Religions seem to know a great deal about our loneliness. Even if we believe very little of what they tell us about the afterlife or the supernatural origins of their doctrines, we can nevertheless admire their understanding of what separates us from strangers and their attempts to melt away one or two of the prejudices that normally prevent us from building connections with others.
There are those who would quibble with de Botton's notion that churches bring together people of different backgrounds, but his idea that churches create community "even if we believe very little of what they tell us about the afterlife" is something that many Americans can get behind. When I report on religion, I often interview what I'd call "true believers," who probably wouldn't be thrilled by such a formulation. But the interfaith couples often embrace it wholeheartedly. They want their children to grow up feeling part of a community. So even if they don't fully believe in the church of their spouse or their own church (whatever they've decided to raise the kids in) they make a concerted effort to belong and to participate. Some of those who do this tell me that though they can't get behind a particular church's theology, they are deeply grateful to the religious community for helping them to raise their children.
This apparently accounts in part for the results of a recent study by Elaine Howard Ecklund at Rice University. In a piece for the Huffington Post recently, she wrote:
I surveyed nearly 1,700 natural and social scientists at elite American universities, and approximately half expressed some form of religious identity, whereas the other half did not. Then I interviewed a scientifically selected sample of 275 of these scientists, to ask them how they feel about religion. I found that nearly one in five (17 percent) of those who are atheists and parents are part of a religious congregation and have attended a religious service more than once in the past year....
Their reasons include: • Scientific identity - Study participants wish to expose their children to all sources of knowledge (including religion) and allow them to make their own, informed choices about a religious identity. • Spousal influence - Study participants are involved in a religious institution because of influence from their spouse or partner. • Desire for community - Study participants want a sense of community (moral or otherwise), even if they do not personally hold religious beliefs.
Beyond the community aspect of faith, many of the people I speak with (from across the religious spectrum) also feel in the current climate that they have to defend their attachment to faith. Maybe this is a natural reaction when speaking to a reporter. Or maybe it's a natural reaction to living in a more skeptical time, but at times I have wanted to assure my interlocutors that I don't think there's anything wrong with their going to church. I recently spoke with a Catholic doctor married to an atheist who grew up Jewish. She assured me over and over that she found Catholic theology impossible to believe or square with anything she knew to be rationally true. But still she longed to go to Mass with her children--she finds something moving in the Mass, something comforting, something spiritual that she is missing from other parts of her life. Her husband is pretty hostile to organized religion and would never allow it. And his hostility has presumably led to some of her defensiveness.
I think the kind of detachment that modern life creates between us and our respective faiths -- since religion is more of a choice now we need to spend more time thinking about the choice we've made, even if we were born into it -- has also led people to look with a kind of critical eye at what other faiths can offer. I was recently speaking with a Catholic friend who has suffered a deep loss and she was admiring the Jewish mourning rituals, saying that she wished her faith had something similar. I don't think she's about to convert, but maybe sitting shivah and saying Kaddish can make it in to a "religion for everyone."