of relieving global poverty.
Great post. A couple of thoughts/answers:
I still attend and have two or three church friends I occasionally hang out with, but I’ve stopped looking for and forming new friendships at church. After years of being a silent liberal at church, and even after becoming a more vocal one, I’ve found that from a social/community standpoint, if you don’t embrace a substantial percentage of Mormon orthodox thinking (and say so vocally), then no one will be friends with you. We’ve created a s0-called community that is based much more on shared, arcane beliefs than on fundamental human connection and shared experiences. I don’t need a lot of friends, but I’d like more than I have. My wife and I have volunteered to help at a local animal shelter and I’m hoping we’ll be able to make a few connections there. Not to make things political, but I will say I was surprised (though I suppose I shouldn’t have been) at how enthusiastically so many members of our ward/stake embraced Trump. And I don’t mean, held their noses and voted for him, I mean really bought into his fear-mongering rhetoric and general insanity. That made feel even more alienated than I already did.
And to your point about number 4: Mormonism tends to think that what could broadly be called “public service” or service for the larger public good is more valuable/useful if it’s mandated by Mormon leadership. That, of course, is absurd. In fact from a secular standpoint, Doctors Without Borders, Habitat for Humanity, etc. do much more important, immediate work to reduce human suffering than the Mormon Church. I realize it’s not a contest and that it’s great when any organization helps the world to be a better place, but there is this tendency for some Mormons to think that if the church renders some kind of secular service, its extra special or something, and it’s just not. There are folks in my ward, for example, who volunteer at local food banks, help Afghan refugees, etc.; in other words, they go beyond church-mandated kinds of service. Others in my ward seem to stick to more “church-approved” kinds of service. Again, it’s not a contest and all sorts of service is valuable, but I’ve noticed a kind of wariness on the part more orthodox folks to get involved with these more “secular” kinds of serving and I think it’s too bad. There are some great experiences to be had out there that a fair amount of folks seem to be reluctant to have.
One question that needs to be asked: Does religion need to be true in order to hold value? For me personally, the answer is YES. If it isn’t true, I’m not interested. I was a validity Mormon. But for many others, a religion can hold value in their lives whether or not they believe it to be true. We all know many utility Mormons who fit this description. So even though science and the Internet have made the LDS Church look less than truthful, it still holds value for many members. And I suppose the same is true for other religions. But not me.
Fascinating post! My perspective on these issues has changed over the years.
1. Meaning of life and events. It’s actually better for me to NOT need to see a divine design for everything. Some stuff just happens. Coincidences don’t have to be “when God chooses to stay anonymous.” Science explains a lot. Social science explains harm, recovery, forgiveness and happiness a lot better than religion ever did. Secular explanations for my life events make a lot more sense to me than being told I would have to wait until I died to have an eternal perspective.
2. Rituals. I found these so stressful. Baby blessings are the worst. I think people should be able to adapt traditions into rituals that are meaningful for them. Some will be fine with all the trappings. Others may want to modify things. But big, fancy rituals are a lot of pressure and stress and I haven’t missed them.
3. Communities. The ward is good for knowing my neighbors (I live in Utah), but it hasn’t been good for meeting people with whom I form long-lasting connections. My best friends have never been people I’ve met in the ward. Wards are good for temporary friendships and situational friendships, but I’ve been able to replace those with coworkers and the parents of my children’s friends. I’ve made an effort to meet people in my life situation and have formed some new friendships that will likely last. I’m very happy about that. I wish there were more, but I’m happy with what I have now.
4. Prophetic action. I’m in a better place to make the world more fair and just now that I’ve got a full-time job where I occasionally encounter injustice and have the authority to set it right. I’ve set up monthly donations to food banks rather than paying tithing. I’m a blood donor rather than feeling like my greatest service is taking children of children. I feel like Churches are more like “let’s treat non-believers as a threat and double down on rule enforcement for our members” instead of “let’s make this world a better place” nowadays.
Absolutely fascinating post, William. It is clear that people who have abandoned religion are searching in vain for replacements. Sadly, the masses are turning to replacements that are worthless at best, and harmful at worst.
As for ritual, the masses unfortunately equate ritual with meaningless repetition. The meaningless repetition of violent video games, where every game is a replay of the last. Endlessly moving the thumbs in the exact same tiny gestures.
