Michael Emerson: Religious leaders, never underestimate your importance

Don’t assume non-religious people wish there were no faith in the world.

For at least 250 years, the expectation by academics and the learned class of much of western society has been that as societies modernize, they also secularize. While debate exists over what secularization exactly means, it is generally defined as the decline of religion or the declining scope of religious authority (for more see Mark Chaves’s essay here). 

Careful social analysis finds evidence both for the continued thriving of religion and for its decline worldwide. If we define secularization as the declining scope of religious authority, we find much evidence for it, from the national level to institutions to individuals. For example, people more and more decide what they believe. Only then, if they wish to get involved in a religious community at all, do they look for one that agrees with what they have predetermined to be true. 

A few days ago I led my class of college juniors and seniors through a discussion of secularization theory. I simply asked the students to imagine that we had become a completely secularized world, that John Lennon’s vision of no religion had come true. 

“What would be different about our world if religion ended?”

In preparation for this discussion, I had surveyed the students a few weeks earlier about their religious affiliations. Five percent said they were atheists, five percent agnostics. A full one-quarter of them said they were spiritual, but not religious. When I asked them to define what they meant by this, they said they believe there is a larger spiritual force (for some a god, for others something like the awe of nature), but they have no connection to a religious community. 

About 10% of my class said they were Jewish, another 10% Muslim. The remaining 45% of the class were various versions of Christians, with nearly all of the Christians regularly attending worship services.

The religious students were quite upset about the prospect of religion’s demise. What would provide them direction? How would they cope without their religious community for support? Who would they turn to when they needed guidance about big life questions? Who would they look up to?

Instructive, but perhaps not that surprising.

It was the responses of the non-religious students that surprised me. I suppose I expected these students to celebrate “the triumph of reason over illusion,” and “the victory of science over superstition.” But they didn’t. Not at all.

It started with one of the spiritual-but-not-religious students saying that she had never been involved in a religious community. “But to be honest, I have always envied those of you who are. You seem to have more and deeper friendships, more people to turn to. A richer life.”

Next, an agnostic student spoke. “It would be sad if religion disappeared. What would bring people together? What would give them ultimate purpose? I just don’t see how a world with no religion would be much of a world.”

An atheist student gave the last word. “I don’t believe there is a god of any sort.  It just is not logical. But I wish I could believe in a god. I detest the religious bickering that goes on. But sitting here imagining a world without it, I don’t like what I see. Fact is, and I can hardly believe I am saying this, we need religion. It helps bring people together, give them hope, provide direction for people. We don’t need, and we should not wish for, a world without religion.”

The more the students talked, the more surprised I became. Student after student, regardless of their current faith commitment, was arguing for the importance of religion, the importance of religious leaders, and the importance of religious communities. They saw these as essential to a full life. As one non-religious student said, “I am not religious, but I benefit by the fact that so many people are.”

My point is simple: The next time you are tempted to think your calling is in vain, your faith and efforts fruitless, remember my class of students.  They need you.   

Michael O. Emerson is the Cline Professor of Sociology and the C0-Director of the Institute for Urban Research at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He is the co-author of “Divided by Faith” and “United by Faith.”