Has Boston Given Up On God?

The church once held a powerful place in daily life for thousands of Bostonians. But as science and tech take over this town, an entirely new religion is taking its place.

MIT's non-denominational chapel

MIT’s non-denominational chapel. Photo by PJ Couture

On a Sunday afternoon, humanist chaplain Greg Epstein stands in front of about 90 people in an MIT auditorium. It’s an eclectic group, with young kids and college students, thirtysomething parents and gray-hairs all attending because of a shared disbelief—no one here has faith in God.

Epstein, dressed in a blue sports coat with a wooden flower on his lapel, is here to give them what might be the next-best thing. Directing this latest gathering of the Cambridge-based Humanist Hub—a congregation of sorts for atheists, agnostics, and other people who aren’t drawn to traditional houses of worship—he’s offering up a kind of church without God, a near-beer substitute for religion.

Speaking with the excited friendliness of a young professor, Epstein welcomes his flock from Harvard, from MIT, and “anyone from anywhere, from any background or belief,” and explains just what it is he’s doing. Since 2005, Epstein—an ordained humanist rabbi with a fit build and a shaved head—has been providing pastor-like services to religiously unaffiliated students. “It’s basically a job as secular clergyman,” Epstein tells his audience, insisting that that’s not an oxymoron. “People who don’t happen to believe in a god, or affiliate with a traditional religion, still want to support one another in living out our positive values.”

This isn’t the aggressive atheism of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens—onetime members of the Secular Student Alliance advisory board that Epstein once chaired—so much as a community of people looking for a meaning that doesn’t pivot on a supreme being. (Epstein’s 2009 book was titled Good Without God.) As life adviser at Harvard’s and MIT’s temples of rationality, Epstein has talked many students through the pain of separating from their family’s religion. “They’re asking questions: What is real and what isn’t? What is this world all about? Where am I going when I die?” he says. “They’re comparing the answer of religion to the answers taught in science and history classes, and things aren’t matching up.”

As open-minded and inquisitive as MIT’s campus is about the mysteries of the universe, the scarce faithful report a culture of non-belief that can feel dismissive of, if not hostile to, spiritual answers. Only 38 to 44 percent of students at the school identify with a religious tradition, according to surveys. Epstein’s boss, MIT head chaplain Kirstin Boswell-Ford, recently spearheaded the renaming of the Office of Religious Life to the Office of Religious, Spiritual, and Ethical Life. At MIT and other universities, she says, “Students of various faith traditions will be told things like, ‘When you go for your dissertation defense, don’t wear your cross.’ It doesn’t go along with, ‘You’re a serious scholar—you’re here to deal in facts.’”

Religion isn’t just fading from campus, though—all throughout the city, faith is dying out. It’s a notion that once seemed unthinkable. Not so long ago, religious institutions permeated city life, forming communal centers for the pious and the profane alike; they simply were the community. Increasingly, though, religion’s power is giving way to the church of scientific inquiry. Religion’s importance in people’s lives is on the decline across the country, but the Bay State is on the trend’s leading edge, tied with New Hampshire for the official title of least religious state, according to the Pew Research Center. Massachusetts is tied for third in what statisticians call “religious nones,” people who say they’re not affiliated with any religion, at 32 percent of residents. Compare that to the 33 percent who said religion is “very important” in their lives. Or the 40 percent who told Pew in 2014 that they’re “absolutely certain” they believe in God—the lowest among the 50 states. Or the scant 23 percent who attend a religious service every week.

The result of all of this is that Boston—the cradle of Puritanism in Colonial America, known as the most Catholic city in the nation during the 20th century—has become a secular town in the 21st. Many people, young and old, are concluding that religion doesn’t fit their ethics or their lives. They judge religion for the times it’s created conflict rather than bridging divisions. They believe in equality for women and LGBTQ people, and they won’t join patriarchal or anti-gay religions. New belief systems now dominate the city: higher education’s critical thinking, science’s demand for evidence, technology’s drive for results, liberal politics’ notions of progress and social justice. Some of this is a reaction to national politics—an expression of Boston’s sense of itself as a besieged liberal bastion—but it’s also a rejection of the Old Boston, the Irish-Catholic city on a hill.

Church leaders know this shift is happening and that they are rapidly being replaced—so efforts are under way to stop the exodus and create a more friendly, welcoming religious community. But can God make a comeback in the capital of education, tech, and science? And if we’ve given up on God, what did we get in His place?

