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Religion offered us social capital. Atheism needs to catch up.
One of the tangible benefits of religion is the community it can foster. What happens when those social connections start to decay?
We’ve talked before about the rising number of non-religious people in the United States and around the world. While a lot of the discussion focuses on issues of death, morality, and existential dread, there are more mundane issues that come along with demographic shifts. Chief among such matters are the changes that result when one of the most popular activities for people to do once a week is abandoned.
For many people, their place of worship is not only a gathering for religious affairs but also for social ones. Between the chance to talk to the neighbors, social activities, and after-church coffee, religion can offer us community alongside spirituality. Even if the idea of fewer people going to church doesn’t strike you as a bad thing, decreased social engagement as a result of it can still be a bother.
Are there social consequences when people stop going to church?
In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam examined the effects of decreased social engagement across American society. Among the statistics he considered was a decline in church attendance and the impact it has on our social capital and society at large.
For those who don’t know, social capital is academically defined as a “collective resource that exists in social relationships which can be used towards a variety of individual and collective goals.” More practically, social capital is a way of viewing connections, friendships, and involvement in organizations that allow for group action as an aggregate. Our level of engagement directly influences the amount we have and more is almost objectively better.
While his book, written before the recent surge in the number of non-religious people, examined the effects of fewer people being engaged in civic organizations of all kinds, his chapter on the decline in religious participation is of interest to us here. He notes that people who are church members have higher levels of civic engagement than non-members. He rattles off some statistics on the subject with an eye towards the benefits of institutions.
“About 75-80 percent of church members give to charity, as compared with 55-60 percent of nonmembers, and 50-60 percent of church members volunteer, while only 30-35 percent of nonmembers do. In part, of course, this is because churches themselves do things that require funds and volunteers.”
He also notes that:
“Religiosity rivals education as a powerful correlate of most forms of civic engagement. In fact, religiously involved people seem simply to know more people.”
Worshippers at Sunday Mass. It makes sense that people who spend a great deal of time together each week would get to know one another and that they might have more social capital than people who don't do a comparable activity. (Getty Images)
He posits that regular churchgoers benefit from the institution of religion in having access to more social capital than non-members. While he says nothing about the benefits of being religious, he does point out the benefits that being an active member of a religious organization can bring to both the individual and their community.
More recent studies have endorsed his claims, although they suggest that non-religious persons are starting to catch up to their faithful peers in terms of social capital. However, the entire area of “religious social capital” is still out of reach for non-believers, limiting not only how much they can get, but who they can accumulate it with.
Pensioners enjoying coffee. The social aspect of religion is one that is often overlooked in discussions about the rise of atheism. While it is possible to have community without religion, one cannot deny the importance that it has in the production of social capital. (Getty Images)
What’s the problem with less social capital?
A decline in social capital can have a lot of adverse side effects. A lack of social capital can be bad for your health, is associated with higher crime rates, and leads to lower levels of academic achievement. It has been speculated for decades that a decline in social capital will also lead to a decline in the health of our liberal democratic societies, though this is still a controversial stance that is difficult to prove. As fewer people attend church services, a large source of social capital in our society begins to fade away.
Is this just because of more atheists?
Don’t go around blaming atheists for the fall of civilization.
It is important to mention that even the religious are going to church less often than in years past. This phenomenon has been going on for decades, as successive generations have been less religious than their parents. Non-religious people aren’t the only ones responsible for the decline in church attendance. It seems like getting up early on Sunday is difficult for everyone.
Is there any quick fix other than an inquisition?
There is no fundamental reason why the rising number of non-religious Americans couldn’t be engaged in something else. The hours that would otherwise have been spent in church could as easily be spent elsewhere. For example, this author is an atheist who is involved in several social groups, just not religious ones.
While this secular engagement has yet to materialize on a scale large enough to replace organized religion, it may merely be a matter of time. There are, for instance, humanist centers in many major cities that offer the same social connections, community, and weekly services as religious organizations. The problem is getting people to go. Even prisons are recognizing humanism as a faith group, allowing inmates outside of organized religion to meet and discuss their values.
As old connections and social institutions fade away, new ones arise. Many people today play video games socially, creating new relationships that were impossible to imagine in the middle of the 20th century. Just because religious centers have been bedrocks of American social life for the last 200 years doesn’t mean they will, or must, remain so. Their decline does not necessitate the end of a functioning society.
As time goes on and demographics and tastes change, the activities and institutions which drew people together in days gone by no longer have the same power in the modern world. While the morality of those changes is another subject, the social cost is one that can be measured. Will the new atheists rise to the challenge of providing the community that religion once provided? Or are we doomed to social decay and fragmentation?
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The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.
- In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
- The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
- The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
Gender and sexual minority populations are experiencing rising anxiety and depression rates during the pandemic.
