Forget Right or Wrong

The Constitutional issues around a National Day of Prayer endorsed by the federal government are significant, and the political stakes are high (or hyped, depending on your perspective), but the controversy also reflects the continuing failure of mainline religions to grasp a dramatic cultural change in what constitutes religious or spiritual “practice.”

From Religion to “Something Else”

Two major studies released in the past two years—the Pew Religious Landscape Survey and the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS)—and several follow-up reports have tracked a rapid increase in the number of people who do not identify with any particular faith tradition. However, the so-called “Nones” have been shown in both studies to be moving not so much from belief to unbelief, as from institutionalized expressions of faith in community to all kinds of “something else.”

The “something else-ness,” if you will, of American faith practice is likewise tracked in a recent Pew study on religion among the millennial generation (those born after 1980). Here, researchers share the unsurprising finding that “young adults engage in a number of religious practices less often than do older Americans.” What they may mean to say is traditional religious practices: weekly attendance at religious services, weekly scripture reading, daily prayer, and weekly meditation. (My guess is as good as yours on the greater expected frequency of prayer in the survey.)

The Pew survey design is problematic—and this is where, on its own terms, the National Day of Prayer goes sideways as well—in that it misunderstands both the diversity of religious practice in contemporary American culture and the changing meaning of “practice” itself. Of course, we know that the pluralistic or even syncretistic, DIY nature of American religiosity allows for a range of practices that we could not reasonably expect researchers to either exhaustively catalogue or effectively measure. But there is significant data that invites at least an expansion of the categories within which we understand “religious practice”—from the more traditional practices noted in the Pew study, to organized and ad-hoc alternatives like Burning Man, to wholly idiosyncratic practices such as completing paint-by-number paintings of The Last Supper.

Feeding the Poor, Housing the Homeless

A 7-year study with nearly 15,000 undergraduates at 136 colleges and universities across the country by Alexander and Helena Astin of UCLA’s Center for Spirituality in Higher Education provides some clues to the shaping of contemporary American religious practice. The Astins’ work has shown that at least for young adults, religious practice is much more linked to acts of social compassion, charity, and spiritual seeking than to traditional religious practices like prayer. (This squares with findings of an earlier study by Anna Greenberg on religion in Generation Y.) In general, students participating in the Astins’ surveys showed a movement through the course of their undergraduate education toward a more holistic sense of spiritual practice less connected to traditional religious institutions, their liturgies, and other rituals. Feeding the poor, housing the homeless, tending the sick, and exploring other religious and philosophical traditions seem for the students in the Astins’ study to incarnate whatever we might think happens in the practice of prayer within the economy of lived experience.

We see in the Astins’ research the progressive formation of a generation of religious Nones—the fastest growing religious demographic in America. Indeed, the ARIS study shows that 18 to 29 year olds are 30% more likely to self-identify as a None than are adults in general. If the traditional practice of prayer in the context of traditional institutional religions is increasingly meaningless for a significant and growing proportion of American believers and seekers, one wonders what the spiritual or civic value is of attempting to encourage the practice through governmental fiat. It would seem that the Martin Luther King Jr. National Day of Service would already have engaged the spiritual and/or civic leanings of many Americans, including those religionists for whom traditional practices of prayer continue to have meaning and those secularists who, as Herb Silverman has suggested, might be more comfortable with a “National Day of Reason.”

Digital Religion is Something New

We must also consider the reshaping of religious practice at the active intersection of physical and digital communities. In 2004, the year Facebook was launched, some two-thirds of Americans “used the Internet for spiritual or religious purposes.” Though there are so far no post-Facebook measures of digital religious engagement, it is clear that social media sites have done more than increase the frequency with which Americans “use” the internet in the context of their faith lives. Digital social media have made it clear that the Internet is not a tool, but a place: a locale for religious seeking, expression, engagement, and other practices that are increasingly woven into the fabric of daily life by wireless technologies. Like other locales, social media sites on the World Wide Web contribute to personal and communal identity. My Facebook profile and overlapping communities of “friends” from my pre- or extra-digital life and those whom I have never met in person, as well as the various posts, tweets, discussions, resource sharing, and other interactions are as much a part of “who I am” as any other elements of my identity. We need not assume that the practices that emerge from digitally-integrated contemporary culture are merely automated versions of traditional religious practices.

When I post a note on the online Wailing Wall site, am I praying? Is the practice of prayer complete when I finish writing and hit “send,” or when a student in Jerusalem prints out my prayer and places it on in the wall? When I make a contribution to the organization that sponsors the site? Is my religious practice anchored to my prayerful intention, to the prayerful service of the student who carries my prayer to the Wailing Wall, or is it located somewhere in the imagined and real relationship I have with this Other and in the traditions and physical geographies to which we are both, in ways known and unknown to each other, referring? How is the spiritual meaning of all of this impacted by the financial appeal on the site? How is the practice changed when I “like” the site for the benefit of my Facebook friends or tweet about it on Twitter? Suppose my Twitter feed is integrated into a virtual and/or physical religious service (as I will do in a global, ecumenical, tweeted Pentecost “prayer” service in a couple weeks). What exactly is my practice then?

National Day of Butter Churning?

It is not a remarkable feat of insight to suggest that whatever we come to call this category of practice, it will soon constitute a dominant aspect of religious practice in a world in which the bulk of kids’ time in and out of school is spent online and adults average about two hours a day online. Surely, petition, thanksgiving, intersession, and other forms of prayer will be part of the digitally integrated mix. But life after Google and Facebook is defined by active resource “sampling” and “mashing” and is moving toward a Web 3.0 world of increasing interactivity and co-creativity across virtual and physical domains. Changes in access to and distribution of information and knowledge facilitated by the Internet have resulted in a reconfiguration of authority that we are just beginning to map, and this in turn is changing all manner of social institutions, relational constructs, and associated practices. In this world, a government-sponsored National Day of Prayer may not be appropriate or Constitutional, but it fails most because, as a civic and as a spiritual event, it’s about as culturally relevant to the developing mainstream of American believers and non-believers alike as a National Day of Butter Churning.

If religious leaders hope to influence the spiritual lives of believers and seekers, they are woefully misguided in hoping that some sort of nationalized authorization of a traditional religious practice that has less and less to do with how believers live out their faith will have much impact.

Beyond that, they will fail to honor the richness of spiritual practice that seems still to be an enduring feature of American life, despite its secular leanings. And, if social researchers want to understand the depth and diversity of contemporary religious life, they must expand the categories of religious practices they study so that formerly “alternative” practices can begin to be studied in their more normative impact on culture.

Perhaps what we need is a National Day of Practice in which Americans are encouraged to do whatever it is we do to engage and express our religious, irreligious, unreligious, and anti-religious approaches to life in the digital age. Then maybe we would be able to experience and observe both the continuing richness of American spiritual life and its interactive balance with secular life. A publicly recognized, government sponsored observation of the complex religious and non-religious American landscape that doesn’t invite rigid polarization might well be something for which we could all give thanks… in whatever way each of us might do that.

Elizabeth Drescher [@edrescherphd] is the author, with Keith Anderson, of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012). She teaches religion and pastoral ministries at Santa Clara University. She is currently at work on Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of Religious Nones, a project funded in part through a grant from the Social Science Research Council’s “New Directions in the Study of Prayer” project through the Templeton Foundation. Her website is www.elizabethdrescher.com