Friday, June 02, 2006

Social Consequences

As I pointed out earier in this series of posts, telecommunications has been a key part of the modern transformation. Industrial telecommunications complemented the rest of the Industrial Revolution by promoting a kind of mass communication paralleling mass production and consumption. As this network of mass media has grown global, it is often easier to know what is going on thousands of miles away rather than down the block. There is less personal risk in turning on the TV or even signing on to an online conversation than in talking to your next-door neighbor.
Sociologist and political scientist Robert Putnam has written about the seemingly invisible changes to social participation over the past few decades, including religious participation:

In sum, over the last three of four decades, Americans have become almost 10 percent less likely to claim church membership, while our actual attendance and involvement in religious activities has fallen by roughly 25 to 50 percent. Virtually all of the postwar boom in religious participation – and perhaps more – has been erased. This broad historical pattern in religious participation – up from the first third of the century to the 1960’s and down from the 1960’s to the 1990’s – is very much the same pattern we have noted earlier for secular community-based organizations as well as for political organization.

What is more, in all three cases, the more demanding the form of involvement – actual involvement as opposed to formal membership, for example – the greater the decline. In effect the great institutions of American civic life, both religious and secular, have been “hollowed out.” Seen from without, the institutional edifice appears virtually intact – little decline in professions of faith, formal membership down just a bit, and so on. When examined more closely, however, it seems clear that decay has consumed the load bearing structures of our civic infrastructure.

From Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000)
One important point, that Putnam stresses, is that these trends can be seen across almost all religious groups, as well as most voluntary membership organizations in North America and Europe. He found that most groups have tried to understand these trends in terms of the recent history and actions of each specific group. Each group wondered what had caused their drop off in membership, and each group formulated their own individual response (which often could be very different than the response by some other organization). According to Putnam's reseach, it made little difference. Most organizations' pattern of membership and involvment over the past half century look the same. It's not what each organization is doing, it is a change to the society that all these organizations are in.

This particulary applies to the Catholic Church. If we look only at recent Church history, it might make sense to put the blame for this hollowing out of participation on Vatican II in general or a vernacular liturgy or reaction to Humanae Vitae. But how would these events cause nearly identical changes in other religious groups (including non-Christians) and non-religious groups? Many of the explanations as to why the Church "has gone wrong" lately may be largely irrelevant, as would be many of the solutions proposed. Powerful anti-cancer chemotherapy may not be a good idea if the patient does not have cancer -- you get all the side effects of the treatment, but are no closer to a cure. In addtion, you probably will not be any closer to a diagnosis.

The next post in this series will look at the emotional consequences of postmodernity.

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