Author and podcast co-founder Casper ter Kuile told “the story of an institution that is struggling despite much creative, hope-inspiring work.” The ending, he concluded, might not be so disheartening: “Religion is not declining; it’s transforming.”
In Monday’s Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy, ter Kuile said he grew up in a community that placed a lot of value on rituals – he would sing to animals, like cows and pigs, on Christmas Eve and make lanterns and walk down streets. Religion, however, was not a big part of his childhood. As a teenager, he said, he often found it to be “cruel or irrelevant.”
His journey in terms of religion, ter Kuilesaid, took a slight turn when he was pursuing his master’s degree at Harvard Divinity School, where — as an inside joke among “religious folks” suggests — people go to “lose faith.” ter Kuile’s case is different.
“I found myself as a gay atheist at Harvard Divinity School,” he said. “I came out more gay, but less atheist.”
Unlike ter Kuile, who gained faith, statistical re- search shows “more and more Americans are less and less traditionally religious.” This, he said, is true for each generation.
Right now, he said, for the first time in American recorded history, less than 50% of the population are members of a religious congregation. On top of that, the Southern Baptist Convention has been declining since 2007, he said, and is now down to membership rates it had in the 1970s. Within Judaism, an import- ant factor is intermarriage: 60% of Jewish people now marry outside of their faith, ter Kuile said. These are just some of the examples.
This trend, he said, has been declared “The Rise of the Nones,” referring to surveys where, when asked about their religious affiliation, people choose the “none of the above” option.
“When you look at this cohort of people that are non-religious, it is not the stereotype of an angry atheist or someone (who is) anti-religion; it is more of a ‘meh’ feeling – nothing much in particular,” ter Kuile said. “It’s a rejection of something, but in a sort of lukewarm way.”
Such disaffiliation trends across the country, he said, have “enormous impacts on the institutions themselves.” ter Kuile said scholars now estimate between 3,000 and 4,000 churches close every year.
Several factors can explain these tendencies. Members of the audience suggested three reasons why the shift in religious affiliation might be occurring: general tendency, time and bad reputation.
First, it can be argued that the way religious institutions are losing followers is not unique to those institutions.
“We’re seeing it in all sorts of civic organizations, like sports teams – the Elks, the Lions,” ter Kuile said. This is, therefore, a story of “institutional decline.”
Second, people have significantly less time on their hands. This, ter Kuile said, is especially true for middle-class workers, who currently spend more time at work than previous generations did.
Next, people from the audience argued that “the integrity of the institutions (can) no longer uphold.” ter Kuile used the “nasty ‘90s” to illustrate this reason – evangelical Christianity, in some cases, he said, was weaponized, pushing gay people “to the margins.”
“How can you preach love and practice hate at the same time?” ter Kuile said, remarking that this is not true for most Christians he knows.
Another factor that influenced the religious shift, he said, is the internet. If you wanted to buy a lawnmower, he asked, who would you pay attention to first – the expert or a five-star Amazon rating?
“I pay attention to how many stars it has from other users,” ter Kuile said. “Our perception of … where authority lies has moved from the center — or the individual, or the top of the pyramid—to the wisdom of the crowd.”
Parallel to the religious decline is “an enormous increase” in rates of social isolation and loneliness. Social isolation is about quantity: more people, ter Kuile said, work from home; more are less likely to be married or partnered. Loneliness, on the other hand, is about quality.
“Loneliness is the experience of the quality of relationship that we have with other people. So even if you’re at a busy party, but you’re not vibing with the crowd, you can feel lonely,” he said. One in four Americans say they have nobody to talk to about the most meaningful things in their life, ter Kuile said; one in five only have one person.
The impact of loneliness on human lives, he said, is akin to that of smoking 15 cigarettes per day or being clinically obese.
“We literally need each other to stay alive,” ter Kuile said.
Yet, as affiliation and attendance rates decline, spirituality rates, he said, are still “very, very high.” Instead of feeling sad about the shift, ter Kuile suggested looking into creating something new.
When ter Kuile started doing research in this field with his colleagues Angie Thurston and Susie Phillips, he said they saw a lot of “hopeful examples of new ways in which people are building community and finding ways to make meaning.” One of them is CrossFit.
ter Kuile described CrossFit as a fitness phenomenon that is also “a social experience.”
“It is an organization that really tries to build a very strong culture of supporting each other to achieve their fitness goals,” he said.
CrossFit uses accountability as its tool – “how you show up to the gym is how you show up in life.” Accountability, he said, is also an expression of care.
“If you’re not showing up and I call you – as they do in these fitness groups – it is because I missed you this morning and I need you to be here for me as much as I’m here to help you,” ter Kuile said.
Within the CrossFit community, people have been known to show up for one another in times of need, from walking each other’s dogs to starting fundraisers or lobbying campaigns.
Skeptical about CrossFit being “anything more than a place for fitness,” ter Kuile said there is a “deep evangelical culture in the CrossFit model.”
Another example that provides a fine connection between community and religious motives is The Dinner Party. This is an organization that was founded by Lennon Flowers and Carla Fernandez, who both lost a parent at a young age. Both, ter Kuile said, had the experience of feeling that saying that their mothers died was “a conversation killer” when people would ask them about their Mother’s Day or Thanksgiving plans.
The organization, ter Kuile said, hosts dinners to provide people with a space to talk honestly about their experiences. This, he said, included sadness, anger or frustration – “wherever you were at in your grief journey, it was welcome.”
Some elements of such gatherings are reminiscent of the Eucharist ritual.
Other experiments that ter Kuile talked about include Makerspace and Soul Cycle. Makerspace is an organization that originated in the suburbs of Boston as a library that has tools instead of books and now provides a place of refuge and sanctuary. Soul Cycle is a cycling class that, through the use of music and exercise, ter Kuile said, provides an “emotional cathartic release.”
“After 40 minutes of (cycling in unison), you lose your own sense of consciousness and meld into a greater whole – perhaps not unlike some revival experience,” he said.
Lastly, ter Kuile said during his time at Harvard Divinity School, he and his classmate Vanessa Zoltan teamed up to analyze the Harry Potter book series using techniques fit for religious studies. This led to them creating the “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text” podcast.
“What was so beautiful was that every week we would ask for people to share a blessing for some- one in the books – someone whose experience we recognized. … Each week we would have a listener share something from the text that touched them, and over time, people started to gather in local groups,” ter Kuile said. “For me, it illustrated the potential that is out there of using the tools and containers of commitment … about where the future of religion might go.”
Religion, ter Kuile concluded, is changing its form. “If you only look at the white church on the main street on a New England imaginary town square, then yes – there are fewer people there (and) more and more of those buildings will close,” he said. “But if you widen your aperture and notice where people are gathering and connecting around shared values or a vision of the world as it might be, it is my assumption that good things are happening there.”
Currently, ter Kuile said, people are “drowning in wonderful content,” which includes a multitude of books, podcasts, streaming services and more.
“What we need now more than anything are the containers for the connection that we look for,” he said, noting that the scale of these containers is unlikely to remain a congregation. Instead, ter Kuile said it might be a small group of people who gather every once in a while, “probably over a meal, probably with rich conversation, where we are close enough that we don’t need to self-narrate the challenges that we’re experiencing, but where people are close enough to see it for themselves, where we are held in those networks of care.”