Late at night, when I should be asleep, I read Ask Reddit, where a horde of anonymous strangers gather to ask and answer questions big and small.
Browse Ask Reddit for long and patterns will emerge. Queries are unwittingly recycled, and the more universal the question, the more often it appears.
Responses can number in the thousands, but they always hit on the same themes: It is hard to make adult friends because, perhaps excepting work, you have no natural place to meet them. In youth, school provides an organic space for informal encounters with people who live near you, have a similar schedule, and share many of your interests and cultural touchstones. But as you age, that sort of regular, casual interaction declines. Meanwhile, your leisure time decreases, and your interests become more idiosyncratic. By 30, you have few opportunities to meet new people, and you aren't sure when or how you'd hang out with them even if you did.
The remedies suggested are similarly uniform: Develop a hobby that can simulate the impromptu, repetitive encounters of school. Join a recreational sports league or a board games club on Meetup. Start volunteering or get involved in political activism. Whatever you do, find something that will expose you to roughly the same group of people at least once a week and eventually some of them may be your friends. Activity is the self-administered antidote to an epidemic of loneliness.
This is all fine so far as it goes. These are good things to do even if you aren't on a friend-hunt. But this advice is also a strange, new product of our time. Indeed, it is a uniquely modern attempt to reverse engineer a single aspect of a social structure that used to fill this very real need for community. That structure was church. (Of course, in other places and cultures, different religions and traditions, rather than Christianity, filled this role.)
It is common to think of church as a place for people to gather because they believe the same things about God. That isn't wrong, but neither is it complete. Congregants are linked by shared beliefs, yes, but were that the only function of church, we could explore and reinforce our beliefs from a distance, reading books and talking about our views online.
No, church is community. Shared belief is not a private mental framework but a basis for a whole shape of life, for sharing too in rituals, commitments, and friendship. At its best, church provides all three conditions sociologists identify as necessary to make friends — "proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other" — but it also provides much more.
Church unites us in a shared purpose more meaningful than sports or board games and more comprehensive than volunteering or activism. It binds together community and significance; it embeds us in a way of life where our responsibilities include ensuring no one is lonely. "Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister," so we rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. To share faith in God requires we share life with each other, because following Jesus is inherently communal and active.
This sort of robust community is a basic human need. Church fills a space in our lives that is meant to be filled. When it is gone, we feel its absence whether or not we know its name. The questions about friendship on Ask Reddit are questions that must arise without church, and the hobbyist answers they receive are the inevitable (and likely best) response when religion is an assumed non-option. That does not make them any less insufficient.
The Reddit lonely are not alone in this sad reverse engineering. Witness, for example, Ritual Design Lab in Silicon Valley, where a "small team of 'interaction designers' is working to generate new rituals for modern life." On offer is a personalized practice to inject meaning into one's day. "You tell us your problem. We will make you a ritual," promises the lab's peppy tagline. "The new generation, they want bite-size spirituality instead of a whole menu of courses," founder Kursat Ozenc told The Atlantic. "Design thinking ... can help people shape their spirituality based on their needs."
These rituals are "lightweight," Ozenc says. They add just a sprinkling of transcendence and fun. As philosopher Charles Taylor says in his magnum opus, A Secular Age, modern people can feel "a terrible flatness in the everyday." Silicon Valley's bespoke rituals posture themselves as a playful source of relief from, in Taylor's words, the "emptiness of the repeated, accelerating cycle of desire and fulfillment in consumer culture."
But these rituals are not real. They cannot do what we ask of them. A personalized ritual is part of that consumeristic cycle. It cannot fill the lack into which we pour it. It cannot overcome the terrible flatness. It cannot solemnize the big moments or dignify the small ones. It cannot return transcendence to our lives where it is missing any more than a board game club can provide a true sense of belonging.
"Atheists and agnostics have long tried to rebottle religion," wrote The New York Times' Mark Oppenheimer in 2016, "to get the community and the good works without the supernatural stuff. It has worked about as well as nonalcoholic beer. As with O'Doul's, converts are few, and rarely do they end up having a very good time." We may want the community and ritual of religion without the "supernatural stuff" and the ethical obligations it entails, but this sort of individualized comfort mechanism is at best a pale, disjointed counterfeit.
The felt need for friendship and meaning is valid, but these proposed remedies are part of the alienation, not its cure. Community cannot be manufactured; significance cannot be purchased.
"I've seen people reinventing the wheel, and as a rabbi I kind of laugh sometimes," Gil Steinlauf, who has worked with Ozenc, said in an interview with The Atlantic. "People say, 'Let's take Tuesday — and basically make it Shabbat.' It's just funny. Why are you trying to do that when there are already synagogues and churches and all kinds of things that exist for that?"
The answer, as Steinlauf immediately recognizes, is that it's easier. If your bespoke ritual stops making you feel good, you can drop it without consequence. If you aren't immediately clicking with the people at board game club, quit. If you stay, neither makes much, if any, non-monetary demand of you. This is cost-free religiosity. Even volunteering or activism is here pursued more for personal benefit than service to some higher goal.
I never comment on Reddit, but the friendship questions tempt me to reply. What I want to say is that the longings which clubs and bespoke rituals seek to fill deserve better than these answers. Such innovations may temporarily appease a lonely experience of empty immanence, but they cannot appease it forever. The hobbies and habits are not wrong, but they are not enough.
Still, any satisfaction that may be obtained here is a signpost. It shows you are not where you are meant to be. You have not found what you are seeking. It is, as C.S. Lewis puts it at the close of Surprised by Joy, a "pointer to something other and outer." Look and keep looking where it is pointing you.