THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH in the developed world is in collapse. This is true notwithstanding the current political resurgence of the religious right, which demographics show to be a cultural stab from the grave. Three million fewer Americans are attending church each year, driving the religiously unaffiliated from 8 percent to 23 percent in a generation. For millennials, that number jumps to 35 percent. Twice as many millennials are religiously unaffiliated as their parents’ generation, and three times as many as their grandparents’ generation. And early reports of Generation Z, those currently in high school and younger, show that traditional religious identity is on the demographic cusp of vanishing as a significant cultural presence.
Europe is ahead of the secularizing curve. Millennials in Europe are now majority nonreligious, and not just in Scandinavian countries. French millennials are two thirds nonreligious, UK millennials are approaching three quarters, and the Czech Republic tops the list at 90 percent.
It’s understandable for humanists to feel a little giddy at this trend, which is happening faster and with more statistical strength than most of us imagined possible. But even as we celebrate the coming decline of a toxic cultural influence, there is cause for concern. Because for all the negatives, the Christian church has some positive and culturally important achievements to its credit. As the temple falls, those of us on the outside must quickly learn how to achieve those things just as well without the negatives.
One great success of the Christian church has been the creation of an effective culture of philanthropic giving. Yes, much of the potential is siphoned away by the care and feeding of the institution itself, but there’s little doubt that the individual act of giving happens more robustly on average within the church than without. According to such robust instruments as the American Community Survey of the US Census, the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, and studies by Independent Sector and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, US churchgoers give away two to three times more of their income on average than non-churchgoers.
Still the deflections come from our side of the aisle: the religious might be lying to these surveys about their level of giving. This is possible, though no evidence is ever offered to back the assertion up, or to back up the assertion that non-churchgoers are not lying, or that the churchgoers are lying at a rate two to three times higher than we are. We just grab at any opportunity to deflect that statistic.
We do that because people like conservative commentator Arthur Brooks claim that the difference is evidence of a “gap in virtue” between the groups; churchgoers are just better people. That’s also obviously untrue.
In fact, I would be floored and amazed if charitable giving by churchgoers wasn’t higher than ours. I’m mostly amazed that the gap isn’t bigger. But it has nothing to do with virtue, or even guilt, exactly.
The reason starts to become clear when you notice that we’re talking not about belief but the measurable activity of churchgoing. I was a churchgoing atheist for twenty years, and when I stopped going to church, my charitable giving fell off a cliff. So either I suddenly became a bad person, or my generosity was being tapped less often and less effectively.
Imagine an experiment designed to determine how best to motivate individual giving. One group attends a weekly inspirational talk. They hear about the needs of those less fortunate and are urged to rise to the highest aspirations of their worldview by meeting that need. Then a shiny plate is passed, full of the generous donations of their friends and neighbors. Each person makes a choice—add to that plate or pass it on without contributing—fifty-two or more times per year.
A control group attends no such meetings. They give to causes they learn about and care about, but it’s less systematic, less closely tied to a community expression of shared values.
Run the experiment for a year, then try to contain your surprise when the first group turns out to have given two to three times as much as the second. You probably wouldn’t conclude that the first group is filled with more virtuous people. Instead, you’d realize that you had created an effective giving culture—one that is systematic, personally aspirational, and tied to a community of shared values.
This experiment has been going on for centuries. Churches have created a giving culture so effective that most religious adherents see charitable giving as a direct expression of their worldview.
So, once we get past the finger-pointing and back-patting about the giving gap, we can finally get to a worthwhile question: As the church crumbles and takes that system with it, can an equally effective, systematic giving culture be created among the nonreligious? Without the church absorbing the lion’s share, could I make an even bigger impact on human need than I did when I was feeding that shiny plate?
This is a challenge and an opportunity for philanthropy. Only about 20 percent of Americans now attend church regularly. If creating a giving culture is something churches do well, and people are exiting that system in droves, we need to ask how we can create the same or greater success without the religious context.
Foundation Beyond Belief (FBB), the systematic giving program for the nonreligious I founded (and of which I am currently a board member), is one attempt to do that. Members sign up for an automatic monthly donation in the amount of their choice and distribute their funds however they wish among a changing slate of featured charities. We spend each quarter telling the stories of these organizations and connecting their work to the humanist imperatives of mutual care and responsibility. Operations are funded through separate donations and grants, and over $2.2 million has been raised for 140 organizations around the world.
