THE NEW PRIVACY OF RELIGION

Happy Easter, if you are Christian.  Happy spring weekend to the rest of you.  I have just returned from the jungle highlands of New Guinea where Christianity has taken hold among people who still sleep in thatched huts around an open fire, on leaves.  No pillows.  No blankets.  No stoves.  No electricity.  No running water.  No TVs or radios.  Almost no one wears shoes, not even flip-flops.  And they still hunt—and war—with bows and arrows; (far better, they say, than guns.) But beyond these hamlets, beyond their sweet potato gardens, beyond the fields where their pigs wander to forage, nestled among the jungle trees stands the bare tin walls of the local Christian church.  And on Easter Sunday, many will assemble to follow the same rituals as those in the cathedrals of the world.  

But will our partner join us on this holy day?  For the past three years, Match.com and I have been asking singles in America many questions. Among them, how important it is that a potential mate “belongs to the same religion?”   Every year, I am stunned by the response.  In 2012, 71% of men and 60% of women reported that it was “not very important” or “not at all important” to have a partner of the same faith.   Even more regarded this as unimportant in 2011 and 2010.   Moreover, when asked how likely singles were to consider getting into a serious relationship with someone “with a different religious background,” an overwhelming 68% of men and 61% of women in 2012 regarded this as “very likely” or “somewhat likely.”  And these percentages were similar in 2011 and 2010.  

What do you make of this?   To me, it appears as if we are turning inward with our religious and spiritual beliefs.   We are still a pious society; indeed, many who are not members of a formal church are “spiritual” instead.  But for centuries the Christian church has been at the center of Western social life.   One was expected to marry within one’s faith.  The church provided not only creed, but community–the social networks that guided daily life.  Today we build these social networks on the Internet, in our leisure activities, and at work instead.   

Is this good… or bad?  I’m not in the good-bad business.  But as an anthropologist, I find it interesting that American singles now seek something different in a mate.  Over 90% say they “must have” or find it “very important” to have someone who respects them, and someone whom they can trust and confide in.  Singles are following personal values and letting their partners follow their own religious paths.  We are becoming much like the peoples of New Guinea—for whom religion is personal, and profound.