As the United States becomes less religious, is it also becoming more selfish?
Historically, religious Americans have been civically engaged. Through churches and other faith-based organizationsworshipers volunteer, engage in local and national civic organizations, and pursue political goals.
Today – the climb politically powerful religious right over the past 50 years notwithstanding – fewer Americans identify with formal religions. Gallup found that 47% of Americans said they were members of a church in 2020, up from 70% in the 1990s; almost a quarter of Americans have no religious affiliation.
Meanwhile, other types of meaningful practices are on the rise, from meditation and yoga to new secular rituals As Sunday meetings “without God”. Between 2012 and 2017, the percentage of American adults who meditated increased from 4.1% to 14.2%, according to a 2018 CDC report. The number of those who practiced yoga rose from 9.5% to 14.3%. Not everyone considers these practices “spiritual,” but many pursue them as an alternative to religious commitment.
Some reviews wonder if this new focus on mindfulness and self-care is make americans more self-centered. They suggest that religiously disengaged Americans are channeling their energies into themselves and their career rather than in civic activities that can benefit the public.
As sociologists who study religion and public life, we wanted to answer this question. We used survey data to compare how these two groups of spiritual and religious Americans vote, volunteer, and otherwise engage in their communities.
Spiritually selfish or religiously alienated?
Our research began with the hypothesis that the shift from organized religious practices to spiritual practices could have one of two effects on American society as a whole.
Spiritual practice could cause people to focus on more selfish or self-interested pursuits, such as their own personal development and career advancement, to the detriment of American society and democracy.
This is the argument of the sociologist Caroline Chen continues in his new book »Work, Pray, Codeabout how Silicon Valley meditators are reinventing Buddhist practices as tools for productivity. As one employee described a company mindfulness program, it helped her “self-manage” and “not trip.” While these skills have made her happier and given her “the clarity needed to handle complex business issues,” Chen shows how they also teach employees to put work first, sacrificing other types. of social ties.
Bringing spiritual practice to the office can give workers deeper purpose and meaning, but Chen says it can have unintended consequences.
When workplaces meet the most personal needs of workers – providing not only meals and laundry, but also recreational activities, spiritual coaches and mindfulness sessions – skilled workers end up spending most of their time at work. They invest in the social capital of their business rather than building ties with neighbors, religious congregations and other civic groups. They are less likely to patronize local businesses.
Chen suggests that this disinvestment in the community can ultimately lead to cuts in public services and weaken democracy.
Alternatively, according to our research, spiritual practices can serve as a substitute for religion. This explanation may be especially true among Americans unhappy with the swerve to the right that now divides many congregationsexacerbating cultural fissures around racegender and sexual orientation.
“They liked to tell me that my sexuality doesn’t define me,” said Christian Ethan Stalker, a 25-year-old former evangelical. Religious News Service in 2021 by describing its former church. “But they shoved a handful of verses down my throat that completely sexualized me as a gay person and…rejected who I am as a complex human being. It was a huge problem for me.
Committed on all fronts
To answer our research question on spirituality and civic engagement, we used a new representative national survey of Americans studied in 2020.
We examined the political behaviors of people who engaged in activities such as yoga, meditation, art practice, nature walking, prayer, and attending religious services. The political activities we measured included voting, volunteering, contacting representatives, protesting, and donating to political campaigns.
We then compared these behaviors, distinguishing between people who view these activities as spiritual and those who view the same activities as religious.
Our new study published in the journal American Sociological Reviewfinds that spiritual practitioners are just as likely to engage in political activities as religious ones.
After controlling for demographic factors such as age, race and gender, frequent spiritual practitioners were about 30% more likely than non-practitioners to report having done at least one political activity in the past year. Similarly, devout religious practitioners were also about 30% more likely to report any of these political behaviors than respondents who do not practice religion.
In other words, we have seen increased political engagement among religious and spiritual, compared to others.
Discovering the spiritual as a political force
The spiritual practitioners we identified seemed particularly likely to resent the rightward shift of some congregations in recent years. On average, Democrats, women, and people who identified as lesbian, gay, and bisexual reported more frequent spiritual practices.
We suspect that these groups engage in US politics by innovative meanssuch as through online groups and retreats that reinventing spiritual community and democratic engagement.
Our research recognizes progressive spiritual practitioners as a growing but largely unrecognized, underestimated and misunderstood political force.
In his influential book “bowling alone», Harvard political scientist Robert Putman suggests that American religious disaffiliation is part of a larger trend of overall civic decline. Americans have disengaged for decades from all kinds of civic groups, from bowling leagues and unions to parent-teacher organizations.
Our study provides good reason to reassess what it means to be an “engaged citizen” in the 21st century. People can change what they do on a Sunday morning, but leaving the church doesn’t necessarily mean leaving the political process.