The Big Idea: Bob Smietana

For years now, Bob Smietana has been a writer, reporter and editor for the Religion News Service, and as such has had a front row view of the changes in, and challenges of, religious organizations and entities here in the United States. Where is it all going — and where should it be going? In this Big Idea for his new book Reorganized Religion, Smietana has a few thoughts.


What would happen if all the religious groups in your community were to disappear?

If every church, synagogue, mosque, temple, other house of worship closed its door for good, along with every faith-based institution were to close their doors for good.

Would anyone miss them?

That’s the big question that’s been on my mind the past few years—and the question that led me to write “Reorganized Religion,” a new book about the decline of organized religion and how it will affect us all.

The last few decades had been difficult for organized religion.

Less than half Americans belong to a church or house of worship, down from 70% in the 1990s. The average congregation has dropped from 137 people in 1999—when I first started covering religion for a living— to 65 people.

Thousands of congregations close each year.

Tens of thousands will likely close in the near future. And a growing number of Americans could care less about God and especially about organized religion—either because they have lost faith or because they no longer trust an institution that’s been beset by scandals and been turned into an engine of divisive politics.

Yet, behind the scenes, churches and faith groups are part of the glue that holds communities together. And they provide help when crisis hits or people’s lives are falling apart.

In Kentucky, as I write, an army of volunteers, many from faith-based groups, has descended upon flood ravaged communities: cooking thousands of meals, clearing away fallen trees, helping people sift through the wreckage of their lives. 

This kind of thing happens all the time. Faith-based groups provide tutoring and shelter, they run schools and hospitals, they resettle refugees, they comfort the grieving and care for those in need. When crisis strikes, they come running to help.

A friend of mine put it this way: The average person had no idea all things that churches and other faith groups do to make the world less awful. And we will not realize how much we rely on them till they are gone.

As a religion writer, I think about this all the time. If the decline of organized religion continues, what will take its place?  We don’t know. But if we don’t start thinking about it or about the ways that religious groups can adapt to a changing world, we will all be the worse for it.

When I started writing Reorganized Religion, I had a lot of data and hundreds of stories based my reporting over the last 20 years on what we call “the God beat.” But the idea of the book was too detached. I could tell you why, from a practical and perhaps utilitarian viewpoint why we should care about organized religion.

But that was not good enough. Eventually I realized that I could not tell people why organized religion should matter to them–if I could not tell them why it mattered to me. .

This turned out to be harder than I thought it would be.

My work as a journalist requires a certain amount of detachment. I don’t write about my own beliefs or practice or thoughts on how religion should be practiced. My job requires me to set my own beliefs aside to focus on other people.

So here’s why it matters.

At some key moments in my life:  the death of my younger brother, a crisis in our marriage, struggles with infertility—our church was there for us. They carried us when life fell apart and when we did not know how we could go on. And more than that, we found in our church a group of friends and a community we could rely on and place to belong and important work to do—work that was focused on helping others.  Without that, life might have been very different.

One other story about why organized religion matters to me—a story that helped unlocked the book for me. About midway through, I was stuck. The clock was ticking, I had a tight deadline and lost the thread of the book for while at a very inconvenient time. Then I thought of my mom and how organized religion changed the course of her life.

My mom grew up in poor home, the daughter of immigrants. Her father was a janitor, her mom a millworker and there was little extra money. Certainly, no money for college. Despite being an excellent student, my mom was likely looking at a future working in the mills like her mom.

Then she got a scholarship offer from the nursing school at St. Luke’s hospital in her hometown of New Bedford, Massachusetts. She took it and went on to have a long and fruitful career as a nurse, ending up as manager despite only having an associate degree. That scholarship opened up a whole new world for her.

Here the thing. In the mid-1950s, when my Mom got that scholarship, there was a great deal of hostility and suspicious towards immigrants, and especially immigrant Catholics. Some of the major religious magazines of the day ran articles about the Catholic Church taking over the US – and powerful politicians and leaders saw Catholics as a threat. There’s a reason, for example, why Joe Biden is only the second Catholic president in U.S. history.