It’s a Sunday morning and the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, mother church of the archdiocese of Boston, looks closed. “Caution: Construction Personnel Only,” reads a sign on a boarded-up front door. Scaffolds on the building’s sides are strung with yellow tape. A sign at the corner of Washington Street and Monsignor Reynolds Way promises a “rebirth” for the cathedral. Dedicated in 1875, New England’s largest church building is undergoing a major renovation. It was long overdue—the roof leaked, the altar needed replacing. But 16 years ago, when the Catholic clergy sex-abuse scandal rocked Boston, then shocked the world, the archdiocese thought it was a poor time to fundraise and spend big on its grandest palace of worship.

Today, there’s no sign on Washington Street pointing people to the 11:30 a.m. mass in Our Lady’s Chapel, whose entrance is on a side street. Inside the basement chapel, about 70 people are worshiping. The prayer of the faithful pointedly includes petitions for victims of abuse. Outside, three protesters stand vigil—as someone has every Sunday since 2002. “Bishops: Stop Protecting Pedophile Priests,” reads one of the protesters’ signs, threaded between the fence posts. Protestor Eileen Doherty holds up a poster with photos of nine young children at the ages when they were abused. “We’re keeping the church on notice,” says Stephen Sheehan, who publishes a newsletter promoting justice for survivors of clergy abuse.

Almost 17 years ago, the sex-abuse scandal shattered the Catholic Church’s dominance of Boston’s culture. The city of 2001, depicted in the movie Spotlight, seems alien, a relic of another century, with its deference to priestly authority, its fear of challenging the church, and the omnipresence of bishops’ political influence. For generations, Boston was a Catholic town—in fact, some considered it the most prominent Roman Catholic city in America. Now, the church is declining in its influence, its esteem, its hold on people.

Though Massachusetts is still one of the most Catholic states in the union (only Rhode Island is more so), it’s not like the old days. Surveys show a massive decline in the percentage of people who call themselves Catholic, from 44 percent in 2007 to 32 percent in 2017. That’s a far faster decline than the national average. Church-reported statistics actually show a 4 percent increase between 2007 and 2017 in the number of Catholics affiliated with a parish in the Boston archdiocese, but that was a small bounce-back after the steep decline since the scandal. No one can dispute that the number of Catholic parishes in Massachusetts is shrinking fast: from 394 in 1997 to 288 in 2017. That means a quarter of the parishes in the state have closed in the past 20 years.

Even more dramatic is Catholicism’s declining influence on public life here. Marianne Duddy-Burke, the Boston-based executive director of DignityUSA, an organization of LGBTQ Catholics, remembers working at City Hall during the late 1980s and early 1990s and hearing announcements over the public-address system on Ash Wednesday that ashes would be distributed in the city council chambers. “Prior to 2002,” she says, “the archbishop of Boston had a direct line to any Massachusetts politician he wanted to talk to.” That time is long gone, says Margaret Roylance, vice president of Voice of the Faithful, a group of lay Catholics formed in 2002 to press for church reforms. “I don’t think the church is the 800-pound gorilla that it was. Politicians are not afraid to support something the church opposes. When I moved here [in 1968], I don’t think that was the case.”

There was a time, of course, when religion and the church taught Bostonians morals and how to treat one another. Scripture, from the Bible to the Koran, provided foundational guidelines for humanity and social justice, not to mention the basis for the Golden Rule. Church leaders also taught us the value of hard work and kept us in line. Not so much anymore. “Catholic church leaders used to have a kind of moral force in Massachusetts,” says Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University. Big civic debates in Boston, such as whether to host the Olympics, would have included the Catholic leadership’s opinions. Now they don’t. “In the olden days, you’d always go to Catholic leadership,” Prothero says. “Nowadays, I just don’t see why you would. They used to matter. I just don’t think they matter anymore. I think the moral capital has been spent.”

Even many Catholics who’ve stayed in the church don’t much care what the leadership thinks anymore. “Catholics, whether on the progressive or conservative end of the scale, none of them really trust the bishops to do the right thing,” Roylance says. The sex-abuse cover-up “made us look at them differently—but not our faith, at least not for me,” she says. “My faith does not depend on men. My faith depends on my understanding of community, my connection with my parish, and my belief.”

