Marybeth: Should we worry about the growth of the “Nones”?
In the spring of 2010, my husband and I traveled overseas to visit our daughter, Kate, who was studying abroad for the semester. Jim had been to Europe once on a backpacking trip with his law school roommate; a celebration of the end of grad school before they both started law firm jobs in distant cities. (Ah, the 80’s…)
I had never been to Europe, so the excuse of visiting our college girl was just the permission slip I needed to spend the time and money traveling in France and Italy.
I have literally thousands of photos to help me recall the extraordinary sights we saw in Europe, but the images that have stayed with me – the ones my husband and I have frequently talked about– the ones that haunt us a bit still… are the images of empty churches.
We attended Mass on both of the Sundays we were in Europe; once in Florence, once in Dijon, France. The latter was a 4:00 pm vigil mass on a Saturday afternoon at the Cathédrale Saint-Bénigne de Dijon, a beautiful church in the center of a bustling city.
At the time of our trip, I was 48; Jim was 51; Kate was 20. We were the youngest people in the sparsely filled cathedral by 15 years until a young family came in and took a pew in the back. At one point during the mass, their infant’s whimpers echoing through the rafters was a not-so-subtle reminder that the Church in Europe cries out for young people; cries out for children.
I fear that in a very short span of time, the church in America will be similarly afflicted. A new poll from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reveals that with respect to religion, a new “belief group” – the “Nones,” as Pew calls them – is the fastest growing segment in America.
Pew’s survey of more than 17,000 people calculates America as 43% Protestant, 22% Catholic, 2% Mormon, 1% Orthodox, 6% other religions, and a whopping 20% of Americans as “Nones,” with no declared religious affiliation. This represents an increase from 15.7% in 2007 – almost five percent in only five years.
Two pastors responded to the report in a USA Today article:
Rev. Eileen Lindner, a Presbyterian pastor and editor of the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, observes, “We are still twice as likely to be affiliated with a religion than Europeans, but there is strong evidence that our religious institutions, as we configured them in past centuries, are playing a less significant role in American life.”
Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptists Theological Seminary in Louisville, saw a welcome clarity in the report, even if he didn’t like the new picture in focus.
“Today, there’s no shame in saying you’re an unbeliever, no cultural pressure to claim a religious affiliation, no matter how remote or loose,” Mohler says. “This is a wake-up call. We have an incredible challenge ahead for committed Christians.”
The stats in the Pew study worry me. As non-affiliation grows, our culture suffers from the lack of mitigating moral structure that the church should provide. Worse, the study indicates that the new “Nones” aren’t a generation of lifelong unchurched non-believers, but rather they’re people who grew up in one denomination or another and walked out through the front door, rejecting the practice of organized religion as they were taught.
One theory about the growth of the “Nones” is that, like Europe, America is experiencing the religious malaise that comes with affluence. When you’re comfortable and you feel secure, you have less need of God and less desire to organize your life around the practice of religion.
If this is true, it’s not the only downside to our affluence. In fact, I think Jesus himself made a strong case against worldly comforts as a defining measure of our character: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mt 19:24).
Should we care? Does it matter if America gradually evolves into a European-style cultural Christianity that borrows from its religious heritage for things like holidays and military funerals and national disasters, but whose soul is unattended from day to day?
I think the answers are yes and yes. In fact, we should be deeply concerned about the growth of “None-ism” as a religious identification. The church – and by this I mean all institutions of organized religion – remains the greatest moral teacher known to man. When church engagement ceases, moral contemplation becomes merely an intellectual exercise for the few folks who might think it interesting to ponder such thoughts, but not for everyone; not for all of us as part of our moral development.
Worst of all, a lack of religious affiliation leaves a hole; a yearning; a desire to be fulfilled in some other profound way. Something will fill that hole – the culture, the ego, materialism, consumerism, environmentalism, humanism, anti-humanism… belief is a human thing. It’s what we’re wired to do. “Nones” may not be churched, but they will still cling to a religion of sorts.
If it’s not a religion that seeks God – and Truth – I fear that the fastest growing “religious” segment of our citizens is very vulnerable, indeed.