Sunday, February 3, 2013

Losing Our Religion

This week there was a USA Today opinion piece ("Losing The Will To Live" 01/29/13) on the accelerating increase in suicide over the last fifty years. While the author doesn't frame it as a mental health issue, she does note how each of the recent mass murders since Columbine (including 9/11) has died or planned to die as part of the attack, having lost a sense of value for their own life and generalizing that death wish to include others whose lives they similarly devalue. She believes this to be evidence of social alienation, the disconnect we feel from each other and our communities. It's a weird thought, but mass murderers used to want to get away.

Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor at the Kennedy School of Government, has done a good job of documenting America's increase in social alienation, starting with his book (Bowling Alone) inspired by his curiosity as to why Americans were still bowling but weren't joining bowling leagues anymore. He tried to put a positive spin on the problem, writing another book and creating a whole social engagement initiative (, which defines the need for people to invest more in social capital:
The term social capital emphasizes not just warm and cuddly feelings, but a wide variety of quite specific benefits that flow from the trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation associated with social networks. Social capital creates value for the people who are connected and - at least sometimes - for bystanders as well.
The website even has a list of 150 ways to build social capital  which includes things like helping someone change a flat tire and cooking a meal for a sick neighbor.

Time was, we did not need to be reminded of such things.

Last week I wrote of the disconnect between sex and love that seems prevalent in young adults but it's society-wide of course. You cannot go to a bookstore these days without being inundated with sexual messages, not only the age-old sexy magazine covers but the hundreds of books that have been published in the last year that start with sex by chapter 3 and keep it up, almost non-stop, in lieu of plot or writing skill, until the end of the book. Often this sex is with strangers, or near strangers. To me, that is not just social alienation in one of its most extreme forms, but also self-alienation, a full disconnect between our emotional and physical needs and desires.

The obvious question, at least to me, is when did we lose our religion?

Religious organizations are by far the biggest "hub" for social interaction outside of school or work, and the only one of the three dedicated to their members' emotional, social, physical and spiritual welfare, as well as charitable works for others. It helps us be moral, and altruism become instinct (NYT, The Moral Animal, 12/24/12). Without religion, it's much easier to be disconnected from other people, and without a faith that says God is with you at all times, it is easier to feel hopeless and alone.

Polls and census figures over the past decade show an increase in Americans who identify themselves as non-religious, currently about 20%, but this seems an underestimate, since only about 20% of Americans attend religious services regularly (though twice that number report they do).  So 80% of us are not at church on a Sunday. Possibly higher today, when all regularly scheduled activities seem to have been cancelled in celebration of our national holiday, Super Bowl Sunday.

Robert Putnam published his research on religion in 2011, as an outgrowth of his research into social alienation (American Grace). He found that one-third of Americans change religions during their lifetime, and as a group we are highly tolerant, to the point that one-third of Americans marry someone of another faith, convinced that the differences between them can be worked through. Two-faith marriage ceremonies are apparently on the rise.

All very progressive of us as a nation, but believing that all religions have legitimate beliefs and practices also weakens the faith you have that your own religion has tenets you need to survive. I know this is true for me. As a Catholic who attends mass, teaches Sunday School and has shepherded (or strong-armed) my oldest seven children through Confirmation into the faith in 10th grade, I can say first-hand that every Catholic I know enough to discuss these matters with disagrees with one or (typically) more tenets of our faith. Here are some recent statistics by abcnews and the National Catholic Reporter:

  • 88% of American Catholics disagree with the Church's opposition to birth control and condoms
  • 78% disagree with the Church's insistence on weekly mass attendance
  • 70% disagree with the Church's ban on divorce (and subsequent use of excommunication for even the "wronged" spouse)
  • 67% disagree with the Church's ban on married priests
  • 64% disagree with the Church's prohibition on women priests
  • 60% disagree with the Church's stance that premarital sex is morally wrong
  • 60% disagree with the Church's stance that the death penalty is morally wrong
  • 60% disagree with the Church on its opposition to homosexuality 
  • 60% disagree with the Church's position on abortion as wrong even when the mother's life is not at risk (90% or more disagree with it when the mother's life is at risk).
Whether our religion's conservative practices have alienated my kids, or whether they simply don't see the need for religion, they have one-by-one fallen away from attending Church as they become adults. While they may return when they marry and have families, for now they are among the large mass of non-faithful and (perhaps this is a coincidence) largely non-altruistic.

But they're young. They have plenty of time. The above statistics are not just about young people, though. They are people of all ages. I think it's because most questions are phrased as "Do you think you can be a good Catholic and still ________."

I happen to disagree with most of those Church stances too, but I imagine you could put in "have an affair" or "commit fraud" or "beat your kids" and still get a good number of people to endorse those statements. Because we are coming to believe that you can be a good person and still do lots of bad things. And organized religion has lost the authority to tell us "No. You can't." We're not afraid of hell and we're not concerned about heaven so those who attempt moral guidance have lost their heavy-hitters.

We're just doing our own thing, without regard for how it affects other people, or what they think.

Which is, at its core the autonomy/social alienation border.

It's also freedom, the age-old double-edged Roman sword. When our freedom is truly threatened, we unite like there's no tomorrow. That was true after 9/11. And when it's true for years on end, and the threat feels ongoing and imminent, we're incredible. This is what Tom Brokaw wrote in The Greatest Generation:
This generation was united not only by a common purpose, but also by common values--duty, honor, economy, courage, service, love of family and country, and, above all, responsibility. 
At a time in their lives when their days and nights should have been filled with innocent adventure, love, and the lessons of the workaday world, they were fighting in the most primitive conditions possible across the bloodied landscape of France, Belgium, Italy, Austria, and the coral islands of the Pacific. 
They answered the call to save the world from the two most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled, instruments of conquest in the hands of fascist maniacs. They faced great odds and a late start, but they did not protest. They succeeded on every front. They won the war; they saved the world. 
They came home to joyous and short-lived celebrations and immediately began the task of rebuilding their lives and the world they wanted. They married in record numbers and gave birth to another distinctive generation, the Baby Boomers...They gave the world new science, literature, art, industry, and economic strength unparalleled in the long curve of history. As they now reach the twilight of their adventurous and productive lives, they remain, for the most part, exceptionally modest.

In these times 75 years later, when we are beset by such social alienation that millions of Americans are suicidal, millions more need reminding that it's a good thing to know someone's full name before you have sex with them and needs to remind us it's important to:

3. Register to vote and vote
6. Donate blood (with a friend!)
101. Greet people
115. Share your snow blower

I wonder: which generation was more at risk?

Love, Lisa

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