Secularization and the Loss of Community

Secularization and the Loss of Community September 2, 2019

A couple of articles caught my attention over the past couple of weeks. The first concerns what religion scholars call “the nones.” These are individuals who answer questions about religious faith with “nothing in particular.” They are not all atheists or agnostics. Some even believe in God. But their answer indicates that they do not affiliate with any specific religion. So, they do not feel connected to a religious group.

But they also do not feel connected to educational institutions, civic groups or political organizations. They are socially unmoored. Researchers have wondered what has happened to religious groups to drive away the nones. And certainly we religious folks have played a role in the increase of the nones, as we have alienated the nonreligious with some of our actions. But perhaps that was not the right question. The better question may be what has happened to those who are nones that separate them from not just religious, but from other social institutions. Why is our society creating individuals who are so unattached from it?

And that leads me to the second article. It looks at research that shows an increase in the numbers of individuals who are friendless. Younger cohorts are lonelier than ever before. The relationship of this research with the findings about the nones is pretty apparent. If we see an increase of individuals not connected to social institutions, then it makes sense that those individuals would have fewer friends. To be fair, the second article does not connect the loneliness to lack of membership to religious organizations, but does anyone expect that to not be the case?

Before I go any further, I feel the need to make a statement. I feel silly making this statement, but dollars to donuts someone is going to comment that he or she is neither religious nor lonely and so these studies are worthless. Of course, these studies are systematic trends and do not represent all secular individuals. You do not invalidate them by learning that there are socially well-connected secular individuals any more than the wealth of Oprah Winfrey invalidates the claim that men are generally wealthier than women. So please spare me from that useless argument.

So why would we see this increase of loneliness? Can the decrease of religion play a role in this trend? If disaffection from religion is part of disaffection from our larger society, then there are interesting dynamics at play.

The way secularization has developed is with a hyper focus on individualism and that is a big part of this explanation. There is an emerging value of individualism which not only corresponds with the emerging secularization, but I believe is a contributing factor. A society where our wants, and desires are made the top priority is one where there is less social pressure to affiliate with social organizations. Naturally a society where some will no longer feel social pressure to affiliate with religious organizations is more likely to become secular. But such a society is also more likely to generate lonely, friendless individuals. The pathway we have taken to secularization has also produced our propensity towards loneliness.

So, we are not only becoming a less religious society, we are also becoming a society where our individualism is isolating us. I have tried to imagine what that looks like in real life. For example, I have blogged about the incels, men who state that they are involuntarily celibate. I suspect that not only do they have problems with relationship with females, but even with males. Their community seems to be mostly online. Given the lack of respect for religion that many of these men have, I suspect that they are some of the irreligious isolated individuals showing up in these articles. It is likely that in this community that interpersonal face to face human relations have been replaced by online community and artificial intimacy. The incel community may be one example of how the values of individualism can lead to secularization and isolation.

I also wrote while ago about how a secular society fails to reproduce itself and thus secular societies may not be sustainable over a long period of time. Perhaps this individualism which leads to fewer friends also inhibits relationships that produce children. It is not that secular societies cannot theoretically be sustainable, but the values connected to modern secularization inhibit the ability of modern secular societies to reproduce to sufficient levels. Likewise, secular societies may not have to be rife with loneliness. But the modern way secularization has developed with its linkages to individualism seems to make this type of loneliness worse.

My observations are not meant to be a critique of secularization. I see these observations as more descriptive than proscriptive. I hope by shedding some light on this particular dysfunction of modern society that hopefully there can be thoughtful conservations on how we can deal with it. Perhaps we need to consider how our individualism does not always aid in human flourishing but instead can inhibit that flourishing. We may need to better appreciate the community sustaining role of religion and that we need to be cautious about losing that attribute in a secular society.

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5 responses to “Secularization and the Loss of Community”

  1. “The better question may be what has happened to those who are nones that separate them from not just religious, but from other social institutions. Why is our society creating individuals who are so unattached from it?”

    This is a valid question, but I don’t think we can look at just one group of people and see what is happening in our culture. I suspect that pulling away from institutions is the most benign response to a problem that cuts across demographics and ideologies. It’s become clear that many our institutions no longer represent principles. If our society has come to value self-interest over community, that began with the powerful. The powerful have corrupted our institutions, squandering the good will those institutions may have earned through principled hard work. Instead, those esteemed brand names are used as cudgels with which to bludgeon the less powerful. Their most useful weapon has been Christianity itself.

    And yet Christianity is not the problem, which is a collection of human weaknesses against which no ideology can immunize us. The question is how to move forward now that our society has been so thoroughly weakened.

    Christianity could still be a positive influence, even now. For the most part, the Jesus of the gospels was a unifying figure for the powerless. He taught his followers that their biases robbed them of peace and love. He protected the dignity of children, the elderly, the poor and the sick, and he discouraged the worship of the powerful. He taught his people that they were responsible to care for each other. That sense of responsibility for other people has been lost.

    I had a conversation not long ago with a bright, young businessman who is considered a rising star. He is a “both-sider,” meaning that he’s bought into the secondary lie that when the GOP abandons basic human decency, they are only doing what “both sides do.” I asked him if he would step in were I to put a gun to the head of a third colleague, or would he also see that as a “both sides” issue. His answer was that even in that instance, the incident would be “none of his business.” The fact that he is a Christian does not make his attitude a symptom of Christianity, but given the attitude of Evangelical leaders nationally to the plight of immigrants, legal and illegal, Christianity is just as soaked in corruption and self-interest as everyone else.

  2. On a side issue on this issue, I take issue with “a secular society fails to reproduce itself and thus secular societies may not be sustainable over a long period of time”.

    This is nonsense. A growing population is not sustainable, not a slowly shrinking one.

    In a stable environment, an annual population drop of 0.3% or so would be ideal. For the USA, an annual population drop of 1 million. Infrastructure would need only to be replaced, not expanded, except in the few areas of growing population. The resources saved from raising one fewer child would be enough to care for several frail elderly.

    But we are not in a stable environment. Climate Change will result is losing the most important, vital and economically productive cities in the USA. A more sharply dropping population will make this certain future dislocation and new infrastructure required an easier transition.

  3. 200 years at 0.3% decline per year would only reduce the population by 45%.

    I remember the USA when our population was below 200 million. It was a nicer place with more nature & natural resources per capita. Some beaches were still undeveloped in Florida, we exported orange juice, much less sprawl etc.

  4. I would just note that some churches contribute to loneliness and isolation (and to their own decline) by being insular, cliquish, and unwelcoming. It’s not for nothing that God tells us to love one another. He knows how human beings work – how friendships and a sense of community not only help to maintain the number of people in the pews, but also help to keep faith itself strong.

  5. An atomized population is certainly more government-dependent. I remember the Obama 2012 campaign ad about “The Life of Julia,” showing the government (under Obama) being her main support throughout her life, with no hint that Julia had family or friends or a religious community or any clubs or social networks – just the government to be her “pillar” from age 3 all the way to retirement.