The sex-abuse scandal may have hurt all churches in Boston, not just Catholic ones, says Stephen Kendrick, senior minister at First Church Boston, a Unitarian Universalist congregation. He recalls talking about Catholic clergy sex abuse in one of his first services after taking over First Church in 2001. “I said it’s going to affect us, because it makes a whole generation of people feel distrustful of authority and particularly religious authority,” he says. “I think that’s a particular challenge in Boston. That is a wound that is not healed. And it affects every religious institution in this city.”

When Catholic priests do tackle civic issues in Boston today, Kendrick says, they’re more likely to do so in interfaith groups than they used to. “Now,” unlike in the past, he says, “there’s a sense that if you want to do something interfaith, there will be priests present. Because there’s no longer an arrogance. There’s a sense that they now understand that we’re all in this together.”

As shattering as the sex-abuse scandal has been, it’s hardly the only reason people are leaving Catholicism—in one national survey, only 32 percent of former Catholics named the scandal as one of the reasons they left. In fact, among the religiously unaffiliated in general, 60 percent said they left their childhood faith because they simply stopped believing in the religion’s teachings. There is also the factor of people’s busy lives: With so many competing organizations seeking participation (from soccer teams to the PTA), Friday night comes as a time to relax instead of attend Shabbat services, and Sunday brunch beckons the family instead of a 9 a.m. service. In other words, Kendrick says, “What happened to the Catholic Church in the last 20 years didn’t just happen to the Catholic Church.”
Still, there’s a resurrection in the works. Well, sort of.

Our Lady's Chapel at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross

Our Lady’s Chapel at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Photo by PJ Couture

The church on the corner of Wachusett and Walk Hill streets is built of sandstone that lights up like the colors of dawn, but a crack runs through its old stone-carved name. Above the main doors’ archway, the letters that spell out “St. Andrew the Apostle” are broken, right through the “P” of Apostle, as if some force tore apart the old identity.

This church, now the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain, used to be Catholic. Ten years ago, the Reverend Ray Hammond and the Reverend Gloria White-Hammond, a husband-and-wife pastoral team known across Boston for their social activism, bought it as their church’s first permanent home. The seller was the Archdiocese of Boston, which closed St. Andrew, the former home of Father John Geoghan, the Catholic clergy’s Predator Zero. “We redeem the legacy of God’s great work here,” White-Hammond says, “to atone for the sin and travesty.”

These days, she is one of the religious leaders in Boston trying to stop the mass exodus and bring people back to church. Bethel AME has grown from gatherings at the Hammonds’ dining room table during the 1980s to about 700 members, yet in their conversations with other religious leaders—Gloria as a teacher at Harvard Divinity School, Ray as cofounder of the Boston TenPoint Coalition, which works to help at-risk youth—they know many faith communities in Greater Boston are shrinking, not growing. They’ve seen the surveys that show the number of religious nones exploding and the number of professed Catholics declining. “The power of the Catholic Church to move a civic agenda or political agenda is much reduced,” White-Hammond observes. “I even worry about the power of the black church to mobilize people in the same way that was the case traditionally.”

For strength in numbers, Bethel joined the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, a coalition of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim congregations that speaks out on issues from criminal-justice reform to healthcare to affordable housing. “Now, to move major issues, you need a larger tent, a larger coalition—and even deeper kinds of organizing techniques and political engagement,” Hammond says.

To attract members, the Hammonds have worked to make Bethel AME a place for those estranged from religion—people suffering from “church hurt,” Hammond calls it. Some people felt unaccepted in their old congregation because of class, gender, or exual identity. Others were disillusioned by “betrayal of some sort that caught people unawares—leadership, financial, sexual shenanigans,” Hammond says. “We’ve often come to be known as a place where, if you need some time to recover, you can go there,” he says. “People will sit down and talk with you about it.”

Like Bethel AME, other congregations are also trying to welcome people alienated from religion. At Temple Israel of Boston, the largest Reform Jewish synagogue in New England, Senior Rabbi Elaine Zecher says many members don’t believe in God. “But then I would say, ‘Well, what God don’t you believe in?’” she says. “Is it a theistic God that is looking down on us? Is it the kind of God that is manifest in the way that people interact with each other? Is it a kind of God that is the still, small voice within us that is likened to our conscience?”

