The great unbundling: Will organized religion go the same way as cable TV?

What could religion learn from cable television? A surprising amount, seeing as the younger generations are turning away from both in huge numbers.

Paul McCartney once wrote, "Father McKenzie is writing the words to a sermon that no one will hear," and that sentiment is coming true. With a few exceptions, church and synagogue attendance in the U.S. has been declining at an “alarming” rate. Empty pews are upending the traditional congregational bricks and mortar business model, even posing an existential threat for many of our religious institutions. According to Harvard professor Robert Putnam, we are living through the greatest social transformation in American history: “The disaffiliation and de-institutionalizing of the American parishioner.” The forces of disruption are weighing heavily upon the religion industry in America. 

Alarming? Existential threat? Certainly, if you are the head of a congregation or a regular attendee at worship services. But according to Pew Research, the fastest growing religious demographic in America is “None.” That’s None, not Nun. If you are one of the Nones—people with no affiliation (or disaffiliation) with a religious institution—this may well be a liberating experience. Not affiliated or disaffiliated does not necessarily mean that Nones have no religious or spiritual needs and yearnings. The Nones are taking matters into their own hands as they seek to fulfill their unmet needs through innovations in the religious and spiritual domains.

There is a duality to Putnam’s cautionary tale. Do the current dynamics represent a crisis or a golden opportunity? It’s enlightening to view this institutional disaffiliation through the lens of the highly problematic cord-cutting that still plagues the Pay TV industry. Cord-cutting does not mean these viewers, particularly the younger demos, aren’t consuming their favorite content. They are consuming it in different ways and on different screens.   

For the Nones, this very well might be less a matter of whether they are abandoning their religious and spiritual needs and yearnings, and more a matter of existing resources just not getting the job done. Perhaps this demographic is just looking for new religious products and services that are simpler, cheaper and more accessible or a repurposing of the existing portfolios. Like attendance, our attention spans are also on the decline. Those of you familiar with Clayton M. Christensen’s framework of disruptive innovation theory might recognize the language. Better prepare yourselves for disruptive spiritual innovation on a grand scale.

An abandoned church. (Credit: Flickr user Rennet Stowe)

Economics 101

It is estimated that an additional 7,000-10,000 houses of worship will close this year for the tenth year in a row. Vacant churches are now becoming weed-infested distressed properties. Some have been converted into chic apartments, nightclubs, and indoor skateboarding parks—hardly scalable solutions. As attendance dwindles, our incumbent religious leaders are facing the music. Unfavorable demographics and changing consumer behavior up the ante for sheer survival as religion is increasingly becoming a hit-driven business model with only tent-pole holidays—Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and a small handful of others—that sell out. The rest of the calendar is full of empty seats; low utilization rates result in many churches permanently operating well below break-even with few solutions on the horizon. 

So, what’s gone wrong? One explanation is the current portfolios of religious products and services just aren’t getting the job done for more and more Americans.  It might be wise for the incumbent religious institutions to look at two unexpected phenomena that shook up the pay-TV and music industries: cord cutting and unbundling, respectively. 

Cut cords. (Credit: Flickr user Scott Swigart)

The great unbundling

Last year, 20-plus million American consumers disconnected their expensive cable and satellite services. This ongoing trend of cord-cutters, coupled with an additional 20 million cord-nevers, has shaken the industry to the core. The pay-TV cable and satellite customer gets almost 200 channels, yet they only watch on average 18 or so—but they have been paying for the other 90% they don’t watch. And why did pay TV charge so much? Because they could. Through bundling, which severely limited the options for the consumer. That is... until now. The once-dominant HBO is now being challenged by Netflix and Amazon.  

Similarly, the major music labels suffered greatly from the advent of the MP3 file which they dismissed as unviable. They believed the sound quality was unacceptable to the consumer.  Napster quickly established the MP3 proof of concept but was deemed to violate copyright laws, was deemed illegal and quickly failed—but not before attracting the attention of Steve Jobs whose epic vision for the iTunes and iPhone juggernaut was the coup de grace for the music industry’s business model. Music downloads and subscription streaming services have fundamentally changed the entire business model for the music industry. For the music and cable industries, the raft of technological innovations, management missteps and unanticipated changes in consumer behavior caught the incumbents off guard. And Apple controls 70% of the digital download music business with the streamers, Spotify and Pandora, growing rapidly. 

