Religion, spirituality, decreasing attendance at religious services, the closing of churches and temples, all seem to be topics of little interest. But they become more important when you realize their impact on our culture, our health and our well-being.
Research has linked people’s longevity with religious participation, or at least with having a personal sense of spirituality (believing we are part of something larger than ourselves).
That feeling, according to University of Toronto sociology professor Scott Schieman, can be tremendously comforting and supportive. For Emory University researcher Ellen Idler, faith shows among its practitioners the most dramatic health benefits of religious observance. And then there’s the effect of spirituality and/or religion for the oldest among us, or those for whom death is known to be near. Janet Ramsey, a pastor from St. Paul, Minnesota, told U.S. News & World Report, “Spirituality is one pathway . . . that appears to mediate end-of-life anxiety by allowing older persons to remain peaceful.”
Research was conducted in the 1970s among the Amish, Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists, groups selected because they kept detailed records of genealogy. Overall, the groups were much healthier than the rest of us. “In some of them, the mortality rate is 25 percent, 30 percent or even 50 percent lower, which is really astonishing,” Idler told U.S. News. More recent research of broader groups confirms the same thing, according to Idler.
Steven Moss, chairman of the Long Island Board of Rabbis in Deer Park, describes how parents drop off their children for religious training while they go shopping, a growing trend that sends a bad signal about priorities. When he attracts parents to participate, he says they tell him how their lives become less stressful. Both he and the chairman of the Long Island Council of Churches, the Rev. Thomas Goodhue, point out the decline in all sorts of voluntary organizations, religious and otherwise. To Goodhue, secularization, working lifestyles and the worship of shopping also play a role. Religious institutions bear some responsibility for that trend, too, given the disillusionment over the Catholic Church’s failure to protect children in their care.
Let’s return to contemporary life on Long Island, or anywhere in America. A recent Pew Research Center study on religion found that between 2007 and 2014 the share of adults in the United States who identified as Christians fell to just below 71 percent from 78 percent — a net loss of 5 million people, many of them young people. In Westchester County and on Long Island, rising numbers of churches as well as temples are closing. A study of adolescents and millennials published last year in PLOS One, a multidisciplinary open-access journal, found that twice as many 12th graders and entering college students in the 2010s (vs. the 1960s and ‘70s) give their religious affiliation as “None.”
What does the change in religion and spirituality in contemporary life tell us? Is it connected to how we can travel to the moon and back but can’t seem to walk next door to meet new neighbors? Has it anything to do with our ability to build the best computers while being unable to communicate? Or with planning more and accomplishing less? Is it why there is too little reading, even too little prayer, but always plenty of TV and video games and cellphones? Is anyone accountable for anything anymore? How do grudges abound, while forgiveness seems so scarce?
Why is there so much more knowledge and far less conscience, spending carelessly and laughing little, more medicines and less wellness, more experts and yet more problems, where we have conquered the atom but not our prejudices? What really explains all the overweight bodies and all manner of pills that do such reliable magic, from cheering us to relaxing us to killing us? And how much coarser will public discourse, from our colleges to our politics, become? Could there be a common thread to all this?
Maybe it could be argued that the gradual disappearance of religion and spirituality in our lives leaves an unhealthy vacuum among us. And perhaps their restoration might be a pathway to a better home, a happier family, a better town, and a better world.
Gregory J. Blass is a former Suffolk County social services commissioner, family court judge and county lawmaker. This is excerpted from a piece he wrote for RiverheadLocal.com.