- Anxiety and depression rates are spiking in the LGBTQ+ community, and especially in individuals who hadn't struggled with those issues in the past.
- Overall, depression increased by an average PHQ-9 score of 1.21 and anxiety increased by an average GAD-7 score of 3.11.
- The researchers recommended that health care providers check in with LGBTQ+ patients about stress and screen for mood and anxiety disorders—even among those with no prior history of anxiety or depression.
Study findings<p>For the study, <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-05970-4" target="_blank">published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine</a><em>, </em>Flentje and her team evaluated survey responses from nearly 2,300 individuals who identified as being in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) community. Most of the participants were white, while nearly 19 percent identified as a racial or ethnic minority. Multiple genders were represented with cisgender women (27.2 percent) and men (24.6 percent) making up a majority of the participants. Sixty-three percent had been assigned female at birth. For the most part, participants identified their sexual orientations as queer (40.3 percent), gay (36.5 percent), and bisexual (30.3 percent).</p><p>The JGIM study participants were recruited from the 18,000-participant <a href="https://pridestudy.org/" target="_blank">PRIDE Study</a> (Population Research in Identity and Disparities for Equality), which is the first large-scale, long-term national study focusing on American adults who identify as LGBTQ+. It conducts annual questionnaires to understand factors related to health and disease in this population. </p><p>Participants filled out an annual questionnaire (starting in June 2019) and a COVID-19 impact survey this past spring. Flentje noted that on an individual level, some people may not have experienced a big change in anxiety or depression levels, but for others there was. Overall, depression increased by a <a href="https://patient.info/doctor/patient-health-questionnaire-phq-9" target="_blank">PHQ-9 score</a> of 1.21, putting it at 8.31 on average. Anxiety went up by a <a href="https://www.mdcalc.com/gad-7-general-anxiety-disorder-7" target="_blank">GAD-7</a> score of 3.11 to an average of 8.89. Interestingly, the average PHQ-9 scores for those who screened positive for depression at the first 2019 survey decreased by 1.08. Those who screened negative for depression saw their PHQ-9 scores increase by 2.17 on average. As for anxiety, researchers detected no GAD-7 change among the study participants who screened positive for anxiety in the first survey, but did see an overall increase of 3.93 among those who had initially been evaluated as negative for the disorder. </p>
Risks among gender and sexual minorities<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="fc3fd1ae68b77bbbf58a6995638d6d65"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/EnUqDjCqg0A?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>The LGBTQ+ community is a vulnerable population to mental health concerns because of their fear of stigmatization and previous discriminatory experiences.</p> <p>Previous research by the Human Rights Campaign has found "that LGBTQ Americans are more likely than the <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/tags/general+population/" target="_blank">general population</a> to live in poverty and lack access to adequate medical care, paid <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/tags/medical+leave/" target="_blank">medical leave</a>, and basic necessities during the pandemic," said researcher Tari Hanneman, director of the health and aging program at the campaign.</p> <p>"Therefore, it is not surprising to see this increase in anxiety and depression among this population," Hanneman said in the release. "This study highlights the need for <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/tags/health+care+professionals/" target="_blank">health care professionals</a> to support, affirm and provide <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/tags/critical+care/" target="_blank">critical care</a> for the LGBTQ community to manage and maintain their mental health, as well as their physical health, during this pandemic."</p>
What should health care providers do?<p>The authors of the study recommend that health care providers check in with LGBTQ+ patients about stress and screen for mood and anxiety disorders in members of that community—even among those with no prior history of anxiety or depression.</p><p>As cases of COVID-19 continue to mount, the sustained social distancing, potential isolation, economic precariousness, and personal illness, grief, and loss are bound to have increased and varied impacts on mental health. Effective treatments may include individual therapy and medications as well as more large-scale coronavirus support programs like peer-led groups and mindfulness practices. </p><p>"It will be important to find out what happens over time and to identify who is most at risk, so we can be sure to roll out public health interventions to support the mental health of our communities in the best and most effective ways," said Flentje.</p>
What we know about black holes is both fascinating and scary.
- When it comes to black holes, science simultaneously knows so much and so little, which is why they are so fascinating. Focusing on what we do know, this group of astronomers, educators, and physicists share some of the most incredible facts about the powerful and mysterious objects.
- A black hole is so massive that light (and anything else it swallows) can't escape, says Bill Nye. You can't see a black hole, theoretical physicists Michio Kaku and Christophe Galfard explain, because it is too dark. What you can see, however, is the distortion of light around it caused by its extreme gravity.
- Explaining one unsettling concept from astrophysics called spaghettification, astronomer Michelle Thaller says that "If you got close to a black hole there would be tides over your body that small that would rip you apart into basically a strand of spaghetti that would fall down the black hole."