As a long-time researcher on religious trends, I’ve spent a good part of my career documenting and discussing the decline of religion in American life. Oftentimes, at the conclusion of a lecture or presentation, I would be met with some combination of consternation and dismay. Then I get the inevitable question: “If religion is going away, what replaces it?”
For those of us concerned about the rise in social isolation, alienation, and friendlessness, America’s religious decline is especially concerning. Formal religious membership has plummeted and only about three in ten Americans report attending religious services at least once a week.
A new survey offers some tantalizing clues as to how commercial places could fill in some of the gaps left by religion. Community social spaces, or “third places” as sociologist Ray Oldenburg dubbed them, could take on some of the critical societal functions of religion. Today, a majority (56 percent) of the public has a place in their community where they spend time, although the number has slipped a bit from 2019—most likely due to the pandemic. What’s more, most Americans visit these places at least once a week and often recognize people there.
Having a third place— a location where Americans spend their time, after home (first), and work (second)—increases feelings of connectedness and neighborly trust. Importantly, third places also increase the probability of having a “conversation with someone you do not know well”—or making a connection. Another key feature of places like coffee shops, libraries, and public parks is the low barrier to entry. With no membership requirement, one is liable to bump into different types of people there.
At one time, I thought that libraries offered the most promising social substitute to churches. But it turns out that few Americans actually spend much time in libraries, as my colleague Sam Abrams recently pointed out. I love libraries, but they cannot compete with coffee shops.
Coffee shops have a lot that makes them attractive as places to forge community connections. First, they are ubiquitous in the American landscape. According to Statista, there are more than 37,000 coffee shops in the US, and their numbers are rising. While this is substantially fewer than the number of brick-and-mortar worship centers, most coffeehouses and cafes are open at least six days a week and many serve as hubs for community gatherings outside of normal coffee-drinking hours. Many coffee shops feature local artwork and community bulletins. They host concerts, lecture series, and even political campaign events.
Like churches, coffee shops encourage regular attendance. The business model is built around it. They become part of our routine. Precise figures on the frequency with which Americans visit coffee shops may be hard to determine, but many of us go often enough that baristas learn our names, or at least our drinks.
Even if many of us don’t stick around, these brief social interactions are still important. Repeatedly engaging with others, even briefly, may actually improve our overall happiness and wellbeing. In his groundbreaking 1973 essay, Sociologist Mark Granovetter named these informal social connections “weak ties.” These ties can increase our sense of belonging and build bridges to brand new social or professional networks. Mario Luis Small, a professor at Harvard University studying personal networks, found that sometimes it’s easier to confide in these “weak ties” rather than close friends, family, or other strong fixtures in our lives.
Coffee shops also provide a place to foster existing connections with our friends, family, and colleagues. Many provide welcoming social spaces to meet with clients, spend time with friends, or just to relax, read, or reflect. And while most coffee shops may not offer the same type of religious and spiritual fulfillment as a formal worship service, a growing number of Americans aren’t looking for it.
Some early creative interpretations of America’s religious decline suggested that it was institutional religion that was suffering: Interest in religious, spiritual pursuits, and belief in God remained as strong as ever, or so the argument went. But this turned out to be false. On almost every metric, religion is less influential, less trusted, and less practiced in the US now than it was a few decades earlier. One in four Americans today are religiously unaffiliated and the vast majority of them are not looking for a religious community. In fact, they are better described as “doubting disbelievers,” than “unattached believers.”
There are obvious limitations to what commercial spaces in general and coffee shops in particular can provide. But one of the chief assets of coffee shops is their mutability. They can easily be grafted on to existing public and commercial spaces. Many libraries and bookshops now feature cafes or coffee bars, and some coffee shops morph into bars in the evenings. Coffee shops can also adapt to the specific cultural and demographic terrain to suit the needs of any community. In a country as large, geographically diverse, and socially stratified as the US, coffee shops are probably one of the few places that can bridge the expanding cultural and political divides.
Whatever your view of organized religion, places of worship have long served as vital conduits to broader civic, social, and political engagement. Now, fewer than half of Americans are members of a religious congregation and this trend shows no signs of abating. We need more opportunities to gather and connect, whether it’s to celebrate communion or confide over a cappuccino.
American Life: Facts and Figures
Do Sidewalks Make Us More Social? The short answer: no. Urban theorists have been known to wax poetic about the community-building benefits of social infrastructure such as sidewalks. But a new analysis suggests that sidewalks do little to bolster community interactions among neighbors or boost civic engagement. Still, they are a great place to practice your chalk art.
Crime and the 2022 Midterm Elections: Over at FiveThirtyEight I argue that crime is unlikely to feature prominently in many political campaigns. Despite a national increase in violent crime, few candidates are making crime a central part of their campaign, a notable departure from the past.
An Enduring Racial Divide among Teens: The Washington Post has a brand-new survey of American teenagers (ages 14 to 18) and reveals an enduring racial divide in views about the advantages white people have in American society. At least seven in ten Black, Asian, and Hispanic teens say white people benefit from advantages that Black people do not have. Only 37 percent of white teens see it this way.