The comfortable suburban afterlife

What if humans after death end up in a suburban community? This is the premise of the Amazon show Forever:

Starring SNL alums Maya Rudolph as June and Fred Armisen as her husband, Oscar, the eight-part series, which dropped in its entirety in September, does a deep dive into the meaning of life by exploring what happens when it ends…

For the couple, the hereafter is ambiguous — neither heaven nor hell. Rather, it seems a lot like their former life in a subdivision of tidy ranch-style homes in suburban Riverside, Calif.

Familiar, safe, comfortable…

Oscar spends his days struggling doing crossword puzzles at the dining room table. June teaches herself how to make vases and bowls on a potter’s wheel on the back patio (a nod, no doubt, to the famous Demi Moore/Patrick Swayze scene from “Ghost”). They go for strolls through the neighborhood, where the weather feels perpetually like early autumn with its amber light and just enough of a nip in the air to make you reach for your flannel shirt or lightweight cashmere pullover.

Apparently the show then moves on from this suburban start. Given that Americans moved to the suburbs in large numbers in the last century plus the goal of attaining the suburban American Dream is well-established, is it much of a stretch to cast the afterlife as a comfortable suburb?

I imagine critics of the suburbs might have other views. Indeed, they might suggest a suburban afterlife would be hell. (Bring back the TV show Suburgatory!) This reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s description of hell in The Great Divorce (as noted by an astute commenter):

As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarrelled so badly that he decides to move….Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house.

So perhaps the suburbs are actually a decent middle ground between heaven and hell, containing elements of either depending on who is doing the evaluating. Then, perhaps the real debate starts: if suburbs are in the middle, are cities heaven and rural areas hell or vice versa…

Linking secularization and wealth

Political scientist Ryan Burge summarizes part of the sociological conversation about secularization and wealth at a national level:

If you take a course in the sociology of religion at any college or university, the professor will inevitably spend some time on what is known as secularization theory. This theory posits that as societies become more economically prosperous and obtain higher levels of education, the inevitable result is a movement away from organized religion and toward secularization…

ReligionandWealth

The conclusion from this graph is clear: the more economic prosperity a nation enjoys, the fewer citizens of that country say that religion is very important. There are a few outliers, however. China is in the bottom left portion of the graph, which means that based on the country’s economic output it should be more religious than it currently is, with the same occurring in Hungary.

Obviously, both of those countries have a history that is closely associated with communism, which is the likely cause of their low levels of religiosity. On the other hand, the United States is clearly an outlier on this graph. It ranks as the most economically prosperous country in the dataset, but if it were going to be in the middle of the trend line, the overall level of religiosity should be very close to zero.

The takeaway lesson from teaching this in undergrad sociology classes is that the United States is unique in terms of religiosity. Then, the task of sociologists and other social scientists is to tease out why exactly this pattern holds for many industrialized countries and not others. Burge goes on to discuss one explanation from recent sociological research in the United States:

Taken together, the results from this sample tell a simple story: secularization is apparent for older generations of Americans, but for those born after 1950 there is no evidence that education leads to a decline in religious affiliation.

Of course, secularization is not just about wealth. As Norris and Inglehart argue, the more that governments or nations take on the role of providing existential security to residents, the less need residents have for religion.

Or, as a number of scholars have argued, the United States is an outlier for another reason: it has a unique religious market. Because of a lack of government involvement in state religion plus the protection for freedom of religion, religious groups have been free to compete. This competition leads to innovation and religious groups compete for attendees and resources.

 

A preview of my upcoming talk on social media, emerging adults, and religiosity

Ahead of my participation in the “Emerging Adults: Formation for Mission” conference taking place soon on the Wheaton College campus is an interview regarding my talk:

I would describe the use of social media by emerging adults as a mix of excitement and resignation. A vast majority of emerging adults participate. They describe learning about relationships they already have, connecting with friends and family, seeing pictures, sharing jokes.

They find out about events and news through social media. They search for romantic partners through social media.

On the other side, they can articulate some of the downsides of this use including a lack of focus, not spending time with people (just their feeds), and the conflict that can arise in social media. Not participating means missing key connections and knowledge that others can access. Current emerging adults have known and participated in social media all of their lives and will continue to use social media as they age beyond this life stage.

The emerging adults of today are immersed in social media, technology, and other forms of media and they bring this with them as they consider faith and church.

While there is a lot of work looking at social media or social network site (SNS) use, relatively little of it in sociology and other disciplines addresses how this activity is influenced by or influences religion. This talk will help bring together several years of research projects with my sociology colleagues Peter Mundey and Jon Hill.

Suburban ministry accepts notorious convicted murderer as resident

Suburbanites do not want to be associated with crime, particularly notorious ones. So a recent action by a Christian ministry in Aurora is notable:

Wayside Cross Ministries of Aurora officials said Monday that by accepting “Ripper Crew” murderer Thomas Kokoraleis as a resident, the organization is doing what God commands everyone to do: Show kindness and mercy to all, even enemies, the ungrateful and the wicked.

“We are mandated by our Lord Jesus Christ to love our neighbors. According to Luke 16, anyone in a genuine need is a neighbor,” Executive Director James Lukose said in a news release that Wayside Cross also posted on its website, waysidecross.org

Kokoraleis, 58, was released from prison Friday after serving half his 70-year sentence. He is not on parole, and is free to live where he wants, as long as he informs police…

Kokoraleis was one of four men suspected of killing as many as 17 women in Chicago and the suburbs in the early 1980s. His younger brother, Andrew, was one of them and was executed in 1999.