Over time, FBB added a network of 125 humanist volunteer teams working in their communities, a humanist disaster recovery program, and an international Humanist Action: Ghana. For each program we study best practices, and sometimes those lessons come from a religious organization for the simple reason that they often know what they’re doing.
For example, in 2011, when our disaster response program was new, we signed on to a White House initiative coordinating the response of US NGOs to a devastating drought and famine in the Horn of Africa that was mostly off the media radar. Foundation Beyond Belief pulled together powerful infographics highlighting the millions of people displaced, tens of thousands of children traveling alone to refugee centers, and mortality at one point topping 500 people per day.
And donations trickled in, about $5,000 in all. It was not the impact we were hoping for.
To see what went wrong, we dug into the research on mobilizing disaster relief donors and quickly found two problems. First of all, it’s hard to motivate donors for a slow-moving crisis. Hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and other sudden calamities tend to elicit a strong empathetic giving response. The crisis in the Horn of Africa was devastating but slow-moving. That’s one reason the White House became involved—to jump-start the NGO response.
But the other problem was on us: we were telling our donors a story too big and too abstract. Millions of people, hundreds of deaths—it seems powerful, but it isn’t what motivates giving. What drives people to give is the story of the one.
Remember the Christian Children’s Fund? CCF was founded in 1938 and had always been relatively small. In the 1980s they hired an ad agency to help them grow. One of the creatives on the project, a man named Perry Mitchell, suggested that CCF was telling stories that were too large and unfocused. Instead of talking about the needs of millions of children in developing countries, he suggested they focus on one child at a time, both in their advertising and their donation model. With his help, they created the now iconic commercials with Sally Struthers walking through an impoverished village and kneeling down to a single child—“this is Manuel”—and thus was born the adopted child sponsorship model connecting each donor to one child or family. The organization exploded in size, and now they’re approaching a quarter-billion dollars a year under the name ChildFund.
So, for later disaster drives, we switched to a storytelling model that focused on individual impact. In 2013 we raised $45,000 after the F-5 tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, in part by focusing on the storm’s impact on individuals like Rebecca Vitsmun (who you may recall told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that she was an atheist as he interviewed her standing in front of the destruction holding her nineteen-month-old son). Later that same year we were able to overcome donor fatigue and mount an even stronger drive for the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan. We raised $63,000 for local relief efforts by telling the stories of individual victims and rescuers. And last year we raised over $100,000 for hurricane relief and dispatched an on-the-ground team to help with recovery in Houston, Texas.
So, after four years our disaster drives are raising ten to twenty times as much as that drive in 2013, partly because we’ve improved by learning from others, including religious organizations.
It’s still a tiny, tiny piece of the post-church solution. The question now is whether we can scale it up. We have to, especially as the bottom falls out of the American church. There’s a potential crisis in philanthropy here, but there’s also an opportunity if we can learn to motivate donors without the expensive bells and whistles of religious organizations.
Building Meaningful Human Community
The other thing that religion does really well is more abstract in a way, but also very real: they are very good at creating human community. And understanding how they do it starts by realizing that most churchgoers aren’t in church because of their beliefs. They’re there for the community.
At first that sounds like nonsense. We think of religion as something obviously centered on shared beliefs. That may have once been a bigger part of the motivation. But sociologists are discovering that religious identity and churchgoing are now less about beliefs and more about human connection.
You’ve heard the findings that churchgoers rank higher in life satisfaction than non-churchgoers. But sociologists from Harvard and the University of Wisconsin decided to drill down below that claim to see if anything else was going on. And sure enough, they found something big.
At the top of the scale in life satisfaction are churchgoers with many friends in the congregation. Next are non-churchgoers. And below them are churchgoers who have no close friends in the church.
Churchgoers with at least ten close friends in the church had more than double the life satisfaction of someone sitting next to them who had no close friends there.
The researchers said life satisfaction of churchgoers “is almost entirely about the social aspect of religion rather than the theological or spiritual aspect. People are more satisfied with their lives when they go to church because they build a social network in the congregation.” No other factor could explain the overall difference in happiness.