And that hospital which was gave my Mom a scholarship? It wasn’t Catholic. Instead, it was started in the 1800s by Episcopal Sunday school class who knew their community needed a hospital and decided to start one.  That hospital then started a nursing that eventually offered a place to my mom—even though I suspect the founders were not thinking about Catholic immigrants when they started the hospital. They knew their community needed help and decided to build something that would help the community thrive.

That’s why this all matters to me. Because organized religion, in a real way, saved my mom and changed her life—and my life and the life of millions of Americans like us. I don’t want it to disappear while no one pays attention.

Reorganized Religion: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Between the Lynes

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow him on Twitter

16 Comments on “The Big Idea: Bob Smietana”

  1. Sounds like an interesting read. Regardless of where you fall on the scale of faith, it is obvious there is a slow decline taking place in religion.

  2. Some thoughts from someone mostly outside any religious community, organized or other (but still marinated in a western cultural environment that cannot be untangled from its religious influences):

    Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate, there was an explicitly secular student group of which I was a member. From the group’s name to the content of its philosophy-major-led discussions, many aspects of religious thought and doctrine were not seen as positives within modern life. However, when this group did community outreach for the homeless, it did it with a local Catholic charity. Our meetings were regularly attended by, and greatly enriched by, an (originally) Anglican priest (who had, by this time, come to give his sermons at a Unitarian meeting hall, but that’s a different story) – and who commented at length on how his interactions with our group bolstered his own faith because we attempted to be and to do good (large caveat on “good”: in a common, mostly-western conception thereof) other than at the explicit instructions of a perceived higher power. He further opined on the word religion itself and its role in describing how a community (re)binds itself together in common cause and understanding.

    Reading this post makes me reflect back on the roles of both religious community building and religious institutions and ponder what, if anything, in the intervening decades, has replaced these longstanding bits of social connective tissue. To echo the author’s initial question – I don’t personally fear for the closing of congregations because of any belief in a special or necessary place for religion in society, but I do have concerns for the disappearance of religious groups without a clear sense of both how the services performed by these groups will be shifted and to what new groups these people are finding their sense of belonging with if not religious communities. I worry that, with respect to the former, the services will decline alongside the institutions (to our substantial collective loss), and, with respect to the latter, people in an era of abundant echo chambers will easily find communities of thought that, physically dispersed online and hyper-specialized in their discourse, only sometimes emerge as communities of support (and sometimes emerge as something rather worse than that).

  3. Well Bob (and John if you share this opinion), I couldn’t agree with you more, and I don’t think we are at a crisis level yet. I spent 10 years preparing for celibate ministry, earned my Master in Divinity degree at Catholic University, and then as a result of my discernment, stepped off the path to priesthood, and was married three years later. Why? Because I wanted a family.
    I provide that introduction for background of my experience in church ministry and observing and as a lay person, supporting church ministries. In West Michigan (which is where I live) churches provide strong “faith community”, and equally important real life support to those in need (food, clothing, housing, rehabilitation, employment, etc.)
    Yes, church community participation ebbs and flows with our ever changing would. But the “sandals on the ground” (attempt at humor) is still strong and very much taking up the slack. And I believe and I think we agree, that the path to raising up those in need lies in engaging the community around the needy… to get involved and extend a hand. And it starts with little things: help in a soup kitchen, volunteer to do housekeeping at a shelter.
    I’m sort of all over the place here, but I’ll close by reminding all that humanities need for “faith communities” which we organize around religions has endured far worse: Christian persecutions, the 70″s-80″s “God is DEAD”, etc. Writings and teachings from all religions are filled with stories of humanity “abandoning God”, only to humbly return seeking that which all humans needs: faith, hope, and love. Collectively,,, this is humanity’s “Salvation History.” In fact, I would say that your observations, concerns, and data point to the fact we are in the very midst of yet another story. I would suggest that we can be assured that the story will eventually end with humanity’s return once again home to it’s God (mother and father). What we do not know is exactly how long the story of Salvation History is… how many pages… how many chapters. So we just keep reading, and turning the pages. I like to remind people the difference between faith and religion. Religion is how people try to understand and define their beliefs. But faith is only “that you believe.” That we believe there is, in fact, a story in which we are all characters in… and also reading, hoping for a positive ending. Some days, you just gotta keep turning the pages and hope for the best. Now that’s “FAITH.”

