Library Learnings

Library Learnings—part 1

“Almost everyone needs community to flourish”

Draw the circle wide…

There is afoot, Jessica Grose makes plain, a “major shift away from organized religion.” She hammers home the point: “…Americans [are] falling away from religion.” What’s more, this New York Times opinion writer adds, “This shift is ongoing, and gaining speed.” She turns to Michael Graham—he’s co-author of the new book, The Great Dechurching—who “summed it up this way: ‘I think the religious disaffiliation as a cultural phenomenon will continue.’”

That’s the last line in the last of a five-part, April-to-June series by this journalist and novelist that tells about Americans moving away from religion. “I started this series,” she reminds her readers, this in that final episode, “because I felt that the rise of ’nones’—Americans who say they have no formal religious affiliation—was one of the biggest…changes in society in the past half-century.” Those who followed her through to the finale would be hard pressed to say otherwise.

Grose references that book by Graham, et al: “‘We are currently in the middle of the largest and fastest religious shift in the history of our country,’ they postulate, because ‘about 15% of American adults living today—around 40 million people—have effectively stopped going to church, and most of this dechurching has happened in the past 25 years. […] No theological group, age group, ethnicity, political affiliation, education level, geographic location, or income bracket, escaped the dechurching….’” She adds, “[J]ust half a century ago, nearly all Americans had some kind of affiliation.”

Such a stampede for the exit begs the question, Why? Why are so many taking their leave? “It’s complicated, and multifaceted,” she acknowledges, “but to summarize, it’s largely a combination of Christianity’s association with far-right politics, and the fact that being unreligious has become more socially acceptable over time.”

This was evidenced when Grose invited feedback from her readers, and did she ever get it: “[O]ver 7,000 readers…responded to my initial call-out about becoming less religious….” She, in reading their feedback, was struck by “how much change some readers had gone through as they progressed through life.”

But she did more than read their submissions. “When I followed up with these readers, three trends emerged. Several had switched religious affiliation more than once—I’ll call them ’seekers’. Others had an abrupt break from church in their youth, after which they became atheists or agnostics—I’ll call them ’skeptics’. And there were others who drifted away from religion fairly late in life—I’ll call them ’slow faders,’ because their religious evolutions took time.”

It should be noted that “many said they did miss aspects of traditional attendance, and often these people still believed in God or certain aspects of their previous faith traditions. They’d sought replacements for traditional worship, and the most common were spending time in nature, meditation, or physical activity—basically anything that got them out of their own heads and the anxieties of the material world.”

But this is what they missed most: “the ready-made supportive community that churchgoers can access.” Grose pointed up one respondent, a young woman who’d moved away from “the religion of her upbringing”—she’d been home-schooled by fundamentalist Christians. “She still misses the community, she said, and hasn’t found something to satisfyingly replace what she has lost. ‘Most of my friends and family are still very religious, so it’s very isolating to know that they have a space they go to, without me.’”

Sure, there are a host of secular organizations to which “church alumni” [Bishop Jack Spong’s favourite descriptor of runaways] can and do turn, seeking community, “but they don’t provide the same kind of social fabric” that congregations at their best offer, Grose points out. Church, she adds, “really does wind up being one of the few places that people from different walks of life can interact with, and help one another.”

This is why she’d “like to see faith communities do a better job of including people” who could be considered outsiders, and not just create space “where those on track feel comfortable. […] Not because I think people need to be religious to live good lives—I don’t believe that—but because almost everyone needs community to flourish.

“I asked every sociologist I interviewed whether communities created around secular activities outside of houses of worship could give the same level of wraparound support that churches…are able to offer. Nearly across the board, the answer was no.” Such temporal organizations “can’t provide spiritual solace in the face of death,” she reports, nor is there apt to be a “sense of connection to a heritage that goes back generations.”

Nevertheless, this “doesn’t mean Americans can’t or don’t cobble together their own support networks, and senses of meaning, without organized religion; clearly, many do.” Indeed, Grose came to believe—this after talking to readers “searching for fresh answers to life’s eternal questions”—that “there is potential for new kinds of meaningful, lasting communities to be created in the coming years that [will] have nothing to do with organized religion as we know it. I’m eager to see what comes next, because I believe that out of this evolution, Americans can create something nurturing, that is also suited to modern life.”

Ken Fredrick

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Afterword: The making of “a good human”

Jessica Grose, who is Jewish, and still has “a strong cultural identity,” but who isn’t “observant,” tells the story of Marylander Jill Fioravanti, who has just such an identity. But she became “‘disillusioned,’” she told the writer, “‘when I could not find a rabbi who would conduct an interfaith marriage ceremony for me and my husband, who is Catholic.’” Some years later, when this couple had become parents, they wanted for themselves and their children “‘a religious, educational, and spiritual home.’”

Ultimately, they found the Interfaith Families Project. Based in the Washington, D.C. area. It “was founded in 1995 by four moms… The organization has a rabbi and a reverend, community gatherings, and a Sunday school where children learn about both Judaism and Christianity. …it offers a coming-of-age program in which kids do a two-year project, in 7th and 8th grade, wrestling with six big questions: Who am I? What does it mean to live a meaningful life? How do we build the beloved community? Why do bad things happen? Is there an afterlife? Who or what is God?”

Fioravanti, who now “leads the organization’s board, feels her kids are learning ‘core values and principles that make for a good human.’”


Library Learnings—part 2

“Helping to build a world of joyful belonging”

…draw it wider still.