And the masses are seeking community from celebrity, hip hop culture. The especially adventurous wander into honky tonks and behave like Dua Lipa freshly escaped from the palace to frolic with unknown peasants. But of course, the majority of the vast hordes seek community while sitting around in sweatpants and crocs in their parents’ basements. They fail to see that croc-fueled social media fests does not equate to building community.
Is it any wonder that Western Society has reached its nadir? It should not be for any who have paid attention.
@Kirkstall I’m always open to meeting up if you are interested. My wife and I are foodies and love introducing people to our favorite local canteens =). Let me know.
I follow comingoutcoach on Instagram. It’s Sal Osborne from the Mormon No More documentary who lives in Huntington Beach. They do meet ups from time to time. I think they have one planned for next Sunday and we are hoping to attend (though that is Surf City race weekend and my sons and I are running so we may not be up for it).
I know on the Mormon Stories website there are local groups but unfortunately they are mostly focused in SD and LA. I guess the orange curtain is strong in this regard. Perhaps an opportunity to get one a bit more local.
Otherwise I agree that 1,2,4 are can be done elsewhere. 3 requires a bit more work. I think you can find community based on your hobbies and interests. During my Mormon days, I had no hobbies or interests because the Church used all my spare time and also I felt actively discouraged hobbies as they were inherently selfish. I’m still figuring out my hobbies and interests but we have enjoyed a local hiking group as well as some Disney meetups given our proximity to Anaheim.
@Bishop Bill, these are great questions, and the kind that can make LDS members a little uncomfortable if we plumb them honestly and with depth. And all four feel like they braid together in the LDS church. Our programs, beliefs, culture and heritage make us a more closed people. Belief, ritual, service, community all braid together tightly.
1 – Years ago I read a paper by a University of Chicago divinity school theologian that talked about the need for religions to reconcile with and shape their beliefs to accommodate scientific fact. (Stupidly, I didn’t save the paper or record the citation.) If not, the theologian argued, the religion risked losing relevance with its adherents. When it comes to explaining natural phenomenon and biology, science is more reliable than religion. One example: Over my lifetime, we seem to talk much less in quorum meetings and other forums about healing ailments through priesthood blessings. We still talk about and practice giving priesthood blessings, but today doctors heal us, not blessings. Blessings may comfort us, instruct us, and inspire us, but modern medicine heals us physically and mentally in far more reliable ways. I recall being young and my dad feeling crushed by the expectation of giving a blessing of healing as requested by a ward member with a life threatening illness. The conventional wisdom at that time was if the person requesting the blessing wasn’t healed, the priesthood holder hadn’t acted with enough faith or wasn’t worthy. I don’t see that in the church today, and this is a positive development that aligns with the idea of updating your beliefs in the presence of scientific progress. Give the person a blessing to comfort them, to help them feel closer to God, then get them to the doctor. That seems to be our MO today. I think that change is smart. Our beliefs and stated doctrines will likely lag behind present scientific understanding, but if it lags too far behind we put the belief in jeopardy of becoming irrelevant, and irrelevant beliefs make a religion’s offering less compelling. I think one result of not updating beliefs to align with known fact can be a decline in membership–the religion’s offering and the utility it offers can diminish. This is an argument against lazy theology and the entrenchment of traditional beliefs–something our church seems committed to at the present time, unfortunately. It may also explain why so many people are leaving the church. They find better, more reliable and validated answers elsewhere.
2 – I valued many of our church rituals and have fond memories of my dad conferring the priesthood on me and giving me blessings. I felt close to him and his words touched me. However, I counter that with the times I felt rushed into ordinances before I was ready. I was herded into the temple by a controlling and bullying bishop (along with my mother) at a time when I did not want to seek that ordinance. The pressure was so intense I finally capitulated and my temple experience was awful. (I don’t like the temple to this day.) I asked many questions about the temple ceremony–I have always worked to be an informed consumer. And I was lied to by my bishop and my parents. The ceremony had been misrepresented to me in response to my direct and specific questions, and that upset me. I agree with the authors that ritual can be powerful, but it also backfires if it turns into unhealthy and coerced experiences. Another example: I have a son who shared with me his valid questions about the truth claims of the church. He asked not to be ordained an elder until he had resolved these questions, and told me and his church leaders prior to leaving for college that it might take him an undetermined amount of time to complete his investigation. My son did not receive any words of empathy or understanding from his leaders, and his choice was not explicitly respected. His leaders weren’t coercive, but were passive aggressive, telling him he would regret his decision by explaining how many blessings would be withheld from him. Do you think that drew him closer to the church or pushed him further away? Rituals are important, but how they are applied and the purpose they serve is equally important. I’m troubled by the current “covenant path” rhetoric that has become to ubiquitous in general conference talks today. I would therefore qualify the authors’ argument on the value of rituals.
