The modern rites of courtship

The theory behind "speed dating" is simple, even if the logistics sound complex. At many such events, young women sit in a circle surrounded by a circle of young men. For eight minutes participants ask the person in front of them some personal questions, hopefully adding new details to questionnaires they filled out beforehand.

The circles keep rotating one chair at a time, creating a series of face-to-face encounters. Organizers then round up the data and look for signs that something clicked for somebody.

"You don't waste a lot of time on one person, there is a large pool of people, they are pre-selected and they are not drunk. So there are some big advantages over the club scene," noted Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University.

The very existence of "speed dating" is evidence that many single adults and their parents believe something has gone terribly wrong in the world of love and courtship, she said, during a recent Emory University conference on sex, marriage, family and faith.

This raises a serious question: Would it help if religious congregations started holding "speed dating" events of their own?

Whitehead thinks it is significant that some Catholics, Evangelicals and other highly committed religious believers are already starting Internet dating services. And then there is the network called JMOMS -- Jewish Mothers Organizing Matches. Sometimes a concept can be timely and timeless at the same time.

But these efforts are not the norm. Most religious institutions appear to have conceded love and romance to the secular powers that be.

"So many faith communities are totally oriented to married couples and those with children and they can't seem to catch up with the demographic realities that single people face today," said Whitehead. "Meanwhile, in the sexual free-for-all of our age, it is the conservative, the more traditional singles -- especially the women --who are going to get ditched. They are in the most vulnerable position, because the whole club and bar dating scene is just not going to work for them. The last thing they need is for churches to abandon them."

This void is a modern phenomenon. For centuries, said Whitehead, the rites of courtship took place in the context of three great institutions -- the extended family, the school and the church.

Religious leaders played a vital role in shaping the relationships that were later blessed at their altars.

"But today, all three institutions are increasingly remote from where people are in their adult life course when they begin to seriously look for a mate," she said. Most singles are "living independently, often far from home. They are also emotionally far from home. They are not going to pick up the phone and call mommy and daddy to talk about their dating prospects."

While writing her most recent book, "Why There Are No Good Men Left," Whitehead interviewed scores of single adults, especially young women. She also studied personal ads and shelves of bestsellers about dating.

What she found was confusion and conflicting values.

Modern singles are looking for "soul mates" and they fear divorce. But most also want mates who work out, eat right and have "some edge." What seems to matter the most, she said, is "competitive physical excellence." Love is defined in terms of chemistry, emotion and sex. The hard work of "testing the relationship" comes later.

Few seem concerned about faith. Most young singles that mention religion, she noted, want this religious affiliation to be as "diluted, mild and inoffensive as possible." They describe themselves with phrases such as "Jewish, but not very," "realistic Catholic," "Protestant, but not a Bible thumper" or "very spiritual, in a nondenominational way."

Thus, modern dating rites are defined by "The Bachelor," Maxim, "Friends," Self Magazine and other forces that focus more on perfect abdominals than moral absolutes.

If clergy and parents care, then they need to act, said Whitehead.

"What we have is an absence of places where serious, marriage-minded people can find each other," she said. "Our churches are not helping. Our colleges are not helping. The religious centers at our colleges and the alumni offices are not helping. ... It's like we have suddenly decided that young men and women are supposed to do this totally on their own."