These two stories are the same story

These two stories are the same story September 18, 2023

Here are two recent headlines from Religion News Service:

Both of these stories are newsworthy, well-written, and responsibly reported. But both are also overly familiar. I haven’t read these particular iterations before, but I’ve read so many general iterations of them that they all begin to blur together.

Another set of authors have written another book about “why millions of Americans left church — and what might bring them back.” This isn’t the first such story about such a book. Nor is it the second, or even the tenth or the 20th. Maybe these new authors have found something new to say about this subject, but that seems unlikely. And the cautious verb in the headline — “explores” — isn’t particularly promising.

“America’s religious exodus” is a big story, but other than reminding us of that fact, I’m not sure this article tells us much beyond the “news” that the pile of books exploring that story has just gotten a bit taller.

The second story is also a very big story. Or, rather, it is one local facet of that very big story — one that confirms that larger story while adding more specific detail. It is the latest in a long, long list of similar stories limning the massive, global scope of the scandal of sexual abuse by clergy and the failures and struggles of churches all over the world to protect parishioners from these predatory pastors.

That second story reminds me of the ending of the Academy Award-winning film Spotlight, about the Boston Globe’s investigation of clergy sex abuse and the cover-up of it in that one city. The final moments of the film present a grim title card listing Catholic dioceses all across America where scandals like the one in Boston were subsequently revealed. It’s a long list, in two columns of small type, quickly replaced by a second page listing dozens more. And then comes the third page, and the fourth, listing dioceses from all over the world.

I don’t know if Switzerland was on that list back in 2015, but it belongs on that list now. And based on what has been investigated and uncovered in all of those other dioceses, I’d guess that 1,000 cases found in this recent “sweeping study” aren’t the half of it.

Again, both of these RNS stories are newsworthy and each is worth your time to click through and read. But I’m sure you’ve also already read these stories before, or stories so similar that these new variations of them will hardly seem like variations at all.

In every variation and iteration, of course, these two stories are related. “America’s religious exodus” is obviously and inextricably tied up with the massive, global, transdenominational scandal of clergy sex abuse and cover-up. How could it not be?

The trio behind The Great Dechurching acknowledge this, but also seem to minimize it by reducing this to a single category of former church-goer:

The researchers also sorted dechurched Americans into two major categories: the “casually dechurched,” who lost the habit of attending services because they moved or had scheduling conflicts; and “church casualties,” who stopped attending because of conflict or because they’d experienced harm.

Each of the five profiles had a wide range of reasons for leaving their churches and why they might be open to returning. For so-called cultural Christians, they left in part because their friends weren’t there (18%) and because attending was not convenient (18%) but also because of gender identity (16%) or church scandal (16%).

This research model suggests that only some of those departing churches are “casualties” who have experienced harm, and that “church scandal” was only a factor for 16% of those leaving, most of whom seem to have more “casual” reasons for their exit — matters of convenience or of “other priorities.”

One gets the sense that the authors regard these “casual” reasons as less legitimate and more shallow. That’s understandable. After all, those who stop attending church because they have been the direct victims of clergy abuse have an unassailable reason for their departure. But I have a hard time believing that this direct harm directly experienced by hundreds of thousands of former church-members is not also a factor in the choices being made by others who were not themselves directly harmed.

Ask someone if they left the church because they were personally a casualty of abuse or for some other reason and they’ll suppose they should tell you it’s because of some other reason. Present them with survey questions instructing them to “pick one” reason for their departure and they’re gonna pick just one. But the rape of thousands of children and women, silenced and covered up for years by church officials at the highest levels, is not something that determines the response of victims while having no influence on everyone else hearing about it. It’s too horrifying to be treated as a discrete category that stands apart from all the others.

Someone may “casually” tell researchers that they stopped going to church because they realized they preferred sleeping in on Sundays, and that may even be true. But it’s not the whole truth. And that person’s decision is almost never unrelated to or unaffected by the gargantuan, horrifying fact of that other very big story.

“Only 16% of the bank’s former customers said they left because they’d personally been the victims of life-altering fraud and embezzlement by the bank. The other 84% left for more casual reasons of convenience and personal preference.”

“Only 16% of the airline’s former passengers said they left because they’d personally experienced a crash due to negligence. The other 84% of former passengers simply drifted away for more casual reasons.”

Yeah, not buying that.

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