An emerging religious question: Will the faithful return?

A Gallup Poll in late March 2021 indicated that fewer than half of the adults in the United States—47 percent—now claim membership in a church, synagogue, or mosque.
By Michael R. Malone

A Gallup Poll in late March 2021 indicated that fewer than half of the adults in the United States—47 percent—now claim membership in a church, synagogue, or mosque.

An emerging religious question: Will the faithful return?

By Michael R. Malone
With houses of worship reopening their doors after more than a year of disruption, University of Miami professors of religious studies explore the trends influencing whether the faithful and those hungering for connection will return to in-person attendance.

Faced with a devastating pandemic and restrictive gathering orders, houses of worship across the country shifted gears, moving to online worship platforms, virtual meetings, podcasts, and a litany of innovative ways to spread the word and remain connected with their congregations.

Yet even prior to the pandemic, membership to institutionalized religions had been trending downward for decades. A Gallup Poll in late March 2021 indicated that fewer than half of the adults in the United States—47 percent—now claim membership in a church, synagogue, or mosque. The percentage is the lowest since the poll began more than 80 years ago.

A range of societal trends indicate that faith-based organizations will be challenged to reverse this trend, according to David Kling, professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Miami, and Nebil Husayn, an assistant professor in the department since 2016.  

“One would think that in times of trouble and social dislocation all people would turn to religion, but ironically they don’t,” said Kling. He referenced a paper he wrote on the impact of the Great Depression on religious attendance which documented a movement away from, not toward, organized religious affiliation.

Kling observed a similar separation in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which caused extreme devastation and dislocation in South Florida.

“Dislocation was so severe that people had more on their minds than religion with the circumstances that they were facing,” he said. “While many outside religious groups came to the aid of hurricane victims, the dislocation was so severe that normal religious habits were thrown off-kilter. People had more on their minds than religion with the circumstances that they were facing.”

The impact of the current pandemic on religious affiliation is yet to be determined clearly, according to Kling, a specialist in U. S. religious history.

“Some churches, synagogues, and mosques have used this as an opportunity,” Kling said. “Podcasts by some religious figures have generated thousands and even millions of followers, and in some cases those podcasts lead people back to institutionalized forms of religion. But whether that means back to attending in person, it’s not clear.”

Husayn, whose new book “Opposing the Imam” ranks at the top of new releases for the categories of Middle Eastern history, religious studies, and Islam, will be teaching the course “Problem of God” for the first time next fall. In courses such as this one, he has observed that students are especially interested in grappling with the conundrums that religious questions pose.  

The pandemic, he suggested, has led to a round of soul-searching for those who deeply ponder these questions of faith. 

“If you’ve lost a loved one or faced challenges that are unforeseen and catastrophic, the perennial questions that arise are often those that have been asked for millennia and found in classical literature such as ‘The Odyssey’: Why do bad things happen to good people? How can tragedy strike innocent people in such awful ways? And what is the role of God or is there divine purpose in this?” he said.

“These types of questions can be asked when we think of our experience with COVID-19. Paradoxes related to questions of theodicy are accentuated when we’re going through a great tragedy or challenge like this,” he added.

Regarding the drift away from institutionalized religions, Husayn suggested that social media and globalization, the rise of the intelligentsia—the highly educated who embrace a non-theistic worldview—and an increase in fandom or celebrity worship may be contributing factors.

“What in the past might have been a one-off example of hypocrisy or criminal activity of a religious figure—such as preaching prosperity theology and using church donations to purchase multimillion-dollar homes or a jumbo jet—now, with the interconnectivity of social media, may be seen as a larger pattern and viewed more negatively,” he said.

Husayn pointed out that prior to the 19th and 20th centuries “there wasn’t a complete and elegant alternative theory to theism” or for questions of human existence without an intelligent designer.

Yet it is quite plausible today, with the discovery of DNA and other scientific evidence of natural selection, to have an alternative understanding of the origins of humans and a non-theistic view of the world, he said.

“When a natural disaster occurs, it’s a consequence of natural phenomena, nothing more,” he said, referencing the demographic of critical thinkers who embrace a non-theistic worldview. “There’s no meaning required for an earthquake, beyond plate tectonics—it’s how the world functions and develops—and there’s nothing to rationalize on the part of how God can allow genocides to occur when one begins with the assumption that there is no deity watching such events.”

Husayn highlighted the 2018 documentary “American Meme” that explores the obsession with fandom and celebrity worship—cultural trends that vie with religious organizations to provide community and social connections.

“What does it mean to ‘follow’ a celebrity?” he asked. “People wake up in the morning and the first thing they care about is what that celebrity, that idol, is doing.”

He contrasted this practice with ancient religions, where people might begin their day thinking first about Christ or how they might best follow the prophet Mohammed or some other religious figure.

“One can say that this is a new type of religion or a trend that provides that space that religion used to provide, he said. “Young people are enthralled by these celebrities or by charismatic figures and look up to them with awe and envy and view them on social media as setting a standard for wealth, fitness, and body type. This public presentation of an idealized standard for beauty and strength is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s portrayal of Jesus with the features of Hercules in the Sistine Chapel.”

The cult of idealizing personalities, he added, can be turned toward celebrities or toward oneself, exemplified by someone who might spend hours trying to get the right photograph for a social media post.

“Maybe there’s narcissism in this ritual, a worship of self, which is something that religion advised against,” he said. “Previously this [worship] was directed toward God or religious people who were viewed as having a close relationship with God.”  

Kling emphasized that the evolution of religious affiliation in the United States has historically moved up and down, certainly not a straight line.

“The irony is that many think the U.S. was religious at its very founding, yet church membership declined considerably between 1700 and 1780, indicating a pretty irreligious country at its national birth. Membership grew persistently from the late-18th century to the mid-20th century, reaching its zenith in 1960, he explained.

With the end of World War II, the onset of the Cold War and the Communist Red Scare and the attraction of suburbs, U.S. families flocked to churches and synagogues.

“These new faithful sought some sense of normalcy in the wake of the devastation of the war and being a ‘good American’ meant for many, at least in part, to distance themselves from ‘godless Communism’ by attending church or synagogue,” Kling explained.

He noted that despite the downward trend of most organized faith-based organizations, membership to Evangelical groups has remained steady.

“Conservative Protestants and particularly Evangelicals have always been attuned to technological changes in order to get the message across,” said Kling. “Whether it’s the big tent revival meetings of the 19th century or radio and television in the 1950s or other platforms that have occurred since the 1970s, they have been absolutely wedded to the various forms of technology in order to communicate to others.”

During the pandemic, those churches that have gone virtual and expanded their platform see themselves as not going back to in-person services completely, Kling suggested. They have used new technologies to reach beyond their local congregation, and some now have followings around the world.

Yet, he emphasized that people pursue religious affiliation not just because of the core message, but often equally because of the social or communal nature of the gathering.

“If you’re isolated and watching a worship service from the comfort of your home, you’ll get the religious message, but you’re not going to get that social action,” Kling pointed out.  

“So, the result of COVID-19 and the shift to virtual forms of religious expression is still to be determined—it can cut both ways,” Kling said.