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Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam

This year a lot of press was given to a study about America's Changing Religious Landscape. The study basically reported that nobody cared about going to church anymore. Christianity is dropping like a rock, less common religions may be growing or holding steady but the biggest growth by a LOT is the "unaffiliated" group. In 2007 16% of Americans said they were either atheist, agnostic, or "nothing in particular". In 2014 that number was almost 23%.

I'm on my church's marketing committee so I listened up to the talking heads on this one.

I think our church is a great place to be. We're a progressive group that does not shove any dogma down anybody's throat. We love our same-sex couples who attend and are fighting from the inside of the United Methodist structure so we can actually hold their weddings. We put an emphasis on community, the church is in a not-the-best neighborhood so our food pantry and free breakfasts help a lot of people. We discuss current events, how to make the world a better place, how to find inner peace with whatever is messed up in your life. There's fun activities for kids so us parents can relax, we wear jeans and sandals, the band plays Cat Stevens one week and KT Tunstall the next.

One of the notes I heard on the radio was a statement that it's not just churches that are suffering... it's everything. "Joiners are joiners," the commentator on NPR said. "People who go to church also join book clubs and volunteer groups and professional organizations, and all of those are losing numbers." And he mentioned "Bowling Alone", a large book published in 2000 by Robert Putnam about why people just don't join stuff anymore. Now that's interesting, I thought. Maybe it'll help me. Because I am a joiner, for sure, he's right it's not just church. And I feel weird these days.

Bowling Alone takes its title from the fact that although lots of people still go bowling, league membership has tanked. In the 1950-1970s everybody loved to join groups, from bowling leagues to the shriners to PTAs. It's not just our imagination - all of that has tanked.

The book raises more questions than answers, but three reasons for the decline stuck out to me:

1. Television It's ruined everything. It's trained us to just zone out and watch stuff. Everybody watches entirely too much TV and has forgotten how to even invite a friend over for dinner.

There is a difference in TV watching though: there are people who just flip it on and zone out every night, see what Netflix recommends and let it run. And there's the intentional watchers... they think of a program they want to watch, turn on the TV and watch it, and then turn off the TV. The intentional watchers are more likely to be connected within their community and not totally lost to us.

2. Generational differences We do what our friends do, it all feeds on each other, and when people in the 1980s decided to be all independent and fight for themselves, we stopped trusting everybody. I'd add "the media" to this one too, Bowling for Columbine (another bowling title!) did a great job showing how media trends have made us untrusting of our neighbors even while crime rates have actually dropped.

3. Urban sprawl Slum-clearing and zoning have isolated us. We no longer live near a "mix" of neighbors, we all have our spread out houses. We don't shop at the neighborhood shop anymore, we all drive miles to the big-and-large and don't see a single face we recognize.

All of this is measured in a quantity Putnam calls social capital: how well-connected a community is. If a city has a lot of social capital, it has groups with steady membership levels. Neighbors know each other, parents are involved in schools, people vote (!). Schools are better, kids are healthier. On individual levels, things like depression, heart disease, suicide are lower... it's huge, he's got charts and charts of data.

And that's really his solution to the problem. Own it, name it, admit it's a problem and work to increase our social capital. Stress to people that good neighbor relationships are important. Be creative - whatever your hobby is, whether it's art or music, the internet or religion, look for ways to be more inclusive. Diversity is a hit, lots of the "bright spot" groups have found ways to fuse cultures to create something new and interesting. Get kids involved, so their generation will be an involved one.

He's got lots of charges for other people too... businesses need to allow for more part-time workers, since part-time workers are great for social capital: they get to know their coworkers, and have time to actually do things. Politicians need to get more people involved in government by working with organizations that have grassroots, active members, not just card-carrying, dues-paying, "on the mailing list" members.

We can all fix this problem, we just have to own it.

So personally, this week I re-posted a note on facebook about the group some of us created for our neighborhood association, and I plan to advertise it on the Little Free Library on our street. I will try to spend more time out on my front lawn. And I'm going to tell more people about social capital - because it's important. Results in lower crime rates and less violence, healthier people, a more enjoyable world altogether. We just have to value it. We have the time to get together, even if it's just inviting a family over for dinner, and then we can worry about big group memberships. It's about admitting that we want this.

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( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 30th, 2015 02:37 pm (UTC)
Interesting thoughts!
Being an atheist myself I don't go to church or similar things, but I have to admit, I am indeed in no other, hm, "official" community either. I *do* have a very large social circle though, I can easily invite 60 to 70 people to my birthday party and 2/3 will show up.
When I was a kid I was in a youth group called "Die Falken" (The Falcons), which had close relations to a leftish political party, but was much more left than that party. Around the time I went from elementary school to the gymnasium the group somehow stopped existing, I am not sure why, I think it was a decline in members. I always loved going there, we had lots of fun activities and went on long camping trips with the group. When I see members today (very rarely, I only recognise them carrying the flag at protests for example), I always get a bit nostalgic.

But honestly I feel too busy to join again (and also, it is a youth organisation after all, so I could only join as a group leader or something?) and this is true for bascially all social groups.

I like to say I don't have a TV, but that isn't true anymore since I live with my boyfriend, but I can honestly say I don't watch TV, besides on sunday evenings - and then it IS a social activity, as sunday 6pm means whoevery wants can come over to our place and we will watch two movies together - and usually we end up being between 5 and 13 (!!!) people.
On the other hand, I do spend an awful amount of time in front of the computer ...