  4. Speaking as someone who used to go to church (Roman Catholic) but now views himself as agnostic or atheist, it seems to me the problem with isn’t so much with religious communities as with the religion itself. A lot of people (myself included) are turned off by organized religion in large part because of the “othering” that accompanies any group united by a belief that their vision of the one true god is better than everybody else’s. And the religious doctrines themselves, especially for more conservative congregations, can seem pretty heartless and judgmental (putting aside the various problematic dogmas regarding non-cis people and the role of women, the idea that everyone who doesn’t believe as you do is going to hell can lead to some pretty awful behavior). What I hope eventually replaces religious institutions are the groups dedicated to community service but unburdened by the religious baggage of those institutions–Habitat for Humanity is the example that comes to mind.

  5. I would claim that none of the good works you list as examples are bound to religion, neither broadly nor specifically. There are people that will help and people that will not. There are alarming numbers of people that claim to be religious that will not help.
    The sectarian trappings of religion have caused staggering suffering. I would also posit that a significant part of the problems in politics is due to the way religious belief has become bound to politics

  6. Great that the author had a good experience, but now turn around and ask those who have been hurt by organized religion. Shunned from a community because they don’t belong, young kids sexually abused, adults whose faith has been broken by a church that over stepped its bounds, etc…

    I’ve seen this country with a strong religious community I’d like to see how we do without one now. Folks truly being good and being part of our society because we are all interconnected.

    I’ll be happy when we grow past myths and traditions set in stone from the bronze age and our superstitious leanings. It would be nice to have humanity grow up. Santa Claus was a fun idea when we were young, but now we are adults. Let’s shift our thinking.

  7. It seems to me that religion, with its history of organized hatred, persecution, misogyny, corruption, and just general shittyness, has been a drag on humanity and a monstrous harm to most individuals.

    I look at our megachurch grifters, the “prosperity bible, the right wing lunatics blessing their “rods of iron” and the vicious hatred launched at so many groups, and I do not see enough to redeem this.

    And many of the justifications—charities, help for education and such—are like the kid’s lemonade stand for their mom’s cancer costs or the Wounded Warrior Project: they actually represent systemic failures, and provide a rationale for ignoring and accepting those failures.

    I welcome then decline of organized religion. Can’t happen fast enough.

    Except, of course, for the Church of Whatever (the Scalzis are up to). I look forward to that becoming powerful.

  8. When I came out, I lost my community. I lost my friends, and my family, because I was a member of a church that “loved the sinner, but hated the sin”.

    25 years later, I’m still here. No few of my friends aren’t, because they couldn’t reconcile the demands of their faith and the truth of their hearts. Finding something to say to comfort someone’s mother, after she found her child dead by his own hand? Took some looking, and the members of that community stayed away – perhaps they thought either queerness or suicide was contagious.

    It’s good that the author’s found comfort in the teachings of their particular flavor of religion. For no few of us, there’s a bitter edge that will never be overcome, no matter how many worthy deeds are offered up.

  9. I am a member of a religion that is not Christianity. My opinion is that religion, broadly speaking, is neutral. On the one hand: community, works of art and music, and (for those who are treated well) practical and emotional support. On the other: bigotry, indoctrination, fundamentalism, shunning, abuse, and genocide. The most moral people I know are a tidily balanced mix of religious adherents and atheists, which goes to show that morals are orthogonal to religion.

    It does not surprise me that organized religion is declining in the U.S. The world is big and complex and hard to understand, but there are many kinds of paths to understanding, and different ones work well for different people.

    I think people should get to be who they are, as long as that’s not going to hurt anyone. My opinion is that in an ideal world, everyone would be able to choose individually and have either access to religion (if they want it and can engage in it responsibly) or access to release from religion if they want out (either because they are stuck in a situation of oppression or because they just aren’t personally religious and they find meaning in other ways).

  10. Thanks for the insightful and important comments. Much of the book looks at the harm done by religious groups and the way that religion can be used to exclude others and seek power. As you all have pointed out, those are some of the reasons why organized religion is declining in the first place. Thanks for reading and to John for hosting the piece and for being kind to authors with new books. Really appeciate it.