In 2016, Zecher broke what she calls the “stained-glass ceiling” to become the first female senior rabbi of Temple Israel, founded in 1854. She defines religion broadly. “I think a religious person is someone who sees beyond themselves,” she says. Temple Israel, with 1,400 families, holds services during the High Holy Days that reflect different aspects of religiosity: The meditative Sage service includes less liturgy, but a lot of listening and speaking, while the informal Purple service includes a walking meditation, singing, and a band with a violin, cello, and clarinet. The Riverway Project, named after the temple’s location on Boston’s Riverway, attracts members in their twenties and thirties. “People say, ‘My spirituality is meditation,’ and then they come, and they say, ‘You do meditation here?’ or ‘You do tai chi here?’ or ‘You do yoga?’” Zecher says. “We recognize that there are lots of different ways people have on-ramps into the religious world.”

At First Church Boston in the Back Bay—literally Boston’s first church, founded by John Winthrop in 1630—the Puritans’ original spiritual home has evolved into a Unitarian Universalist church, where people of any faith, or none, are welcome. “We have atheists and agnostics who come here,” Stephen Kendrick says. “And here’s the deal: Those atheists and agnostics hurt, and need friends, and want to be involved in social justice, and want to be part of a religious tradition that goes back 400 years.” Though Kendrick considers himself a Christian, he ministers to many Unitarian Universalists who don’t. Church, to him, is “whoever needs me,” he says. “I just don’t think we can possibly do life on our own.” It also helps people to be more generous and courageous, he says, rather than dwell on ego and personal concerns. “Religious community is not based on doctrine,” he argues. “It’s based on a shared recognition of our humanity and our mortality.”

The Reverend Mariama White-Hammond, Ray and Gloria’s daughter, has developed her own answer to what her parents call “church hurt.” She’s started a new congregation, New Roots AME Church, for people alienated from other churches. The emcee of the January 2017 Women’s March on Boston Common, White-Hammond says her activism has put her in touch with young people who didn’t belong to a church but were interested in talking with her about spirituality and, sometimes, about Jesus’s teachings. “What does it mean that I’m having these conversations with people, but they don’t feel comfortable coming to church?” she asks. “What would it mean to create a community where these folks would feel welcome?” Her answer, she says, is a new congregation with one traditional service a month, and three weeks of small-group discussions about belief, doubt, and “how to live the kind of life Jesus lived.” But those who aren’t sure they want to be Christian are welcome in their uncertainty, she says. “A lot of churches would want them to answer that question quickly.” Now, however, God has too much competition to be pushy.

Inside Artisan’s Asylum, a vast maker space in Somerville, artists on scooters zip down the hallway between studio spaces. Down the hall from an area filled with homemade toy robots, a sign lists eight rules, ending with “Make Awesome Things! Help Other People Make Awesome Things!” It’s not church, but to former member services and outreach manager Jess Muise, it might be something close.

The warehouse-size building near Union Square is a working home for 170 artists. In eight years, the nonprofit has grown quickly from a community arts center to a workspace for craftspeople and, often, an incubator for their small businesses. Membership isn’t cheap: Monthly dues are $95 to $200 and it costs $170 to $340 a month for studio space. Yet it’s a community built on a set of rules involving mutual support and safety. Members chip in to help one another when someone’s stuck on a project. If they see another person doing something unsafe—working without safety glasses, using a tool incorrectly—they step in. They take care of each other.

When Harvard Divinity School scholars Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile began exploring where people are finding community, comfort, and even something spiritual for their project “How We Gather,” they took a close look at Artisan’s Asylum. Their 2015 report found that millennial nones are flocking to new organizations that offer community, accountability, and a chance to find a purpose—some, though not all, of what religious people find in religion.

For more and more people, the need for spiritual community is bringing them to places like this. “We’re not saying, ‘We’re a church for making,’” Muise says. Yet she thinks Artisan’s Asylum is like a spiritual community in some ways, according to a definition she learned in the Boston Community Leaders Cohort, an organization of secular and religious groups that grew out of Thurston and ter Kuile’s work: Spirituality is that which deals with ultimate meaning. “I think people find their meaning here in their craft,” she says. The community has also grown into its own kind of support system, looking after its members when they’re sick or going through hard times. For Thurston, there’s a touch of the divine in that. “I encountered the phrase ‘spiritual but not religious’ in 2009 on Match.com for the first time, and began wondering where all those people are going,” she says. All around her in the arts world in Brooklyn, she found her peers “unattached religiously, and yet in some way, [they] cobbled together a spiritual life.” She discovered that leaders in these communities ended up being treated like pastors: “People are asking their SoulCycle instructors to perform their weddings.”

