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What are secular people to make of the metrics on religion?

Median church attendance declining to half what it was two decades ago. People belonging to houses of worship dropping to 47 percent of the US population. The share of Americans identifying as Christian shrinking from 90 percent 50 years ago to 64 percent today.

On the whole, I neither cheer nor lament the decline of organized religion in America. I am, however, interested in understanding what kind of vacuum is left where religion is receding—and how nonreligious society can best fill it.

For and against

A person who had a passing acquaintance with my writing once observed that I was “neutral” on religion.

Not so much. In truth, there is very little in the sphere of religion about which I am neutral. But before I can tell you whether I’m for or against, I need more detail. Which religion? Which branch or subbranch of that religion? Which practices and ideas?

In the same vein, there needs to be some specificity and disaggregation before I can say whether I am saddened or gladdened by the shrinkage of congregations and other religious communities in this country.

If you tell me membership is plummeting at a right-wing evangelical church in your town that has led crusades against vaccines and spread lies about the 2020 presidential election, I’ll take it as welcome news. On the other hand, if I learn that a progressive church in your city—one that affirms LGBTQ people and sends parishioners to protect-the-climate rallies—I’ll be saddened to learn that budget problems have forced it to close.

Same response if you tell me that critical support services for people without homes or food are going to suffer because of an impending church closure in your community. Nothing to cheer there. But nor is there cause for hand-wringing and resignation. Other organizations and people can pick up the slack.

Gone for good?

The author of a new book on the struggle of congregations fears that something is lost to our country and communities, permanently, when churches close. Bob Smietana, a reporter for Religion News Service and author of Reorganized Religion: The Reshaping of the American Church and Why It Matters, lists the valuable services and resources churches provide: things like food pantries, shelter for those without housing, disaster relief, a place for Alcoholics Anonymous groups to meet, and so on.

For example, “most churches have some kind of food ministry, and the food bank distribution system relies on that,” Smietana says in an interview with Faith & Leadership. “Where are (people) going to go to get that food? We have to think about that, and nobody has.”

I appreciate what some churches do for people who are food-insecure, but Smietana exaggerates the unique ability of churches to provide such services and the absence of alternatives. Are there not a lot of non-church food banks feeding hungry families? Of course there are. Not that it will be instant or easy, but secular nonprofits can fill the breach where church-based services cut back or close.   

AA and other recovery groups can and do meet in spaces other than churches. And although disaster relief is often mobilized under the banner of churches and other religious organizations, secular groups provide these vital services, too, and have the potential to do even more in a secularizing society.

The work will not always go forward under the explicit banner of secularism or humanism (although it does exactly that in the case of GO Humanity, formerly known as Foundation Beyond Belief). But the field is full of nonreligious organizations providing humanitarian support between our shores and beyond, nonprofits like United Way and Direct Relief.

And I haven’t even mentioned the government services that get food in needy peoples’ mouths and help communities recover from hurricanes and other disasters—all funded by the public, religious and nonreligious alike.

Making the world ‘less awful’

Smietana also laments the spiritual and moral losses wrought by the decline of churches. On this count, I am more sympathetic. To a point. As I recall from the church-going days of my younger years, a good religious service can send you home full of renewed best intentions and a determination to be a better person. But I know from experience that a good humanist meeting can do the same. As can an illuminating book or deep conversation.

In our country’s public life, Smietana says, “All the incentives right now are to say, ‘Who do I hate, and how do I hate them?’ And the organized religion folks are at least saying, ‘We should work together, make this world a better place.’”

Adds Smietana: “The church is supposed to at some point be saying, ‘Don’t be an awful person.’ And they congregate people … to go out and make the world less awful.”

True of many congregations. But as we know too well, others sow division, demonize science and secularity, thwart progress against racism and homophobia, brand liberals and nonreligious people as evil, and get people behaving in a generally “awful” way.

Clearly, its identity as “church” does not ensure that an assembly of people will be a positive contributor to the community and country. Other factor determine that—factors such as compassion, democratic and humanitarian values, proper ways of knowing what’s true and effective (and what isn’t). These values are found in some religious communities, for sure, but in other settings as well. The key is to cultivate and activate these values, under whatever guise.

Giving and receiving forgiveness

Author and columnist Bruce Ledewitz has identified what might be a harder-to-replace loss attached to religion’s recession: a loss to people’s capacity for giving and receiving forgiveness.

In a recent column, Ledewitz, who identifies as post-Jewish, speaks of how he misses the High Holy Days and the rituals for cleansing away sin and beginning anew. 

“The problem of secular life,” he says in a memorable line, “is not how to be good without God, but how to be bad without God and without the forgiveness and renewal that our religious traditions offer.”

At its best, Ledewitz says,

Religion resists demonization of others through the recognition that we are all sinners. And in that recognition, there is always the potential for human solidarity. Sociologically speaking, we are on the way to a secular society.… Unfortunately, we have not yet begun to take that change seriously. We will not be able to build a healthy secular civilization without recognition of human sin and some ritualization that allows us to confront ourselves realistically and be forgiven, whatever that means in secular terms.

But even as he laments the loss of religiously sourced forgiveness, Ledewitz begins thinking about ways for a secularizing culture to fill the vacuum, although he doesn’t see much sign of movement in that direction yet. Maybe the solution is annual retreats, he says, or other kinds of “shared time for sustained and quiet reflection.”

I have some quibbles with his assessment—don’t counseling and other nonreligious practices already help people forgive others and themselves?—but his general idea is right: Devise solutions, don’t linger on lament.

Seculars ought not scoff at the real losses that come with the decline of organized religion. But we know that a return to houses of worship is neither feasible nor desirable for most of us, and wringing our hands about what’s lost will get us nowhere.

Better to devote our energies to understanding what must come next and bringing it to life.

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Tom Krattenmaker

Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion, meaning, and values in public life. A longtime columnist for USA Today, he is the author of three award-winning books, including "Confessions of a...