Earlier this year, a Gallup poll showed that, for the first time in eight decades, less than half of American adults belong to a church, synagogue or mosque. The phrase “losing our religion” has become an American mantra.
Coincidentally, I spent the last week traveling the country promoting a new novel that imagines what would happen if a lifeboat filled with castaways discovered a man in the ocean who claimed to be God. Even though they have cried out for help, without food or water, the passengers are still skeptical – sometimes even mocking – when the stranger says he can save them if they all believe he is telling the truth.
There is a cynicism towards the faith that has been growing for decades. Most priests, pastors, rabbis, and imams will tell you that drawing worshipers is a growing struggle.
But a closer look at the Gallup results is illuminating. Between 1937 (when they started doing the poll) and 1999, the number of Americans belonging to a place of worship fluctuated only slightly, from 73% to 70%.
Yet, since the turn of this century, that number has fallen to 47%.
So what has happened over the past 20 years to reduce church attendance so dramatically? It should be obvious. The Internet. Social media. People who live, breathe – and express their belief systems – in the digital world.
Who needs a church? You can tweet an opinion and instantly get an amen chorus. You don’t even have to change your pajamas, let alone put on your Sunday best.
Preach our own sermons
Scientists have already noted this trend. A study by the Olin College of Engineering found that the rise of the Internet correlated with the decline in religious affiliation. A 2017 Scientific American article predicted that “Nones” – people who do not identify with any religion – were growing steadily and would overtake Catholics in the United States by 2020.
Some are now predicting that within 10 years there will be more Nuns than any religious affiliation in this country.
Yet despite this continued decline in belief, there has been no corresponding decline in opinion. On the contrary. It’s like feeling Everybody everyone has a point of view to point out. Everyone has a blame to assign.
Calling the devil was once the work of fiery clergymen. But today, behind our keyboards and our two-inch iPhone grasp, we have a pulpit to attack those with different values. We deliver our own sermons. Politics has become our religion. Identity has become our dogma.
We haven’t stopped believing in things. Oh no. We believe in things more ardently than ever. So much so that we demonize those who differ from us. We shame people for every mistake. We cancel people like churches once excommunicated sinners. We howl in outrage at anyone who disagrees about race, gender, vaccines or how we educate our children.
Most of the time, this is done through social media or television. We preach. We are scolding.
We reject religion, but we are doing more righteousness than ever.
What happens when the power goes out?
But there is a big difference between self-righteous and righteous. The latter does the right thing when no one is looking. The first one says you’re right when everyone else is watching.
The seduction – and the danger – of the Internet is the power it offers to our own justice. You virtue-posture, you get immediate gratification. You belittle someone because they are not enlightened, you get a thousand “likes”. You offer “thoughts and prayers” with a few keystrokes, and little hearts appear, confirming your kindness.
But beware: all of these things are self-centered. They only concern us. Higher horsepower never enters the equation. But the concept of something bigger than ourselves is at the heart of most religions. A divine force that rules the universe.
In the religion of social media, the Internet IS the universe. And the goal is to be there as much as possible.
It is no coincidence that the largest percentage of those who claim no religious affiliation today are young people. Or that their heroes, the icons of technology, give little credit to a higher power. These people exist in a community of flat screens. Attendance is virtual. There are no prayers or hymns, no handshake at the end of a service or wish a neighbor for peace.
God does not fit in an iPhone. But I can attest to this, being much closer to the end of my life than the beginning, and having seen so many people leave this earth, than in our most terrible times, in operating theaters, buildings on fire or flying bullet echoes, the digital community offers no solace, and our policy offers no protection. Who are we crying for help then? Twitter?
At some point we all have to decide whether the search for answers ends with us or overtakes us. I called the book I wrote âThe Stranger in the Lifeboatâ because for many passengers the idea of ââdivine power is strange and difficult to accept. In the end, some of them change their mind.
It’s in a novel. In the real world, I wonder how long that will even be a question.
Contact Mitch Albom: [email protected] Find the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast every Monday and Thursday on demand via Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on twitter @mitchalbom.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Mitch Albom: Losing our religion – and replace it with social media