Why religion still matters

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

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
Emily Sullivan holds her daughter, Mary Kathleen, during mass at Saint Andrew Catholic Church in Newtown, Pa.

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.” 

•     •     •

Meghan Cokeley’s devotion to church today is rooted in a religious experience she had when she was younger. Brought up Roman Catholic, she says she had a kind of “conversion” when she was 18 years old. 

As she learned about St. Francis of Assisi, who chose a life of poverty over his family’s riches, she began to feel “restless” about her own, less-than-
serious lifestyle. When visiting the town of Assisi during a senior year high school trip to Italy, she recalled, “At the tomb of St. Francis, I had my first experience of the palpable love of God. I was so deeply moved I wept.”

She came home, switched majors from chemistry to theology, and 18 years later is now director of evangelization at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Such an “encounter with God” is not rare, she believes, but each “looks different,” some dramatic, some subtle.

A personal religious experience often drives people to worship. “A lot of people claim to have had a moment of access to a divine being,” a feeling that God is holding them or comforting them or similarly is present with them on a personal level, says Christian Miller, who teaches philosophy of religion at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “It can lead the person to respond by practicing religion.”

Many other factors bring worshipers to the pews as well. Habit. Social expectations. Upbringing. Guilt. Many also come seeking a sense of purpose, a feeling of community, meaning, self-improvement, assurance that one’s faith is true, and answers to questions about death and the afterlife. Studies say worshipers tend to find all this in religion, as well as peace and joy, security, and freedom from guilt over past wrongdoing.

Ideologically, Professor Miller adds, liberals tend to look for a sense of community in religion, while conservatives want to live in alignment with the Bible, which they believe is true. Even in the South, fear of hell is less a factor in attending church than it used to be, while there is more yearning for meaning and purpose.

People who go to services regularly are more likely to be older, female, and Southern. They have a better education and higher economic status than those who don’t, says Mr. Newport. What’s uncertain, he says, is whether the less-practicing Millennials, who thus far are putting off having children, will marry, have kids, and follow their predecessors into the sanctuary.  

If they do, they’ll find a vibrant religious landscape. There are churches like St. Bart’s, where parishioners recite the ancient Nicene Creed, affirming beliefs they share with many of their fellow Christians. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the nondenominational churches, which have undergone the greatest growth in recent decades. Unanchored by a shared creed and often reliant on a single charismatic leader, these churches can adapt to changing interests quickly, evolving their theology as they go. Some of these ministries are stadium-size megachurches; others are storefront operations. Still others offer religion via radio, television, or the Internet.

With the shedding of widespread traditions and “shalt nots,” creeds – when recited – may be said with less fervor these days, and the denominations’ books of rules (where they exist) may be stored in a closet. 

As Cynthia Bond Hopson, a Methodist from Lebanon, Tenn., puts it: “Certainly hell is real, but I’d much rather focus on God’s grace.” Of the traditional sanctions against things such as alcohol, tobacco, and dancing, she quips, “I never got the memo.” Competition from the nondenominational movement has made mainline Protestantism, which as recently as the mid-20th century banned contraception, softer across the board with its demands, say observers. Some believe that trends such as the move toward Calvinist theology among evangelical Protestants may have developed in response. Ironically, as standards drop, says Mr. Smith, religions that place high demands on their members are gaining in appeal. 

This is causing a conundrum for leaders of that less-fervent mainline Protestant middle, whose attempts to appeal to everyone may wind up making the religion itself less compelling.

“Everybody tells me to be a nice person,” says Smith, but people want more from their religion than the kind of answers they can get anywhere.  

•     •     •

In Gladstone, Ore., Dennis Dalling has long been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one of the rapidly growing religions. “One of the hallmarks of the church is that family is the most important element of society,” says Mr. Dalling, the father of 6, grandfather of 29, and great-grandfather of 33. 

Dalling says the decision he and his wife, Ramona, made 64 years ago to become “sealed for all eternity” by marrying in a temple ceremony, as opposed to a less demanding and more permissive civil ceremony, “has been the supreme blessing of our lives,” removing the option for divorce and strengthening the couple in demanding times. Mormons tithe 10 percent of their earnings; eschew alcohol, tobacco, and coffee and tea; and are expected to live a morally upright, honest life. 