What Jessica Grose yearns for at the conclusion of part 1 of this essay—“new kinds of meaningful, lasting communities” that “have nothing to do with organized religion”—a certain someone is championing; in fact, he’s making a career of calling forth and undergirding just such communities. Jessica Grose, meet Casper ter Kuile.

A person of many parts, hard to pin down, ter Kuile was profiled this summer in a Religious News Service dispatch, which told of his “spiritual entrepreneurship”: he “sees the changing faith landscape as an opportunity”; he sees “Americans’ migration away from traditional religion…[as] a chance to break new spiritual ground”. It is what “has compelled him to seek ways people can find belonging and community outside traditional houses of worship.”

He is, as puts it, “helping to build a world of joyful belonging.” When in July, in upper New York State, he was introduced at a Chautauqua Institution assembly, this was said of him: “His work explores how we’ll make meaning, deepen our relationships, and experience beauty in the 21st century.” In 2021, aSweatLife, which devoted a podcast to him, observed, “[H]e’s dedicated his professional life to rituals and community…. As ter Kuile puts it, he gets to think about community and religion all the time as a job, and how people can live lives of meaning, connection, and purpose.”

RNS reports that ter Kuile was born and raised in England, though he now lives in New York City. His “parents and his upbringing were distinctly Dutch, in language, ritual, and family traditions. His mother ran a B&B…, and, as a teenager, ter Kuile recalls meeting a diverse array of people, each with their own understanding of identity and community. The experience, he said, inspired a lifelong sensitivity in noticing others’ searches for belonging.”

In America, he attended Harvard, studying public policy, but found himself drawn to the university’s divinity school…even though he’d grown up “really without any religion,” as he told RNS. “‘I fell in love with it, when I realized it was actually a training ground for all the things that emerged from my life and skills—how to bring people together, how to make meaning, how to build deep relationships, how to sing together.” There, he “was introduced to the different ways many faith traditions asked the same universal questions…. At the heart of these, he found, was the search for belonging.”

There, too, he met Angie Thurston, a kindred spirit, and together they explored how those around them “defined and created belonging for themselves. They were startled to find that community could be found everywhere: at the gym, in a cancer support group, volunteering in a political campaign.” Unexpectedly—this is still RNS reporting—they found that “belonging seemed to arise less frequently among religious groups.” Could this be why parishioners aplenty are abandoning their churches?

“ter Kuile and Thurston turned their research into a groundbreaking paper, ‘How We Gather’” [see afterword], which examines “the new ways modern Americans, but particularly unaffiliated millennials, fulfill their spiritual and emotional needs.” The two affirm, “that something will fill the opening left by struggling faith institutions, and we wish for it to be a network of organizations that meet millennials with love, depth, and rigour.”

But they also express the wish that such organizations come to “encompass the spiritual dimensions of existence.” Traditional faith communities could be “valuable partners in this work” of achieving “an exciting cultural shift.” After all, they would “offer immeasurable spiritual wisdom for a changing world, and also know, better than anyone, how the world is changing.”

The duo has gone on to practice what they preach: they co-founded Sacred Design Lab, a “soul-centred research and development” endeavour which has them consult with organizations to, as Spirituality & Practice puts it, “create a culture of belonging and becoming.”

But the research and design consultancy is the tip of the iceberg: ter Kuile is the co-creator of two podcasts, “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,” and “The Real Question”; he has authored The Power of Ritual; and, most recently, he co-founded and serves as chief executive officer of The Nearness. This is, RNS explains, “an online community where people of all religions and non-religious backgrounds can nurture and define what spirituality looks like for them, outside of traditional religious institutions.”

And that could be sprawly. In his book about ritual, which is subtitled Turning Everyday Activities into Soulful Practices, ter Kuile writes, “[Y]ou already have a host of rituals we might call spiritual practices—even if you’d never use that language. Reading, walking, eating, resting, reflecting—these are legitimate and worthy of your attention and care, and they can be the foundation of a life of deep connection.”

After all, as he establishes in the book, even though churches are emptying, the hunger for community and meaning remains. “Nothing makes me happier,” he declares, “than learning from religious traditions to inspire new ways for us to live lives of greater connection, meaning, and depth.”

Ken Fredrick

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Afterword: “Changing the way we gather”

While shunning “institution[s] with religious creed as the threshold [for entry],” millennials “are decidedly looking for spirituality and community in combination, and feel they can’t lead a meaningful life without it,” Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston write in “How We Gather”. This is their “groundbreaking paper,” as Religion News Service labeled it.

“As traditional religion struggles to attract young people, millennials are looking elsewhere with increasing urgency. And in some cases, they are creating what they don’t find.” In doing so, they’re “changing the way we gather.” As the two report, they’re “flocking to a host of new organizations that deepen community in ways that are powerful, surprising, and perhaps even religious.”

In their paper, they, “to illustrate what’s happening,” point up 10 such organizations, though they’d have had dozens from which to choose, they reckon. “Each epitomizes a combination of the six themes that we see again and again: community, personal transformation, social transformation, purpose-finding, creativity, accountability.” These imports “best reveal the cultural DNA of these diverse initiatives.”

ter Kuile and Thurston picture organizations that mirror “many of the functions fulfilled by religious community. Examples include fellowship, personal reflection, pilgrimage, aesthetic discipline, liturgy, confession, and worship. Together, these groups encourage friendship, promote neighbourhood welfare, and spread messages for the betterment of individuals and society. …these organizations are making life more meaningful.”

“How We Gather” concludes with this profession: “The organizations we’ve identified, and many others like them, are innovators at the margins who can reimagine community for the 21st century.” [Find this “groundbreaking paper,” read it for yourself, learn about the 10 “innovators at the margins,” at]