Shopping ... I don't even own a car. And the supermarket is right across the street, but then, I am in Germany, I guess many things are smaller scale here than in the US.
Do I know my neighbours? Honestly not very well. I've met most of the people living in this house at some point or another, some more, others less. Neighbours in the street? Eh, no, no idea at all. I recognise some people when I go shopping, but that's it.

I wonder how much social media has to do with it. I am in a scene (goth), kind of. I enjoy the music and the parties and when I meet with friends you can bet most/many are dressed in black. We have a chat going in a phone app (whatsapp) and there are nearly only local people in there, right now 38 constantly and easily reachable. It's called "Ausgehen in Köln" ("Going out in Cologne") and if I feel like doing something, I post there and ask who tags along and I will nearly always get a positive reply by somebody joining in.
With that, I honestly don't feel the *need* to have an organised social group or gathering, at least not for meeting people.

Long comment is long and rambly, sorry :D

Edited at 2015-05-30 02:40 pm (UTC)
May. 30th, 2015 04:38 pm (UTC)
Social media.
People join to feel like they're part of a group, to go do something beyond work.
Now we have facebook. I'm not sure that's the only thing that's going on, but it's sure a big part of it. You can hang out and chat with your group any time you want, from your kitchen, rather than having to drive over to meet up at 7 pm at the bowling alley.
May. 30th, 2015 04:41 pm (UTC)
Yes ... BUT!
Actually I feel like in my social group social media is used a LOT to meet up and not to chat instead meeting up. Social media makes it very easy to find someone anytime to actively go out and do something with. So it actually makes me/my social group *more* social, not less. We use social media to coordinate our meetings, not to replace them with chats or online stuff.
May. 30th, 2015 06:27 pm (UTC)
In my case, LJ and virtual worlds have almost entirely replaced my social life. There is room for both possibilities, I suppose.
May. 30th, 2015 03:28 pm (UTC)
There is a huge demand for churches where I live - so much so that one church uses a local movie theatre,and I am sure it's not the only one. I am glad to hear that your church is progressive.

Calgary is unique in that it has a lot of social capital and a lot of social energy. It's amazingly tight knit for a city of one million. There's no shortage of things to join - there's almost too much to join and volunteer for. Our community association is getting a little free library together too.

Sprawl definitely affects our lifestyle. Calgary has the same size footprint as New York City without the awesome transit. If you want to do something down south, it becomes an all day affair because it can take up to an hour to get anywhere.

I always meant to read Bowling Alone. Bowling is also freaking expensive. A half hour of bowling recently cost us $32 - $6 per adult per game plus $3.35 for the shoe rental.

Edited at 2015-05-30 03:46 pm (UTC)
May. 30th, 2015 04:23 pm (UTC)
I really feel ya on this one. Toby and I joined the UU church in 2004; it was the first church I'd ever gone to. Before that, I was a La Leche League leader. As a child, I admired people who were joiners, who had the confidence to say to others, "Let's get together," or "Let's make this" or "Let's fix this." My own parents were very isolated, as was our family. It was shame and shyness that did it, and I thought of joiners as confident, successful people - the kind of person I wanted to be. I suppose that I see it in the reverse way from you; when I attached myself to the UU church, it was because I recognized that the people sitting in the pews were the kind I wanted to be around - high functioning, emotionally literate, thoughtful.

I'd add one to your list up there: #4. The sense that online communities are the same as physical world ones, or the experience of meeting one's needs in that way instead of, you know, having to get dressed. The empty calories of Facebook and Snapchat relationships and recognition.
May. 30th, 2015 07:45 pm (UTC)
wow, this really explains a lot, I think.
May. 30th, 2015 09:42 pm (UTC)
In the 1950-1970s everybody loved to join groups, from bowling leagues to the shriners to PTAs

I think the wrong word in this sentence is loved. People did join groups, but I suggest that it was out of a sense of obligation and desiring to fit in, rather than actually wanting to.

I have been a member of churches and also of a couple of groups and I am perfectly happy not being a member any more. I am not too busy to join, but I. Don't. Want. To.

Most groups have a few people who do everything and the rest just claim membership; I got very tired of being in that small group who did things and as a result was always asked to do more, more, more. If a member suggested something new and different - it got shot down because it was new and different.

I got tired of organizations in general - all of them were like cliques in high school, with the popular and the unpopular. I disliked the structure and unwillingness to change and adapt. And generally I felt that a lot of the people in the groups were, not to put too fine a point on it, people I really didn't want to spend any time with.

I see the friends I want to see and don't want to feel obligated to see someone just because we belong to the same group. I am too old for that.
Jun. 1st, 2015 04:13 pm (UTC)
"I got tired of organizations in general - all of them were like cliques in high school, with the popular and the unpopular."

YES, this is exactly why I think people who try joining the social groups that still exist end up getting discouraged with the whole idea. Churches are the same way too. It's just too much drama and because people have different available outlets to meet people via the internet, why put up with it? Granted there's plenty of social dysfunction and drama on the internet, but it's so easy to avoid. At least online you can more easily find people with your same interests and if you want to meet up in person you can.

Getting members of a group to commit to showing up or volunteer as a group is a whole other story though... You have to work harder to convince them it's worth their time because there are so many other options out there.
May. 30th, 2015 10:39 pm (UTC)
I'm going to blame the internet. Well, not "blame," really. I'm going to credit the internet. We have many more opportunities to participate in groups that pertain to our actual interests than we used to, and that's excellent. Some of them are online and some of them are just using online to connect to people we would have been too distant from to easily form groups with before. So instead of a bowling league I'm doing, well, this. I'm not sad about that.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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