Sometimes what brings the worshiper into the fold is not religious belief at all, says Rabbi David Teutsch, former president of Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and now head of its Center for Jewish Ethics. “Everyone is battered by a culture of increasing materialism and isolation,” he says. “There is a lot of meaning-seeking going on in America, and Judaism has a lot to say about that.” 

According to Mr. Teutsch, middle-ground Jewish congregations tend to appeal to seekers through interest in one of three areas at first: spiritual life, social action, or community. The longer that members stay with the synagogue the more they participate in all facets, he says.

It’s that way for Methodist LaNella Smith from Durham, N.C., too. She says that for her, church is part worship, part song, and part social justice work, through her affiliation with United Methodist Women. She begins each day praying quietly with a devotional text, “a constant reminder that God is with me, no matter what is going on,” she says.

Her keenest sense of God, she says, came the day of her grandmother’s funeral. “I was very, very, very close to her.” That day she went alone, early, to the funeral home. She recalled simply, “I had a conversation with my grandmother. I had a conversation with God.” She sang the beloved hymn “Blessed Assurance” and went home. “I felt so much better in my soul, after that time alone, me believing in that ‘blessed assurance,’ ” she recalls. “God assured me everything was going to be OK.”

If the great hymns of American worship provide comfort to Ms. Smith, so the great traditions of Judaism delight and direct Mitchell Marcus, professor of computer science, linguistics, and artificial intelligence at the University of Pennsylvania. Having been brought up on “Judaism lite,” Mr. Marcus saw in college the “tremendous value” the great faith traditions had for his non-Jewish friends.

“I realized there are a number of these ancient traditions around, and [learning] your own seemed like a really good place to start,” he says. Thus began a love affair with Judaism that continues. “Sabbath for me has always been very, very important,” he notes. While he worships in a Conservative synagogue, he incorporates many Orthodox Jewish practices into his own life. He loves studying his sacred texts while awaiting a Sabbath visit from his daughter and her family.

In his form of voluntary Orthodoxy, he keeps kosher at home and has Friday night meals only at home, or at the homes of his children or his friends. “For me, observance is a spiritual practice rather than a ‘have-to,’ ” he says.

Structure is a tough sell in the free-for-all of American culture, but for some believers it illuminates the journey. Muslim Sarah Ali, a young economist from Washington, D.C., had a “moderate” religious upbringing, one she believes allows her to enjoy her faith all the more as an adult. Not only did she avoid the teenage temptation to rebel against too-strict parents, but because she needed to study much of Islam on her own, she feels she better appreciates her religious traditions. 

“I fast for Allah, not for the whole world,” she says. Even as some of her Muslim friends eschew the hijab – or headscarf – hoping to increase their chances of finding a husband, Ms. Ali wears one. She tries to say her prayers (five times a day) at home, but sometimes she needs to find a mosque or even a store dressing room for prayer. She prays formally, in Arabic, then includes her own petitions.

Typical of these were her prayers for a better work situation, which she says were answered. After praying about it, she waited, and eventually got five new job offers. The scrutiny accorded Muslims after 9/11 is never far from her thoughts. “I have to be very vigilant with how I conduct myself in public,” says Ali, who was born in Texas. “It frustrates me, but it’s part of life for me.”

While some people today may get their moral education from YouTube and Twitter, many others see social media as a superficial spiritual guide. Theological nuance can’t be had in 140 characters, says Emily Sullivan, a Millennial who notes that religions need to distinguish themselves from upbeat Oprah-like sentiment.

The Pennsylvania stay-at-home mother of two practices what some dub “John Paul II Catholicism,” an observant, orthodox approach to the faith gaining popularity among some young people. Working part time from home, speaking and writing content for the World Meeting of Families, she pushes back against what she sees as a mind-set that insists that a male-only priesthood demeans women, and that a sexually permissive culture frees them. She believes that the theology underlying the morality of her church – which addresses divorce, abortion, contraception, and restriction of sex to marriage – has been poorly taught for generations and as a result is misunderstood. She readily admits she and her husband view themselves as “countercultural.”  