Subsequent studies have strengthened the conclusion. Churches have arguably done better at providing a sense of community and identity than any other institution in our culture. Yes, a lot of toxic nonsense has come along with that, but the fact remains that as churches continue to bleed members, building a similar tangible sense of community has been too far down the list of priorities for us.
This isn’t too surprising, in one way because as a cohort, as a demographic slice—and forgive me as I generalize—we are less often looking for social connection. More often than not, we are science-minded introverts with less than the average need for the social connection that religion provides. That’s why we were able to walk away from it.
But as nonreligious identity has grown, we often make the mistake of thinking that all those fellow nonbelievers—40 million, 60 million and growing as the church crumbles—are just like us.
When someone who left the church but still feels the pull of community creates an experiment like Sunday Assembly, someone from my generation can be counted on to say, “We don’t do that! We aren’t looking for ‘community.’ It’s oppressive, it’s what we left behind.”
In trying to explain what exactly attracted churchgoers to their church communities, the lead researcher in the Harvard/Wisconsin study said, “We think it has to do with the fact that you meet a group of close friends on a regular basis and participate in certain activities that are meaningful to the group. At the same time, they share a certain social identity…The sense of belonging seems to be the key to the relationship between church attendance and life satisfaction.”
Belonging can be a tricky word for the nonreligious. About eight years ago I posted a question on the Parenting Beyond Belief Facebook page: “How do you help your kids achieve a sense of belonging?” The comment thread quickly exploded into two camps.
Many expressed outrage at the very question. They said it brings to mind tribalism, division, us vs. them. One commenter said, “This doesn’t sound like something an atheist parent should even ask! It sounds like a question from a religious parent!” Another said, “I’m a member of the human race, that’s all I need.”
I always loved this idea. I’m a member of the human race, a citizen of the world. Leave all that toxic parochialism behind. Imagine there’s no countries. This is the dream.
But the other half of the thread said, “Yes, please. This is a big issue for us. We really struggle with this. I’d love to see this discussed.” And in the years since then, these questions have swamped all those other concerns from nonreligious parents. How can I help my kids feel a positive sense of belonging? How can I help them find a meaningful identity without labeling them or indoctrinating them?
For most of my life, belonging has been a non-issue. But there’ve been other times when I needed a connection to something smaller, more graspable—when I needed a tribe. I felt this in a painful way during my first weeks as a freshman at UC Berkeley. I was one of 32,000 undergraduates, 400 miles from home, and I felt lost. (Think of the way that word is used in religious terms, and you can start to see the human needs under the surface.) The feeling of isolation was paralyzing, and I actually considered going home.
But I joined the Cal Band, an organization with a century of history and traditions and this deep sense of belonging and shared purpose. I had been really active in my high school band, and I basically transferred that sense of belonging to the college setting. Once it kicked in, I wasn’t one of 32,000 anymore. I was one of 160 people with whom I shared a purpose. I got together with a group of close friends on a regular basis and participated in certain activities that were meaningful to the group.
It was my tribe. Sometimes when I’d walk across campus, I’d start to feel lost in the sea of humanity—then I’d see another bandsman and, boom! I had an identity, a tribal connection.
People are social, tribal animals, and belonging to some graspable corner of the human community can be really helpful. Usually I don’t need it. When I’m feeling confident and successful, I can wade out into the world on my own with no problem. It’s when I’m feeling less confident, when things aren’t going as well and the world’s treating me like something sticky on the bottom of its shoe, when I’m feeling lost—that’s when I seek out that special corner of people who are connected to me.
The problem with being a “citizen of the world,” and only that, is that when I felt vulnerable and needed to know who I was, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the world, or even UC Berkeley. I needed an identity within that whole. And that’s something religion has provided well and something many nonreligious people struggle with mightily.
Church community provides that special corner, but it can also be a shared interest, such as hiking or volunteering or making music. It can be a matter of geography or fans of the home football team. It can revolve around stated values, like the Seven UU Principles. Or it can be the connection and support of a close, caring family.
