Bowling Outside the Lines

‘Fewer in San Francisco Go to Church." There it was—top and center of San Francisco's largest daily newspaper—further evidence of the demise of interest in religion.

The news story was occasioned by the release of "Civic Engagement in America," a national survey launched by professor Robert Putnam of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Researchers interviewed more than 30,000 people across the country to discover how often they interact with others by volunteering at food banks, attending club meetings, going to parades, donating blood, worshipping, and even playing board games with friends at home.

Putnam is best known for his celebrated 1995 journal article (and subsequent book) "Bowling Alone." In a nutshell, he argued that civil society was breaking down as Americans become more disconnected from their families, neighbors, communities, and the republic itself. The very organizations that breathe life into democracy are fraying. Bowling is his driving metaphor. Years ago thousands of people belonged to bowling leagues. Today they're more likely to bowl alone.

Putnam aims to determine a region's "social capital"—that is, the currency that enables individuals to come together and achieve common goals. His new survey reveals that participation in a religious community and civic activity correlates strongly in much of the country. Not so in northern California, where social and political activity is high despite low religious membership.

These results raise my suspicion about Putnam's thesis. Fewer people today are walking around with their names embroidered on a "Lucky's Bowl" shirt; a tragic loss of fashion, to be sure, but does it necessarily spell the end of the republic?

The institutions that once bound people together in small-town America—the bank on Main Street, the neighborhood church, the local union hall—are becoming artifacts. But people are finding new ways to connect with others. I contend that "network" should replace "community" as a meaningful way to speak of our social existence in the 21st century. "Community" assumes a stability among personal relationships as well as defined roles and obligations that bind members together in some kind of common venture. Networks, on the other hand, possess no clear center and feature shifting boundaries.

We meet others today in transitional sites that address smaller parts of our lives. Far from being lonely and cut off, I sense most of us feel overwhelmed by the number of people in our lives and the plethora of groups to which we have a link. Most national studies in fact point to a marked increase in volunteerism over the last decade.

Putnam's teams may be looking for the wrong kinds of connections. Just because people do not join religious communities, for instance, does not mean they eschew interest in spirituality and healing social ills.

Over the last decade I have directed my students at the University of San Francisco in a research of emerging spiritualities in the Bay Area. I found an exceptionally high interest in spiritual practices, though the forms they take blur the boundaries of classical religious traditions.

Buddhist monk Heng Sure, for instance, passes on to seekers who trek to his monastery a practical wisdom that has been carefully tested for well over two millenia. Yet many of his students were raised in Christian churches or Jewish synagogues. While other religious teachers might seize the opportunity for potential converts, this monk simply hopes for greater spiritual enlightenment. "If Buddhism helps them, so be it," he says, "but it might turn out that they just need to be better Christians or better Jews."

It's easy to throw these spiritual seekers into the catch-all category of "new age movement." But "emerging spiritualities" do not represent a sect or a cult. There is often no organization one must join, no creed one must confess. For these seekers, spiritual experience is what counts.

Our social fabric is undergoing a remarkable transition; boundaries are shifting and new alliances are being made. You might miss that if you are throwing your ball straight down the lane.

David Batstone, a founding editor of Business 2.0 magazine, is executive editor of Sojourners.

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