American Religion and the Loss of Community

What is the future of religion in America? That depends on the twenty-somethings and the thirty-somethings of today.

Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist at Princeton University, has sifted through a complex tangle of data about the religious outlook of Americans between the ages of 21 and 45. In his book After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion, Wuthnow shares his findings about this generation’s perspective on organized religion, worship, the plurality of faiths, the intersection of faith and politics, and the nature of spirituality.

This book presents the case that the 20s and 30s are experiencing a unique form of social isolation. It’s tied, in part, to their tendency to postpone marriage. This influences their relationship to faith and traditional faith communities. But more important, I think, is the disaffection this generation feels in relation to the structured faith of their fathers and mothers.

This generation is no different than any other in its need to experience social integration and cohesion. But the opportunities for authentic participation in community have shifted. Old frameworks are disappearing and new structures are taking their place. Youth programs at traditional churches are still “youth programs”—that is, they enjoin young adults to participate on terms that might have been effective a generation ago but seem to be slipping today. More and more social networking is happening through computers and tools like MySpace, FaceBook, and LinkedIn.

Genuine interpersonal contact relates the souls of persons to each other. But our techno-world literally short circuits the spiritual dimension of soul-to-soul relationship. The result is a kind of spiritual exhaustion that comes, not from over-use, but from atrophy.

The religious life is a communal life. As the nature of community is reconfigured, religious belief and practice is bound to be ordered along a dramatically different trajectory.

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