But it was Jobs' brute force that led to the unbundling of the standard album that was once the mainstay of the industry; now consumers could buy the one or two singles they really wanted for 99 cents rather than having to buy the entire album for $17.99. Another force at hand was consumers could now become creators using software and relatively inexpensive equipment in home studios. Remixes and mashups were commonplace. Discovery of new artists started to displace the stranglehold of the Top 20 gatekeepers and the A&R mavens at the labels; these days, everyone is a curator and hot playlists create a new form of status, and Scooter Braun discovered Justin Bieber, one of the biggest artists of the 21st century (like it or not) on YouTube. The cable industry found that their once-untouchable bundles, much like albums, could also be dissembled. VOD, a-la-carte, and skinny bundles, when coupled with cord cutting, are posing a real threat to their once-stable business models. 

A pastor, pastoring. (Credit: Björn Eichenauer, Creative Commons)

Could this happen with religion?

At first blush, innovation in religion might seem counter-intuitive or even oxymoronic. Yet over the millennia, religion, writ large, had developed a powerful set of accountability technologies (think heaven and hell) and a robust set of moral apps (the Ten Commandments, Christmas, rosary beads, the Sabbath, last rites, Gregorian chants)—products and services that were supposed to get a job done. But over time the traditional products and services embedded in the rituals, dogma and creed became too inaccessible, too complicated and lost sight of the fundamental task or goal to be accomplished. These products and services were no longer particularly useful for increasingly large numbers of people and have almost completely lost their grip on Gen Y and Z.

The cable and music industries can offer some valuable lessons for our traditional religious institutions. They too are facing cord-cutting (at least figuratively speaking) and the unbundling phenomena. Today any religious practice, text or piece of wisdom can now also be mixed, mashed up, shared on social media—unbundled with great ease with no intermediaries or authorities involved. Linear religious programming, i.e. services on Sunday at 10:00 a.m., is being supplanted by non-linear consumption in both time and space. Can binge-watching be far behind?

This unbundling by the consumer, and the ensuing mash-ups that cross religious and spiritual boundaries, is becoming commonplace. The disaffected customer seeking spiritual nourishment is increasingly taking matters into their own hands, becoming curators and creators in the religious spheres as well becoming religious and spiritual DJs. New spiritual ecosystems are starting to emerge as new business models are being formulated in real time. While the iPhone may have already become a sacred object, one can easily foresee an iTunes model for religion and spirituality. The gig economy now also applies to the religious sole practitioners, be they rabbis, priests, scientists, artists or new age shamans. 

A new breed of religious leaders will need to re-engineer their skill sets, cultivate new communities and re-imagine the sacred practices and spaces. But the consumers’ new-found power that comes with curation, personalization, and customization comes with a new level of responsibility and accountability to assure that they understand the job to be done: building community and helping people flourish. If these new products and services are good enough to get the job done then disruption and, in many cases, a decimation of the religious incumbents will not be far behind. The incumbents must learn to disrupt themselves—a very tall order—or be disrupted by a rabbi and priest in a garage.

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One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or genocide? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured and dead mounts.

The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion, (Slovic 2007).¹ The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."²

That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"³

The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number⁴, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

Some back story

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.


Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

A Dunbar Correlation

Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense.

"One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous.

"All this is set out in various articles and books. The two most obvious are: Dunbar (2016) Human Evolution. Oxford University Press (and) Dunbar (2014). The social brain: psychological underpinnings and implications for the structure of organizations. Current Directions in Psychological Research 24: 109-114."

I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time—investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

Friendship, kinship and limitations

"We devote around 40% of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60% in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145." ⁵

These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three—which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

Emotional regulation

In a paper,⁶ C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."⁶

This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

Gray matter matters

One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network (Powell et all., 2012)"

It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

Rabbit holes

There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."⁸

(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

In the end

Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.

¹ Psychic Numbing and Genocide, Slovic, 2007

² The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science, 2017

³ The More Who Die, the Less We Care: Psychic Numbing and Genocide

⁴ Dunbar's Number

⁵ The Social Brain: Psychological Underpinnings and Implications for the Structure of Organizations

⁶Escaping affect: how motivated emotion regulation creates insensitivity to mass suffering. (Cameron, Payne 2011)

⁷ Stanford paper: "Empathy for the social suffering of friends and strangers recruits distinct patterns of brain activation"

European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood,+which+could+raise+compassion+amongst+the+viewers,+and+which+prevail+on+New+at+Ten&source=bl&ots=HgZpkKc-u5&sig=ACfU3U31FtWtYZby8QD9XQWR_8qMIHgnzA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj8ndu05dngAhXwnuAKHVFcDHcQ6AEwAHoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=%E2%80%9CTechniques%2C%20which%20could%20raise%20compassion%20amongst%20the%20viewers%2C%20and%20which%20prevail%20on%20New%20at%20Ten&f=false

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