A guest book at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross; Jess Muise, at Artisan's Asylum

A guest book at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross; Jess Muise, at Artisan’s Asylum. Photos by PJ Couture

In the absence of church, in other words, people are looking for ways to connect. That’s the idea behind Skip the Small Talk, a recent startup business that hosts deep conversations among strangers, founded by cohort alum Ashley Kirsner, 29. Held every other Wednesday at Aeronaut Brewing Co. in Somerville—admission $10—the event invites strangers to hold structured conversations with one another, using questions printed on cards, such as, “If you’re going to become close friends with me, what would I need to know about you?” Kirsner was inspired by her experiences as a researcher in university psychology labs, as a volunteer on the Samaritans’ suicide-prevention hotline, and a previous experiment, CommuniT, in which she got conversations going between strangers in the Park Street and Harvard T stations. “We found that no matter what event we hosted and no matter how cheerful it was, by the end of it, at least one person would be hugging me and crying and telling me their life story,” she says.

Kirsner, an atheist who was raised Jewish, says there’s a connection between her atheism and her work’s meaning. “Because I don’t get a sense of spiritual support or strength from an idea of a god,” she says, “my sense of what other people experience when they believe in God now comes from a sense of human connection.” At Skip the Small Talk, now her full-time job, Kirsner has seen people become friends and make real connections based on empathy. “I think it’s giving people a place to be seen and understood, and to practice seeing and understanding other people,” she says. “I think that’s important when you’re feeling socially isolated.” Church or temple, she agrees, offers more opportunities to do that. But for people who might feel out of place in a house of worship, it’s a welcoming community.

Do these casual meet-ups really fill the void left by the religious institutions that people—especially younger folks—are walking away from? It’s hard to say. But across Boston, many have left their childhood religion behind for a sort of universal spirituality, informed by a broad tolerance. Kevin Frazier, 25, a master’s student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government attending a Saturday-morning yoga class at Aeronaut Brewing Co., says he was raised Presbyterian but left religion behind as a college student after studying Northern Ireland’s Troubles in Belfast with a human-rights organization. “I think I walked away from religion because I think religion divides people,” he says. He’s still guided by the Golden Rule, and by political philosopher John Rawls’s theory of justice: “If I were randomly going to be placed in someone else’s shoes, that’s how I should think through a decision.”

This patchwork of guiding principles, borrowed mostly from religious ideas and makeshift communities, is becoming the new norm. “This is a very big phenomenon among undergraduate students: the spiritual, not religious,” says Megan Goodwin, a visiting lecturer of philosophy and religion at Northeastern University. Millennials will universalize the Christian New Testament’s Golden Rule into “something that works equally well for everyone,” Goodwin observes, and practice meditation or yoga—“folding in what had been Hindu and Buddhist religious practices that don’t get thought of that way anymore.”

Religious leaders in Boston, even the most open-minded, unsurprisingly doubt that the artist guilds, for-profit businesses, and fitness instructors—institutions that the How We Gather report cited as new centers of meaning in people’s lives—can really do what they do. “Where I have concern is when people say, yeah, people aren’t affiliating, they’re not connecting, they’re not wanting to connect,” says Temple Israel’s Zecher, “so let’s…re-create the whole community, as if all of these churches and synagogues and mosques and institutions don’t exist.” New, non-religious communities of meaning have no track record and may not last, she says, compared with new groups attached to a congregation. Temple Israel’s Riverway Project, aimed at younger adults, has thrived for more than a decade, she says, “because it’s tethered to something that is stable.”

Kendrick, at First Church Boston, has read the How We Gather report and thinks it’s off-track. The new communities of meaning, he notes, tend to be “younger professionals hanging out together with younger professionals.” He doubts they’ll help people cope with aging and mortality, like religion does. “As far as I can make out,” he says, “the church is the only place left in society where you have friendships [between] a kid who’s eight and a person who’s 80.” Religious clergy are the ones who step into hospitals and nursing homes to be there for the sick and dying. Will members of these other community organizations do the same?

Maybe. It’s hard to know if these new communities can survive, and what will happen if they don’t. Will people skip from one social group to another, finding solace in hobbies and community groups? Or will institutions like Epstein’s Humanist Hub, which so closely replicates what churches do, start to more firmly take the place of churches and temples? It’s possible we’ll even see a return to those houses of worship that are right now trying so hard to keep up with their communities’ new values. What’s clear, however, is that whatever comes next will look much different than the old, Catholic city that for so long everyone else just lived in.