Insight: As the United States becomes less religious, is it also becoming more selfish?


Historically, religious Americans have been civically engaged. Through churches and other faith-based organizations, the faithful volunteer, engage in local and national civic organizations, and pursue political goals.

Today — notwithstanding the rise of a politically powerful religious right over the past 50 years — fewer Americans identify with formal religions. Gallup found that 47% of Americans reported being members of a church in 2020, up from 70% in the 1990s; almost a quarter of Americans have no religious affiliation.

Meanwhile, other kinds of meaningful practices are on the rise, from meditation and yoga to new secular rituals like “Godless” Sunday assemblies. Between 2012 and 2017, the percentage of American adults who meditated rose from 4.1% to 14.2%, according to a 2018 CDC report. The number who practiced yoga rose from 9.5% at 14.3%. Not everyone considers these practices “spiritual,” but many pursue them as an alternative to religious commitment.

Some critics wonder if this new focus on mindfulness and self-care is making Americans more self-centered. They suggest that religiously disengaged Americans channel their energies into themselves and their careers rather than into civic pursuits that can benefit the public.

As sociologists who study religion and public life, we wanted to answer this question. We used survey data to compare how these two groups of spiritual and religious Americans vote, volunteer, and otherwise engage in their communities.


Our research began with the hypothesis that the shift from organized religious practices to spiritual practices could have one of two effects on American society as a whole.

Spiritual practice could cause people to focus on more selfish or self-interested pursuits, such as their own personal development and career advancement, to the detriment of American society and democracy.

That’s the argument sociologist Carolyn Chen pursues in her new book “Work, Pray, Code,” about how Silicon Valley meditators are reinventing Buddhist practices as tools for productivity. As one employee described a company mindfulness program, it helped her “self-manage” and “not trip.” While these skills have made her happier and given her “the clarity needed to handle complex business issues,” Chen shows how they also teach employees to put work first, sacrificing other types. of social ties.

Bringing spiritual practice into the office can give workers deeper purpose and meaning, but Chen says it can have unintended consequences.

When workplaces meet the most personal needs of workers – providing not only meals and laundry, but also recreational activities, spiritual coaches and mindfulness sessions – skilled workers end up spending most of their time at work. They invest in the social capital of their business rather than building ties with neighbors, religious congregations and other civic groups. They are less likely to patronize local businesses.

Chen suggests that this disinvestment in the community can ultimately lead to cuts in public services and weaken democracy.

Alternatively, according to our research, spiritual practices can serve as a substitute for religion. This explanation may be especially true among Americans unhappy with the rightward drift that is now dividing many congregations, exacerbating cultural fissures around race, gender and sexual orientation.

“They liked to tell me that my sexuality doesn’t define me,” Christian Ethan Stalker, a 25-year-old former evangelical, told Religion News Service in 2021 when describing his former church. “But they shoved a handful of verses down my throat that completely sexualized me as a gay person and…rejected who I am as a complex human being. It was a huge problem for me.


To answer our research question on spirituality and civic engagement, we used a new nationally representative survey of Americans surveyed in 2020.

We examined the political behaviors of people who engaged in activities such as yoga, meditation, art practice, nature walking, prayer, and attending religious services. The political activities we measured included voting, volunteering, contacting representatives, protesting, and donating to political campaigns.

We then compared these behaviors, distinguishing between people who view these activities as spiritual and those who view the same activities as religious.

Our new study, published in the American Sociological Review, finds that spiritual practitioners are just as likely to engage in political activities as religious people.

After controlling for demographic factors such as age, race and gender, frequent spiritual practitioners were about 30% more likely than non-practitioners to report having done at least one political activity in the past year. Similarly, devout religious practitioners were also about 30% more likely to report any of these political behaviors than respondents who do not practice religion.

In other words, we have seen increased political engagement among religious and spiritual, compared to others.

Our findings reinforce similar findings made recently by another study on spiritual people and civic engagement.


The spiritual practitioners we identified seemed particularly likely to resent the rightward shift of some congregations in recent years. On average, Democrats, women, and people who identified as lesbian, gay, and bisexual reported more frequent spiritual practices.

We suspect these groups are engaging with American politics in innovative ways, such as through online groups and retreats that reimagine spiritual community and democratic engagement.

Our research recognizes progressive spiritual practitioners as a growing but largely unrecognized, underappreciated and misunderstood political force.

In his influential book “Bowling Alone,” Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam suggests that American religious disaffiliation is part of a larger trend of overall civic decline. Americans have disengaged for decades from all kinds of civic groups, from bowling leagues and unions to parent-teacher organizations.

Our study provides good reason to reassess what it means to be an “engaged citizen” in the 21st century. People can change what they do on a Sunday morning. Withdrawing from the church does not necessarily mean withdrawing from the political process.

This piece was first published by The conversationa non-profit organization that brings academic writing to a general audience.

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