Today’s Cincinnati Enquirer links to a report on the latest Pew Research Center survey of religion in America. Under the misleading headline “Christians drop, atheists and agnostics soar,” Pew finds that the number of “nones” — Americans who are unaffiliated with brand-name religion — is now at “22.8% of the U.S. (up from 16% just eight years ago) run second only to evangelicals (25.4%) and ahead of Catholics (20.8%) in religious market share.” At the risk of playing Pollyanna here, this isn’t as big a story as it seems. Nones were at 20% in 2012 and have definitely ticked up, but, contrary to the crowing of a mouthpiece from American Atheists quoted in the story, unaffiliated doesn’t mean atheist — or even agnostic. Two summers ago, Rodney Stark examined the 2013 Pew numbers and discovered just how religious these nones actually are:
Consider: The proportion of Americans who claim to be atheists has not increased even slightly since Gallup first asked about belief in God in 1944. Back then, 4% said they did not believe in God, and 3% or 4% give that answer today.
Most of those Americans who are reported as having no religion are not unreligious but only unaffiliated, and some of them even attend church. They do not belong to any specific denomination, but probably most of them would agree that they are Christians, had they been directly asked that question.
A far more important indicator, as many recent studies—including the Baylor National Religion Surveys—have found, is that those who say they have no religion are surprisingly religious. Most say they pray, and a third even report having had a religious experience. Half of these respondents who would be considered by survey takers to have “no religion” believe in angels.
Regarding Catholics, Pew finds high retention rates for children “reared in the faith” but a low conversion rate. Two other Catholic stats are highlighted in the linked report: (1) 13% of U.S. adults are former Catholics and (2) 16% of adults 18-24 are Catholic compared to 20.8% overall. Unlike previous generations, by and large young Catholics defecting from the Church aren’t headed to a nondenominational megacommunity but are, essentially, sleeping in on Sunday, i.e., they’re becoming “nones.” And all the Sunday night guitar Masses and clap-happy youth groups in the world won’t dent this trend.
We have been here before. When St. Peter Canisius, S.J., was assigned to Germany in the aftermath of the Protestant revolution in the late 16th century, he found a wasteland, with 2% Mass attendance rates and widespread ignorance about the faith. His solution?: (1) resacralizing the liturgy, e.g., through Eucharistic Adoration and faithfully implementing the Tridentine reforms of the Mass; and (2) catechesis, which he accomplished through the writing and teaching of three catechisms. Simply and almost singlehandedly, he brought the German people back from the brink, so much so that three centuries later the catechism in Germany was called “the Canisius.” It’s also worth noting that he always conducted himself with charity and restraint, assuming that most people had lapsed from the Faith through ignorance rather than contempt or malice. If you’re a concerned priest or laymen, you could do worse than follow St. Peter’s example.