One friend of mine from the band encountered his crisis of belonging only after he left college. His solution was to get very serious about his Jewish identity, and his crisis of belonging evaporated. I asked him what it was about that identity that did the trick for him. And he said,
I have found value in thinking of myself as a link in a chain, a link that’s important to keep building, so my son can be another link after me. My people have been around as a unique identified group for 4,000 years, despite being targeted for eradication more times than any people on Earth. That alone creates value for me. I am tied to history, and I hope my son and his children will have that same feeling of being part of a people, an identity, greater than themselves. I’m connected to people I’ve never even known, but who observed many of the same traditions that I do now, who had to suffer through more than I can comprehend to make sure I could be born who I am. I can go anywhere in the world where there are Jews and find something familiar and people who will accept me as a brother. That’s something no other identity of mine can afford.
So, I asked, was it that sense of belonging that led him to God? “God?” he said. “Oh no, I don’t believe in God.” He attends a conservative temple in Washington, DC, and is in no way connected with Humanistic Judaism. But he is an absolutely atheistic Jew. He is, in a very meaningful way, one of us. But he also belongs to a meaningful subgroup to which I don’t belong.
The permanence of the connection is one of the strongest appeals to him.
I may move from the United States, and I and my future generations will cease to be American, just as I’m no longer from Russia and Poland, even though my family originally was. [My son] may go to Stanford, and no matter how hard I retain my Cal allegiance, my grandkids will have no connection to Berkeley. But I will teach my son to value his Jewish identity in whatever way he chooses, and that will maximize the chances that his children and future generations feel a connection to me, even if they don’t know me, and to their brethren, whose ancestors shared the same bond I share with my fellow Jews.
If push came to shove, and someone asked me, “Who are you?” my first answer would have to be, “I am a Jew.”
There’s so much to be mined from that passage—something to be learned from this guy who shares my essential worldview but puts it in the frame of a religious identity to which he belongs and I do not. He has solved a problem that I have frankly struggled with in my own family. For all the good things we did for our kids, we didn’t give enough thought to this question of helping our kids connect to others in meaningful ways. And each of them has struggled as a result in ways that may have been easier if they were part of a religious community. Humanism has been too large and too intangible for this purpose. So we have mostly helped them connect through activities and shared interests. But the jury is still out on whether that’s enough.
As for community in post-Christian America, there are a lot of humanistic experiments that you’ll be familiar with—The Society for Humanistic Judaism, Unitarian Universalism, Sunday Assembly. But there’s also an intriguing trend going on in American Christianity, right under our noses. Call it the de-denominationalizing of religion. As the people in the pews are showing less interest in doctrines and denominations, some of the most successful churches in the country are quietly slipping sideways out of their denominational labels. It’s no coincidence that the biggest megachurches now have names like North Point Community Church, Saddleback Church, and Lakewood Church, and that crosses and other religious symbols in their logos and in their sanctuaries have been replaced by compasses, lamps, and globes.
So, when we ask whether humanism is ready to pick up the torch from religion, it’s not quite the right question. Instead, we should be ready for churches coming up the other side toward us. In giving and community and a dozen other ways, the next stage is likely to be a merging of religious and nonreligious energy.
Why Are Giving and Community Especially Urgent Now?
In the next two generations it’s reasonable to expect that the world will be turned upside down by climate change. Between the disruption of ecosystems and the decimation of cropland and the rendering of a lot of habitable land inhabitable, there will be a humanitarian crisis beyond anything we’ve seen or imagined, including the displacement of hundreds of millions of people and the potential breakdown of social order. It’s going to be a test of our humanity to see if the haves will clutch their resources to their own chests or see the relief of suffering on an unimaginable scale as part of their own responsibility as humans.
And all of this will happen right after one of the main engines of philanthropy for one of the richest countries in the world has fallen apart.
I’m less worried about Europe stepping up. They have that collective giving model already in place. That’s why several European countries consistently top the list of the most generous in foreign aid. But the US system is more individually driven, including donations made through religious organizations. When push comes to shove, as it certainly will, I’d like to know that we’re up to the challenge—that we’ve created meaningful post-religious communities that will respond to what’s coming with the overwhelming generosity that is the best of humanism.
Our tangible, graspable, smaller communities can bring us together and organize and connect us. Then it’s our humanism, our commitment to the principle of mutual care and responsibility, that can motivate us to relieve the suffering that’s on its way, even when it’s on the other side of the planet.