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More Americans are wondering about life’s purpose. But fewer say it’s important to find it

LifeWay Research, which is based in Nashville, Tennessee, reports that Americans today are less confident about the value of a quest for meaning.

Indonesian Muslims pray spaced apart as they practice social distancing to curb the spread of the new coronavirus during an evening prayer called “tarawih” marking the first eve of the holy fasting month of Ramadan at Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Monday, April 12, 2021. During Ramadan, the holiest month in Islamic calendar, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and sex from dawn to dusk.
Achmad Ibrahim, Associated Press

This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.

Soon after the NBA Finals last fall, my husband stumbled on a story about how Jeff Van Gundy, a basketball broadcaster, completed his 17-hour drive home from the tournament in total silence. My husband, who loves listening to music, podcasts and audiobooks, was shocked. He didn’t understand why anyone would want to be alone with his thoughts for that long.

I, on the other hand, really liked the idea. After chaotic work weeks or significant family events, I’ve long enjoyed going off on my own to think about what I’ve learned and what to do next.

According to new LifeWay Research data, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected many Americans the same way that milestone birthdays or bad days at work affect me. It’s prompted them to ponder deep questions like “What’s my life’s purpose?” or “How do I find meaning?”

In 2020, 57% of U.S. adults thought about finding meaning and purpose at least monthly, LifeWay Research reported. That figure’s risen 6% in the past 10 years.

“During COVID-19, many experiences, pleasures and metrics of success became irrelevant overnight,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “It is not surprising that more people thought about their purpose and what matters in life.”

However, it is surprising that this interest in reflecting on hard questions isn’t paired with a sense that finding purpose is important. Since 2011, Americans have lost confidence in the idea that they need to do something meaningful with their lives, LifeWay Research found.

There’s also growing doubt about whether there is more to life than this physical world, McConnell said.

“In the midst of such a discouraging season, fewer Americans are convinced there is something more to this life than their daily activities,” he said. “A growing number of Americans have become open to the idea that this might be as good as it gets.”

If you find that depressing, you’re not alone. But I think it’s safe to assume that the pandemic may have influenced people’s feelings about life’s meaning just as it affected what they think about during quiet time. As COVID-19 vaccinations lead to a resurgence of hope, we may also see a growth in confidence that it’s important to find your life’s purpose and then run with it.


Fresh off the press

The Supreme Court will soon issue a ruling in its biggest religion case this term. The lawsuit pits the city of Philadelphia against a Catholic foster care agency and LGBTQ anti-discrimination protections against religious freedom protections. Last week, I read through the transcript of November’s oral arguments and published a Twitter thread highlighting key takeaways. As we wait for the court’s decision, I encourage you to check out my colleagues’ previous articles on the case.


Term of the week: iftar

During Ramadan, Muslims abstain from eating, drinking water and doing many other things from sunrise to sundown. After sunset, they break their fast with the iftar, a meal that’s often shared with loved ones or fellow mosque members. The word iftar in Arabic can be translated to “break a fast,” according to Oxford Languages.


What I’m reading...

Before leading his basketball team to the Sweet Sixteen in this year’s NCAA Tournament, Oral Roberts University Coach Paul Mills sought out some unique professional training. He enrolled in an online master’s program in biblical and theological studies, believing that a deeper understanding of religion would help him lead young athletes. “I actually went to seminary to become a better coach. So, I have no desire to become a better pastor,” Mills recently told The Christian Post.

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, known for its daylong fasts and regular worship services, begins this week. Ahead of its start, imams and other Muslim leaders scrambled to get out the message that it’s OK to schedule a COVID-19 vaccine appointment on a fast day. The Associated Press recently wrote about this effort.

Within hours of taking office in January, President Joe Biden undid a Trump-era ban on travelers from a handful of Muslim-majority countries and foreshadowed additional changes to America’s immigration and refugee programs. Three months later, few of those promised adjustments have materialized and faith-based advocacy groups are beginning to get frustrated, according to Religion News Service. “Right now, the way that the refugee program is operating, it really is operating as if President Trump were still president,” said Jenny Yang, vice president for advocacy and policy at World Relief, to RNS.


Odds and ends

If you’re interested in more information about faith-based immigration advocacy, check out Georgetown University’s upcoming virtual event on “the human, moral, social and economic costs of (America’s) broken immigration system.” Speakers include the head of the National Association of Evangelicals and a Catholic bishop from Texas.