Down and out and unaffiliated

Written by Peter Smith on .

Overheard snippets of conversation between a young couple on the train yesterday morning (with an explanation of why it's relevant to follow):

"You'd better shape up or ship out. If you don't shape up in a couple days, I'm outta here."

(Jealous words follow about the chat rooms each of them have been visiting, including the ones she visited while he was serving time in jail.)

"..I'm tired of waking up and seeing that look on your face."

"So don't wake me up."

"You can't get a job if you sleep all day. I'm gonna get a job, take some responsibility."


Lost souls, to be sure, and in more than one way. It's hard to know which comes first -- broken relationships, verbal abuse, bleak job prospects, made all the bleaker by the stigma of a criminal record, and a desperation too raw to conceal among strangers. So what does this have to do with popular belief?

Only a fool would try to break into an argument like that and start an interview -- though I was tempted, because I wanted to ask if either of them has a connection to any religious congregation. That may sound beside the point. It isn't. 

It's commonly believed that the growth in people with no religious affiliation is taking place among the elites -- people with too much education or money or both to need religion. But actually, it's growing more among the have-nots.

"If you listen carefully, hymns in American houses of worship are sung increasingly in upper-middle class accents," wrote Robert Putnam and David Campbell in their 2010 book,"American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us," one of the most wide-ranging studies of religion in this country. "The religious institutional ties of have-nots in America, especially men, seem to be weakening."

Putnam and Campbell wrote that since the 1970s, church attendance remained flat among college-educated whites but sank one-third among those with less education. "The rise of evangelicalism in the 1970s and 1980s was concentrated among the middle and upper middle classes," the authors wrote.

Fifty-nine percent of young adults with college degrees decreased their attendance at religious services since becoming an adult, according to "Losing My Religion," a 2007 report by University of Texas researchers. It found that more than two-thirds of young adults overall drop in church attendance -- but the college-educated are the least likely to do so. The less higher education that young adults had, in fact, the more likely they were to decrease their worship attendance - at rates as high as 76 percent for people who never attended college.

Another study presented in 2011 to the American Sociological Association found that 46 percent of college-educated whites aged 25 to 44 attend worship at least monthly. The rate is 37 percent for those with high school but not college diplomas and 23 percent for those with less education.

"The middle is dropping out of the American religious sector, much as it has dropped out of the American labor market," wrote lead author Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia.

The study's title sums it up: "No Money, No Honey, No Church."


That's because bleak job prospects seem to go along with broken relationships -- Mr. Wilcox wrote that marriage is becoming a "luxury good," both the result and the cause of financial stability.

Oh, and they're less likely to be religiously affiliated. We can spend all day telling of various faith-based charities helping the down-and-out, but the point here is about whether down-and-out themselves belong.

Leave aside any spiritual teachings for the moment, and just look at it from a practical, social point of view.

Belonging to a congregation gives both moral and practical support in tough times - whether it's a job referral, a visit to the food pantry or just a casserole at the door in tough times.

But the more that congregations become a province of the relative elite, the less comfortable everyone else is going to feel. And not only that, how comfortable do religious congregations make it for single parents, cohabiting couples and others who may not measure up?

For some people, purely secular organizations make up the void -- fraternal lodges, informal posses at the local coffee shop, even chat-rooms. But many of those sorts of social ties are fraying as well.

"Civic institutions - including religious congregations - might be one of the few institutional sectors working-class Americans can turn to for social, economic, and emotional support in the face of today's tough times," Mr. Wilcox wrote. "But the American religious sector is not likely to be of much help to working-class Americans if they are increasingly disengaged from the life of their local religious congregations."



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