The Chicago Tribune wrote an editorial several days ago on Kokoraleis’s release:

A judge chose to sentence him to life in prison. But his conviction was struck down over legal errors, and the case was resolved with the defendant pleading guilty and being sentenced to 70 years. Thanks to the rules in effect back then, which allowed him to cut his time in half through good behavior, Kokoraleis was released Friday at age 58. He is expected to live at a Christian-oriented facility in the Wheaton area…

We won’t relitigate Thomas Kokoraleis’ case or his guilt. But we feel no hesitation in saying that life behind bars should have been the certain sentence for what he did. There is something profoundly exasperating about seeing someone who took part in such wanton slaughter being allowed to walk free among civilized people.

I wonder if this will cause any furor long-term in Aurora and the surrounding area. UPDATE APRIL 2, 2019 – The mayor of Aurora is not happy about this.

“In light of the unspeakable nature of the crimes committed by the Ripper Crew, I would hope that Wayside would reconsider the decision that brought Kokoraleis to Aurora — particularly given the Ministries’ close proximity to parks, churches and day care centers,” Irvin said in a statement Monday evening. “I absolutely disagree with Wayside Cross Ministries’ decision to allow Kokoraleis to reside at their facility in Aurora.”

Presumably, there are plenty of nearby residents with possible competing loyalties in this particular case: they would claim Christian faith and also be at least hesitant about living near such a murderer. There would be few suburban cases at this level that could push suburbanites to consider balancing justice and forgiveness – and both suburban and American history suggest they would almost always settle on the side of justice and keeping the issue as far away from their homes and community as possible.

I hope there will be a follow-up either way, whether Kokoraleis lives quietly or falls into trouble again.

1960s white religious leaders: God told us to love our neighbors but did not mean to pick our neighbors for us

My history colleague Karen Johnson recently delivered the first Faith and Learning lecture on the Wheaton College campus titled “Place Matters:  The vocation of where we live and how we live there.” See the talk here.

One quote from her talk (roughly 35:50 into the talk) stuck with me. In opposing open housing efforts in the 1960s through the Illinois Association of Real Estate Boards, white religious leaders said:

“We don’t doubt the words of Him who said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,’ but we do doubt, gentlemen, that He meant to disturb our American heritage and freedoms by picking these neighbors for us.”
Three features of this stand out:
1. I suspect this logic is still in use in many American communities today. Individual liberty about where to live is more prized than government intervention to help those who cannot move to certain places unless they have help (usually for reasons connected to social class and race and ethnicity). While it is couched in religious terms in this quote, I don’t think it needs religious backing to be widely supported by many suburbanites or wealthier residents.
2. Connected to the first point, few white and wealthier residents would today explicitly say that their opposition to affordable housing or government intervention to bring new people to communities is because of race and ethnicity (some government intervention in housing is more than acceptable as long as it helps the right people). They might talk in terms of social class or the character of the community. But, it still often comes down to race and who are desirable neighbors.
3. The mixing of American and religious values is strong. For American Christians, where do individual liberties end and Christian responsibilities begin? Which takes precedence? All religious groups have to think about which ideas and values to take on within particular contexts (whether nations, communities, or subgroups). A good portion of the critique of conservative Protestants often seems to involve the blurring of these lines: can these Christians see when their own stated religious commitments do not align with particular American commitments?

“Distinctive behaviors of the actively religious” across countries

Pew analyzed international data and found that individuals who are actively religious have different behaviors than others in their nation in a number of countries:

DistinctiveBehaviorsoftheActivelyReligious.png

It appears that religiosity affects certain areas more consistently – particularly smoking, voting, happiness, and participation in nonreligious organizations – than others even as these relationships between religiosity and health, well-being, and prosocial behaviors can differ across countries. Of course, why some of these relationships and not others exist, even in the same categories like the example that the more religious do not smoke but religiosity has no impact on obesity or exercise, gets more complicated…

Religiosity of 116th Congress both does and does not reflect changes in American religion

Comparing the religious makeup of the newest Congress to previous Congresses shows several interesting patterns:

http://www.pewforum.org/2019/01/03/faith-on-the-hill-116/

A few patterns to note:

  1. The number of Protestants has dropped dramatically – roughly a loss of 100 from sixty years ago – even as the percent of Protestants in Congress (54%) continues to be higher than the percent of Protestants in the U.S. population (48%).
  2. The number of Catholics in Congress increased from the 1960s into the late 1970s and early 1980s and then has stayed relatively stable. There are more Catholics in Congress (30%) than in the U.S. population as a whole (21%).
  3. The number of religious others is still low and hasn’t changed much over time.
  4. As noted in the summary of the findings:

But by far the largest difference between the U.S. public and Congress is in the share who are unaffiliated with a religious group. In the general public, 23% say they are atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” In Congress, just one person – Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who was recently elected to the Senate after three terms in the House – says she is religiously unaffiliated, making the share of “nones” in Congress 0.2%.

When asked about their religious affiliation, a growing number of members of Congress decline to specify (categorized as “don’t know/refused”). This group – all Democrats – numbers 18, or 3% of Congress, up from 10 members (2%) in the 115th Congress. Their reasons for this decision may vary. But one member in this category, Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., announced in 2017 that he identifies as a humanist and says he is not sure God exists. Huffman remains categorized as “don’t know/refused” because he declined to state his religious identity in the CQ Roll Call questionnaire used to collect data for this report.3

In summary, Congress is overwhelmingly religious and Christian. While America as a whole is still solidly majority religious and Christian, Congress is even more so. This seems to suggest Americans still like to elect people who have a faith affiliation even if there is less information on the actual beliefs and practices of the Representatives and Senators (this data “does not attempt to measure their religious beliefs or practices. “).