47% percent, that’s the figure being quoted day and night on my Twitter feed and list-serves. It is not the percentage of Americans who voted for Donald Trump, or those who didn’t pay taxes according to Mitt Romney, but rather the percentage of Americans who belong to a church or a synagogue, down from almost seventy percent at the beginning of the century. This brings about fear and trembling among people who share my profession. These are not the only alarming numbers bandied about. There are drops in religious affiliation, more atheists and agnostics, and most alarming in the long term the calamitous drop in church attendance among the young. 

I am sure there is no one reason for this, and I am not enough of a social scientist to parse it out even if there were, but allow me to offer a correlation with another perhaps even more alarming statistic. 

Americans, relative to other Western countries are unhappy. Even before the Pandemic we were unhappy, and we continue to be unhappy.

This is ironic in my eyes considering the myriad of studies that correlate church attendance and religiosity with higher measures of happiness. Despite the precipitous drop in membership, Americans are still more religious than many other countries that see themselves as part of the West, should we not be happier? And also, if religion makes people happier it would stand to reason that people would seek religion out? But instead of filling, people are fleeing the pews.

I’d like to suggest that there is actually a connection between these two sets of data, one that may seem somewhat counterintuitive.

As an immigrant to these shores from Canada and Israel, I’ve always loved the quintessentially American phrase from the Declaration of Independence,  ‘Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.’ 

Allow me to dilate for a moment on one particular word here, the word ‘pursuit’. Part of what it means to pursue is to be dissatisfied with your present situation, in other words to be somewhat unhappy, dissatisfied. In my mind this pursuit is the best part of Americanism, there is a constant striving for improvement, dissatisfaction with the status quo, the idea that things can always be better. We can breathe cleaner air, we can eat healthier food,  we can strive for the equality of all, and we can right historical wrongs. 

I see this as America’s greatness.

Of course, this striving can go in other directions as well, such as meanspirited pursuit of wealth, or domination of others. But I am an optimist and prefer to see people as inherently good. 

Also, please don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of other reasons for our unhappiness beyond this striving that are not positive at all. Our declining health and life expectancy, as well as socio-economic disparities clearly contribute to dissatisfaction, I just think that our never-ending pursuit is one factor that is overlooked.

Much of the drop in church attendance may be attributed to the younger generations of Americans, younger Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Zers. Younger people are not connecting like they used to with established churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. They are dissatisfied and looking for other things. They are pursuing happiness as they see it. This is similar to studies on divorce. The word ‘divorce’ carries an aura of negativity, but many studies have shown that the opposite is true, that people who get divorced are ultimately happier. Not initially of course, but ultimately. The distinction is important. 

What is lost when someone divorces themselves from the church? I am not talking theologically, but rather psychologically. What is lost is a sense of belonging to a social group with specific norms and patterns. According to many studies it is this aspect of religious affiliation more than any other that promotes happiness. By many indications, however, younger people are joining groups, groups which advocate for social justice and anti-racism, movements to promote cleaner energy and protection of the environment, and so many others. 

My family, and so many families, have stories of people pursuing new paths that lead them in more fulfilling directions.  When my mother was sixteen, she left the Catholic church over a disagreement with a priest regarding her advocacy of birth control. When she was twenty and in college she converted to Judaism, and ultimately became a professor of ancient Jewish texts. I am not offering any sort of judgment on this choice of hers, beyond acknowledging that I owe my existence to her dissatisfaction and pursuit of what made her happier.

And what of the sense of wonder and the contemplation of transcendence that is part of religious experience. Evidently, you do not need a church or a synagogue for that. In fact, according to one study, one of the groups that contemplates the wonders of the universe most are those least affiliated with churches or synagogues, I am talking about atheists.  Mindfulness blogs and practices unconnected to established churches and religious movements have proliferated like the daffodils after the spring thaw, and that is an amazing thing.

What then can I say to my fellow pastors, rabbis, and imams who worry about attendance and membership that skews older? I would say, like so many do, evolve, try to become a place that welcomes causes and practices that are important to younger people. And if that doesn’t work, don’t worry, people are still pursuing happiness and trying to make the world a better place, and that is what counts.