I would also suggest religion provides effective rituals, but most people create rituals that are unrelated to their religious beliefs and practices. We have learned living far away from the Jello Belt that people have more rituals outside of church than we do as an LDS family As you mention in the OP, applying to and picking your college is a big deal for families–and the neighborhood too–a much bigger deal compared to our experiences living on the Wasatch Front. (Education seems to be more prioritized and valued.) Quinceaneras are also a well established ritual for Hispanic households. And everyone in the neighborhood, Hispanics and non-Hispanics alike, offer congratulations and well wishes and join in celebrating this milestone birthday. Holiday celebrations in the neighborhood also count as ritual. Activities and neighborhood decorations are organically organized and participated in–we sense this is important and an expectation all neighbors should participate in. Many in the neighborhood are also religious and I’m sure experience the benefits of religious ritual, but it seems not to overshadow or minimize participating in these other rituals that are rooted in our neighborhood, apart from religious life. It’s been a welcomed change for us.
3 – The question “what community” is difficult for me to answer because outside of my professional community, I have only had my church as a community. We moved to a different part of the country from the Wasatch Front a while ago and I can say the sense of community in our neighborhood where we live now is much stronger than it was in Utah. Neighbors here host open game nights and post them on our neighborhood’s closed FB group. Outside of our neighborhood, I haven’t found a community quite like our ward community. I get the sense people here (many of whom are religious) give more time to organizations like PTA and the local county food bank compared to my Utah LDS friends. I think there are good communities outside religiously organized ones, but they are premised differently. I don’t know yet from personal experience how that may change a participant’s experience. My wife and I do miss our ward family. But we are also concerned about experiencing what Brother Sky articulates. By not being like-minded, orthodox members, we are afraid we won’t be embraced by our new ward. It seems no mater where you live, in the Mormon church, it’s a one size fit and one size only.
4 – I have a lot to say about this, but will save deep details for another time. I have two children, in particular, who engaged in significant, community betterment projects that had and will continue to have a lasting impact for good on the prior town in which we lived. They tried several times to pull in their young women’s and young men’s groups to contribute to these projects and were rebuffed. Those groups, instead, choose to spend their week night activity times baking rolls, and playing paintball and video games while eating pizza. The lack of interest displayed by leaders and other youth surprised and left me disappointed for my kids. Their projects aligned with the church’s guidelines for youth service. Yet…nada. The institutional church may write some checks and donate food to global needs–all good–but I don’t think at the local church level we do much to “build a better world.” I have a family member who left the church and joined a mainline protestant church. They build homes and make a substantial difference in their community. When she is feeling snarky she will quip, “My local church actually does something for our community.” I think we Mormons need to be far more critical of ourselves and ask what we are doing at the local church level to build a better world. I should add I have several non-LDS friends and all happen to be involved with Habitat for Humanity, and are deeply gratified by the work they do. I have found connection and personal fulfillment volunteering at our local food bank. Mormons are known for their yellow shirted work forces when disaster cleanup is needed, but I wonder what would happen if we made a long-term commitment to give our communities consistent weekly or monthly service hours that weren’t so geared towards seeking earned media? Could it be our members who venture outside or leave the Mormon community are discovering they can build a better world by not being associated with the Mormon church?
I listened to a radio story recently that talked about the rise of the fitness industry in correlation with the decline in religious affiliation. They proposed the idea that more people are getting their “religious and community needs” met through things like cross-fit, yoga, peleton and other fitness groups. These groups provide a great community, have lots of rituals, and promote healing and self-improvement (plus, for those who are interested, you can get a dose of moral superiority from working out just like you can from going to church). These groups provide a lot of the benefits of church, without a lot of the costs, commitments, and obligations of church.
I thought it was an interesting idea.
I know that the church is true, so I attend. I’m probably terrible at being a member of a community. But I keep attending, because I know it’s true. So over time, it’s possible that’s all that left at church is people who are terrible at community building, but it doesn’t affect anyone, because no one is there for community.
I played in a band for years and was amazed that the same things we value at churches like community, service, friendship, and even inspiration could be found in a bar.