  11. Nice article.

    A lot of the problem, as I see it, is the growth of the megachurch, or, as I sometimes jokingly call it, “The rise of the Christian-Industrial Complex.” They’re very intent on becoming a community center to insulate Christians from the world, and frequently do things that realistically shouldn’t be in the purview of Christianity. Plus the quality control is low: Sermons are theologically suspect, overly politicized, lacking in insight, and generally based around fear and outrage in order to keep butts in the seats.
    There’s nothing inherently wrong with the concept, but praise bands and huge complexes of interchangeable people (And seemingly endless scandals) keep people from feeling a part of something. It’s like the Wallmart of Christianity. It tends to draw people, but it also tends to prevent people from finding smaller churches where they might find a closer, stronger community.

  12. I think rather differently – I think it’s wrong for religious institutions to cling to public roles that they shouldn’t be playing in a secular society. What’s been on my mind most lately is that I would like the Catholic Church to get out of the hospital business. It may be all very well to have nursing orders and what not, but hospitals should be secular.

  13. all true enough, but frankly most churches and synagogues should be replaced by yoga studios — same instant camaraderie, love, support, candlelight and atmosphere, plus exercise and physical therapy and without the bigotry baggage.
    Sorry but ever since the Enlightenment organized religion has done more harm than good.

  14. At the group level, I just don’t know.

    At the individual level, I remember a church nun who hosted our 12-step workshop calling herself “a recovering nun.” She also pointed out that religion is taught, but spirituality is caught. (By now she must be in a nursing home, if still alive)

    As I see it, a granny or a hermit with only a Bible can be more spiritual than a fellow with a big religious library… I don’t know how we might combine group religion with personal spirituality.

    I live on the Great Plains. The midwest. The region where, in the US/Canada, God lives. I remember well how, in the campus LGBTQ club, gay students were keenly concerned about religion, while gay students from Europe were amazed that we would care so much. It would be educational, maybe scary, to look into why Europeans are so less religious than we are.

  15. I speak from a secular, north-west European viewpoint.
    There is research showing that if a society delivers less of a secure safety net through their chosen government, the people will be more religious, more attached to organised religions. They look for the security offered by support from a church in hard times, as well as the reassurance of the magical thinking that too-big problems could be solved by prayers.

    If people aren’t trapped into conforming with organised religions for the wordly support they can offer, participation in organised religions declines but people can still be religious and/or experience spirituality (religion is seen as a mostly private thing, not a performative public thing; and lots of people here define themselves as spiritual but not religious).
    People will still join social communities.
    To enable local communities to develop, it is more important that public space offers lots of opportunities to socialise (instead of a church building or meeting hall), e.g. by making walking in one’s neighborhood attractive, and kids playing together spontaneously outside, and supporting a flourishing scene of social and sports clubs and libraries. Reducing traffic danger and noise in residential areas and town commercial centers is important for people to develop social connections, and zoning for corner shops, primary schools, primary care centers (doctor, dentist, physio) and small parks and playgrounds scattered within residential areas to give people places to walk to. There will still be sports clubs, arts clubs, theatre clubs, the library and other such social groups as well, without the divisions of religious affiliations – if the local band is Catholic but the football club is Reformed that limits kids’ choices (where they would be welcome), while if religious organisation plays no part they can be part of both social groups, if they want.

    If, as in European social democracies, the collective safety net (for medical costs, losing one’s job, affordable college, having an accident or being disabled, having a disabled child, etc.) is secularly organised by the government and works well for everyone, there is less need for organised religious groups to step in and fill the void.

    When small-government parties like the Tory/Republican/libertarians are in power too long and manage to break down some of the social safety net, the churches will try to step back into the void; but their good intentions are never as universal – excluding certain groups, or blocking certain aid (or some helpful knowledge e.g. about LGBT+ issues, contraception, abortion) tends to be part of their core business.

  16. Thanks for posting Reorganizing Religion. We had not yet seen this title. It sounds like it is worth a read. And yes we are Allen’s parents.

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