Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community | Study Guide

Robert Putnam

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Course Hero. "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community Study Guide." Course Hero. 6 Feb. 2018. Web. 23 June 2021. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Bowling-Alone-The-Collapse-and-Revival-of-American-Community/>.

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Course Hero, "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community Study Guide," February 6, 2018, accessed June 23, 2021, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Bowling-Alone-The-Collapse-and-Revival-of-American-Community/.

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community | Section 2, Chapter 4 : Trends in Civic Engagement and Social Capital (Religious Participation) | Summary

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Summary

According to Putnam, the United States is "one of the most religiously observant countries in the contemporary world." Religious attendance, he says, is one of the most important ways in which Americans build social capital. In addition, he adds, "Churches provide an important incubator for civic skills, civic norms, community interests, and civic recruitment." People who attend religious institutions are more likely to participate in philanthropic activities, visit with friends, and join sports groups.

While many Americans do attend church, the number of people affiliated with a particular religious denomination started to drop during the 1960s and 1970s. For example, "the fraction of college freshmen who avowed 'none' as their religious preference doubled" between 1966 and 1997. But, those people who were church members became increasingly dedicated to their religious institutions. Thus, says Putnam, "the country is becoming ever more clearly divided into two groups—the devoutly observant and the entirely unchurched." Those who are religiously involved, Putnam notes, are more likely to be involved at a local level in "more dynamic and demanding forms of faith."

Analysis

At first Putnam appears to point to religious participation as one way in which Americans are regaining social capital. Churches, he says, help participants to gain the skills they need to join and take part in civic activities. Unfortunately, however, Putnam also suggests church members tend to look inward rather than outward. As a result, while the churches themselves are strong, "trends in religious life reinforce rather than counterbalance the ominous plunge in social connectedness in the secular community."

Putnam spends a significant portion of this chapter exploring the question of how to assess church membership and participation. While several charts suggest that church membership rose immediately after World War II and fell sharply toward the end of the 20th century, that finding, he notes, is not really reliable. According to researchers, many Americans "misremember" and overestimate their church attendance as children. After discussing the point at some length, Putnam finally concludes "participation in organized worship services is probably lower today than it was 25 years ago, and is surely lower than it was 40 years ago."

At the end of the chapter, Putnam states that Americans are going to church less often ... and the churches we go to are less engaged in the wider community." While some of his research does support this idea, it is certainly possible to question his conclusions as well. Were people really going to church more often in the past? If they did, was it out of habit or out of an intentional desire to be part of an active community?

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