Just as atheism appeared to be becoming every intellectual's favorite plaything, U.S. News & World Report managed to discover that substantial numbers of people have been returning to more traditional rituals in their churches and synagogues.
In a recent sizable cover story in the magazine, reporter Jay Tolson began by noting that the many worshippers who make their way to St. Mary, Mother of God in downtown Washington, D.C., often site as a main draw the Tridentine Latin mass that's said every Sunday.
"Now that Pope Benedict XVI has loosened the restrictions on churches that want to observe the pre-Vatican II rite," wrote Tolson, "more parishes are availing themselves of the option. Call it part of a larger conservative shift within the church -- one that includes a renewed emphasis on such practices as personal confession and reciting the rosary as well as a resurgent interest in traditional monastic and religious orders."
(Tolson avoided discussing the controversial portions of the mass that pertain to Jews.)
This shift, the reporter noted, is not just happening in the Roman Catholic Church. He pointed to Trinity Fellowship Church in Richardson, Texas, which has returned to something that would have been considered nearly heretical in most evangelical Protestant churches just five or 10 years ago: a weekly Communion service. And several other congregations have followed suit.
And this reversion to tradition is not simply confined to Christianity. "In Judaism, too, in addition to a small but detectable surge in the Orthodox denomination, the most observant branch of the faith, even the moderate Conservative and the progressive Reform denominations are shifting toward the older ways, including the use of more Hebrew in the services or stricter observance of the Halakha (Jewish law). Many young adults who are joining the Jewish equivalent of the Christian emergent communities, the independent minyanim (plural of minyan, the quorum required for communal worship), are drawn in part by the commitment to traditional liturgical practices and observances. Reform may still be the largest Jewish denomination in America, but much of the faith's vitality is devoted to recapturing those traditions that modernizers dismissed as relics."
Tolson said that these changes defy "easy explanation." They're more substantial than a trend, but not organized enough to be called a movement. "It has to do more with how people practice their religion than with what they believe, though people caught up in this change often find that their beliefs are influenced, if not subtly altered, by the changes in their practice."
The reporter also insisted that the shift is not simply a return to the past. "Even while drawing on deep traditional resources, many participants are creating something new with the old forms. They are engaging in what Penn State sociologist of religion Roger Finke calls 'innovative returns to tradition.' "