•     •     •                                                                  

Every age seems to put religion in the middle of the latest cultural controversy. A flashpoint for many today is same-sex marriage. But while a public debate rages, individual believers are pursuing their faith in their own way.

New York art dealer Tod Roulette, for example, who is gay and black, found his place at the table at Harlem’s St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, which is a departure from the lively but strict Pentecostal congregation of his Kansas childhood. His Kansas congregation reviled homosexuality, and still does, while at St. Philip’s, Mr. Roulette not only sings in the choir, prays the rosary, and serves as Eucharistic minister, but he also participates in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender ministry.

He’s looking for an app to help him recite the Holy Office prayers of the priesthood, practicing for the day when he might become a monk. On his most recent trip home to Kansas, the Pentecostal clergy were less judgmental with him than normal, he says, and he has developed some insight into their theology. “I can see [being against homosexuality] if you’re wedded to a certain translation of the Bible,” he says. “There’s no way around that. I can support that.”

Ms. Sullivan’s objection to same-sex marriage, she says, has nothing to do with individuals, but rather is rooted in a Catholic theological principle that limits sex to within marriage, that defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and that applies to single people “across the board.” She makes sure her gay friends don’t feel “Emily’s coming after me,” when they talk religion. By sticking to ideas, rather than passing judgment, she says she has been able to remain friends with a gay couple even though she didn’t attend their wedding for religious reasons.

In Oregon, one of Dalling’s granddaughters is marrying a woman this year, prompting him to stretch his Mormon thinking. Though he senses that the marriage “thwarts the plan of salvation in a way,” he and his wife have decided to attend the wedding and to love the granddaughter’s spouse as much as they do the rest of the family. “We try to be in the world but not be of it,” Dalling says. “But we can’t isolate ourselves anymore.”

The current rise of atheism – exemplified by a range of figures, including writer Richard Dawkins, author of the 2006 book “The God Delusion”; outspoken talk show host Bill Maher; and British scientist Stephen Hawking – highlights another enduring clash: that between science and religion. It suggests reason and religion are perpetually in conflict. 

But that’s not necessarily the case. People at the University of Pennsylvania think Marcus’s PhD students, smart as they are, must be avowedly secular. But the professor finds the opposite to be true. His students, regardless of faith, have in fact been religiously curious, often very devout, and eager to talk about their beliefs, he says, and he encourages it. 

The many wrongs associated with religion over the millenniums don’t negate its value, he believes. “Being human is hard and is challenging,” he says. “Religion holds up for us an ideal behavior and ideal practices to strive for.”   

Samantha Evans, a newly ordained Presbyterian pastor doing a residency at Philadelphia’s Broad Street Ministry, was herself once a physics major bent on saving the world through biomedical research. After college, she followed a vague hunch and decided to apply to the Princeton Theological Seminary. For her, the limitations of science often bolster religious faith.

“At the end of the day, I think a lot of people are seeking understanding,” she says. Ministering to them requires stepping away from the need for answers and finding “room for ambiguity.”

For Mr. Stallings – you can call him “Buddy” – his time at St. Bart’s caps off a career’s worth of working on Sundays. His ministering took him from San Francisco to Mississippi to 9/11-ravaged Staten Island.

Despite his love for liturgy, he thought he might take a well-deserved break from Sunday services when he retired. Read The New York Times. Linger over coffee. But after hanging up his vestments in May, when he finally had his Sunday mornings to himself, he was surprised to find himself back in church. 

“I went. And I will go again,” says the erudite priest, who has a slight Southern drawl and a full New York skepticism. Though as a priest administering communion he felt “more connected to others than anywhere else,” he has no desire to preach again, no desire except to be back at the communion rail on the receiving side. To Stallings, what happens on Sundays is simple:

“I don’t think it has to do with correct belief, not with orthodoxy but with people joining together – the sights and sounds of people getting up from their pews and going to communion ... there’s something so common about that desire to come and receive.”

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