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Religion and the Good of the City: Report 2

Much academic research and popular media coverage neglects the vital role of religion and religious communities in North American cities. This roundtable report can help stimulate a conversation on how to begin to bridge that gap in your community or sphere of influence. Focusing on the state of research into religion, it is the second report in a three-report series on the social and cultural good of religion in the city. What insights does research provide that could inform people and help shape public relations and policy efforts on behalf of the socio-cultural good of religion? What are the stories that need to be told? What do educators, journalists, and cultural influencers need to know? How could this work be undertaken today?


If we imagined living in a time when it was not fashionable to treat religion as superstitious, socially irrelevant at best and malignant at worst, when ignorance of both the history and practice of faith were not worn as badges of honour, but were able instead to adopt an open and descriptive posture about how social goods are generated, then we would find our reports about reality characterized by accounts of how religion has contributed significantly to many of the common goods we enjoy. We could find ourselves collecting data about those goods, as Robert Woodberry (“The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy,” American Political Science Review 106, no. 2 [2012]: 244–74) did using a two-hundred-year historical lens, and conclude that to the extent that liberal democracy, education, social equality, and improved physical health are good things, organized religion (yes, organized religion, not just an internal, personal, psychological state of communion and private conviction) has been a powerful generator of many of the things we wish to attain for ourselves and others around the world.

But we don’t live in that world. Although it may be changing, popular communication and even academic research have tended to think it proper to overlook the contribution of religion to the social and cultural goods of the city even where evidence has suggested that it exists in substance and extent, both historically and at present. We live in a time when reporting on the failures of organized religion can seem to be the only legitimate form of coverage. Like the necessity of little-seen plankton in the oceanic food chain, it may well be that the continuous birth and rebirth of religion constitutes a basic stratum for civil life.

When W. E. Allen drafted his short paper “Life History of Marine Plankton Animals” while working as a scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (Ecology 8, no. 1 [1927]: 60–62), very little was understood about the role that these tiny and very diverse life forms have among all other ocean life. Allen, however, had an inkling based in the science he did know—that something important was at stake, even if not fully understood:

It is true that the difficulties of field study in the sea are so great that we are unlikely to attain to exhaustive knowledge of any single species; but, in approaching any problem, a single established fact affords a better basis of attack than any number of suppositions, and, where the whole is unattainable, fragments of life history may rightly be used to indicate tentative conclusions of great value. (60)

Today we have become very aware of the role that phytoplankton play in food production, marine environmental change, and atmospheric quality—up to 50 percent of the world’s oxygen is generated by phytoplankton (Abigail McQuatters-Gollop et al., “The Continuous Plankton Recorder Survey,” Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 162, [2015]: 88–97). Allen was right and the survey that began in 1931 as a result of his efforts continues to collect data about phytoplankton.

The story of phytoplankton provides an illustration that is useful (rather than substantive—religion and phytoplankton are not at all the same thing) for our own deliberations. Without formal research or conscious investment in data, religious practice has emerged, grown, changed, and been part of us since as far back as human history can reach. We are only now beginning to understand what that means.

In this series of three papers, three postures will be adopted, each one animated by a series of questions designed to provoke our thinking.

Report 1: Contemporary Cultural Context of Socio-Cultural Goods of Religion

How are we advancing the understanding of the socio-cultural goods of religion—especially Christianity as the dominant faith in North America? How does religion contribute to the well-being of cities? What form do these religious public goods take? What are their shortcomings that would be valuable to address?

Report 2: State of Research and Influence of Socio-Cultural Goods of Religion

What insights does research provide that could inform people and help shape public relations and policy efforts on behalf of the socio-cultural goods of religion? What are the stories that can be told? What do educators, journalists, and cultural influencers need to know? How could this work be undertaken?

Report 3: Future Conditions of the Socio-Cultural Goods of Religion

Future research, collaboration, and learning need intentional focus and investment. How will this investment become more difficult in the coming years? How will it get easier? What would it look like for religious faith to be seen as a vital contributor to the common good that we depend on? How might the history of religion and the common good inform our future?

I hope these themes and questions will serve to sustain existing research and examination while provoking new frameworks, new approaches, and new investments of resources. As far as we can know, cities will remain the primary context for human civilizations. As such, we can safeguard what we value, limit what is hazardous, and deepen the richness of human experience much more effectively if we know in what our social infrastructures consist. Even if that description is never complete, we may still reach “tentative conclusions of great value” regarding, in this case, the role of organized religion among us. —Milton J. Friesen Program Director, Social Cities Senior Fellow


Context: Religion as a Socio-Cultural Good in the City Jan. 31 – Feb. 1, 2017 Hilton Chicago O’Hare Airport Hotel

A group of twelve carefully selected contributors met for an evening and a full day for the incubation of ideas and exploration of how religion contributes to the good of the city today. Their thoughts were presented as a pre-meeting submission which was then discussed face-to-face followed by an invitation to offer a two-thousand-word op-ed-style written response based on those interactions.

Our work is intended to advance understanding, explore possible collaborations, and stimulate ongoing, strategic, and thoughtful work around the role of religious communities in cities. The intention is to complement the significant academic work that has been and is being done around these themes from sociology, anthropology, religious studies, historical studies, and myriad other disciplinary spaces.

The justification for this particular injunction is that however much is being done formally by researchers and practically by women and men in religious communities of all kinds in modern society, there remains far more yet to be done in making connections practically, conceptually, and creatively.

Each contributor to this report has taken on the task of engaging with the opportunities and challenges represented in our time. Joshua Yates challenges us to consider that despite declining cultural authority, local congregations may retain a valuable form of social authority that is vital to city functioning. Noah Toly and Kristin Ljungkvist remind us that religious life in global cities is dynamic, persistent, and significantly involved in issues of security and globalization. Milton Friesen reflects on the social complexity of cities and the role of religious communities in contributing to our civic infrastructure. Ram Cnaan concludes with a direct evaluation of the state of religion and the city, identifying significant shortfalls with suggestions for advancing our research and thus our understanding of the ways in which local congregations contribute to the common good.