I recently came upon a disturbing statistic. In 2020, for the first time ever, a majority of Americans do not belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque. From 1937 to 2000, the percentage of people who belonged to a religious institution hovered around 70%, but the number today stands at only 47%. For the rabbi of a synagogue, this trend is not good news, but what does it mean? Are people becoming less religious or less tied to organized religion?
I encountered this statistic in an article titled “Is a new kind of religion forming on the internet?” According to Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, “any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” The rule describes a phenomenon where news organizations try to hedge their bets. If the writer and editor were sure of their assertion, they would be able to state it as fact. In this case, however, it is hard to be definitive about a trend in formation. Maybe a new form of religious expression is taking root on the Internet, but we can’t be sure until it is already fully realized.
The article cites Gallup’s finding that affiliation in religious institutions has fallen 20 percentage points in 20 years, with no signs of abatement. The survey group found that much of the drop was the result of an increase in the number of people who express no religious belief, but there was also an increase in people who do believe in a religion but simply don’t belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque. Perhaps this trend may be tied to the Internet becoming a breeding ground for a new religion. As people abandon religious institutions, they search for spirituality in other places, which then allows those other places to become more attractive spiritually to draw away more religiously affiliated people.
According to the article, this new Internet religion is a mix of Christianity, New Age, non-Western spirituality, and conspiracy theories. As people try to make sense of the immense challenges facing humanity – pandemic disease, climate change, economic instability – they look not to facts, but to cosmic forces beyond human control. One example is the Astroworld concert tragedy that killed 10 people and injured hundreds of others. Rather than blame the organizers of the event, some have looked for satanic imagery at the concert to explain the human crush.
As humans we try to make meaning out of events that are scary and sad. Sometimes it is easier to tell a fanciful story than one based on the facts that might force us to confront uncomfortable truths. There is a fine line between religion, which calls upon us to believe in the unprovable, and conspiracy theories which offer an assurance that an explanation is attainable even if not all the evidence is available.
Sometimes religion is criticized because it offers easy answers. Karl Marx called it “the opium of the masses”, but I think that religion’s challenge today is that it is actually too hard. Joining a synagogue is expensive and involves a major time commitment. Jewish practice requires knowledge, study, and a willingness to make the effort to do the mitzvot. Finding spirituality through TikTok videos is free and so much easier, but is it as meaningful? For me, it is precisely the investment made in synagogue life that leads to the rewards of spirituality and community.