Churches challenged as young people lead trend of the unaffiliated

A young boy looks out from a pew during Good Friday prayers April 3 at St. Helena Catholic Church in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
A young boy looks out from a pew during Good Friday prayers April 3 at St. Helena Catholic Church in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

by Vinnie Rotondaro

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New numbers from the Pew Research Center paint a picture of America's religious landscape that is increasingly nonreligious.

The findings, which come by way of the organization's second "America's Changing Religious Landscape" report, show a dramatic rise in the number of "nones," a term demographers use to refer to people who claim no affiliation to organized religion.

"The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing," stated the Pew report, which was released May 12." Moreover, these changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups. ... The same trends are seen among whites, blacks and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education; and among women as well as men."

According to Pew's study, which surveyed 35,000 Americans, "nones" now constitute the second-largest slice of the overall U.S. religious marketplace, at 22.8 percent. They trail only evangelicals, at 25.4 percent, and leave Catholics in third place, at 20.8 percent. Their ranks grew nearly 7 percentage points since the first Pew religious landscape survey was taken in 2007. Meanwhile, the number of U.S. Christians shrank nearly 8 points, from 78.4 to 70.6 percent.

The trend "is big, it's broad, and it's everywhere," Pew's director of religion research, Alan Cooperman, told Religion News Service.

But what does it mean? And what does it portend for American Catholicism?

John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, called the rise of the nones "a trend that's been developing for a number of decades," one that "seems to have accelerated in the last seven years, so that the number of unaffiliated are up to over one-fifth of the adult population."

Not only has the trend accelerated, he said, "but it's broadened ... We see it in every part of the country, among every ethnic and racial group."

So it shouldn't be surprising to find that nones are "really quite diverse," said Green, who directs the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, Ohio. "Some of them are committed atheists, or agnostics, some of them are actually fairly religious people, they believe in God, engage in religious practices; they're just not involved in organized religion."

According to Pew's data, the overall number of nones was boosted by increases in atheists, up from 1.6 percent to 3.1 percent, and agnostics, up from 2.4 percent to 4 percent. But the greatest increase came among those who belong to "nothing in particular," up from 12.1 percent to 15.8 percent.

"It's not that they're hostile to religion," Green said, explaining the "nothing in particular" mentality. "They don't express negativity. It's just not for them."

'What's your religion?'

For many nones, Mark Silk wonders if it ever was.

Silk, who directs Trinity College's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life in Hartford, Conn., says the Pew data "needs to be understood in two dimensions."

"There is the idea that religion is dying and that people are giving it up, and that's not a trivial part of this story," he said. "There is some evidence that people, particularly younger people, seem to be moving away from religious beliefs and practices."

But there is a more subtle "dimension that has largely escaped attention," he said.

Sociologists and demographers "like to have fixed categories so that they can compare things over time," Silk said. "I argue that a significant part of this shift -- the rise of the people that are called 'nones,' people who, when they are asked, 'What's your religion?', answer, 'None' -- is due to people understanding that question differently now."

Back in the day, "you were baptized and raised as a Catholic, and that made you a Catholic, and unless you did something that affirmatively changed your position [you stayed a Catholic]," Silk said. "Maybe you haven't been to Mass in, you know, 20 years, and you certainly don't go to confession, but if I asked you 'What's your religion?' you'd say, 'Well, I'm a Catholic.'

"Nowadays, people of all ages -- and I think perhaps younger adults more than any -- see religious identity as a present choice," Silk said. They might say, " 'Yeah, I was baptized, I went to CCD, but you know, I don't do any of that stuff anymore. I'm out of the church. I don't have a religion. I'm a none.' "

It may be that people feel more freedom to step away, Silk said, or that there is less social pressure to identify. Whatever the reason, the category of "nones" has come into its own in American society, and Silk believes the attendant cultural change in understanding of the question "What's your religion?" could explain up to 50 percent of the rise.

Green, for his part, agreed that there is now less "social pressure" to declare a religion. "People who maybe in a previous time would have given at least the religion of their upbringing but really weren't involved now feel much more comfortable saying, 'I'm not really anything,' " he said.

Both say millennials pose the greatest question moving forward.

"The largest single group of the unaffiliated are younger people," Green said. "Millennials, and some of the other generations that are a little bit older."

"What's happening with younger adults is probably the biggest question," said Silk.

"Historically, people in their 20s will disengage from religion," he said. "They're unmarried, doing what people in their early 20s do, and when they do get married and do have kids, classically, they decide, 'Well, the kids have to learn something about this stuff,' and hook back in."

That cycle has been losing steam, Green said. "Since the 1950s, every generation has shown a higher rate of disaffiliation with organized religion, usually the religion of their childhood. And if you look at that trend, the millennials fit right in."

Green spoke of "generational replacement" taking place alongside "generational change." Not only do younger generations differ from older generations in the way they think and behave; increasingly, they replace older generations.

"Because each generation, when they were young, were less involved in organized religion, we now have a fair number of millennials who grew up in nonreligious households where their parents, and maybe even their grandparents, were not involved in organized religion," he said. "A portion of the unaffiliated are just reflecting the way they were raised."

Nevertheless, "the largest number of unaffiliated were raised with some kind of religious background," Green said.

Silk doesn't see many of them "hooking back in."

"Part of it may have to do with the fact that this new category of nones is available to them," he said. "In a world where you've gotten to call yourself a 'none' for a decade, you might not go back.

"My own anecdotal sense," he said, "is that people expecting a big flood back into the churches when all these millennials get married are probably whistling past the graveyard."

Catholic dimension

According to the Pew report, "The drop in the Christian share of the population has been driven mainly by declines among mainline Protestants and Catholics. Each of those large religious traditions has shrunk by approximately three percentage points since 2007."

The report notes, "Even as their numbers decline, American Christians -- like the U.S. population as a whole -- are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. Non-Hispanic whites now account for smaller shares of evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics than they did seven years earlier, while Hispanics have grown as a share of all three religious groups. Racial and ethnic minorities now make up 41% of Catholics (up from 35% in 2007), 24% of evangelical Protestants (up from 19%) and 14% of mainline Protestants (up from 9%)."

Meanwhile, it states, "Religious intermarriage also appears to be on the rise."

And "while many U.S. religious groups are aging, the unaffiliated are comparatively young -- and getting younger, on average, over time."

Pew's associate director of research, Greg Smith, told Religion News Service that "just 16 percent of the 18- to 24-year-olds today are Catholic, and that is not enough to offset the numbers lost to the aging and switching" to another religion.

Bottom line, the report states, "Like mainline Protestants, Catholics appear to be declining both as a percentage of the population and in absolute numbers. The new survey indicates there are about 51 million Catholic adults in the U.S. today, roughly 3 million fewer than in 2007. But taking margins of error into account, the decline in the number of Catholic adults could be as modest as 1 million."

Mark Gray takes those margins of error into account.

"The survey numbers for Catholics fall within the range of what polls typically find. However, Pew's result is at the lower end of what survey researchers often find," said Gray, director of CARA Catholic Polls at Georgetown's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (see story).

"The study also estimates that a minority of Hispanics self-identify as Catholic. This too is a finding that falls in a lower than expected range," he wrote in an email. "Given that most other surveys before and after the Pew study find that a larger percentage of U.S. adults are self-identifying as Catholic, it is likely that the Pew study represents a bit of an outlier estimate.

"Looking at the full range of survey data available, a declining trend [among Catholics in general] is not evident," he added. "It is possible, but not likely."

Fear is gone

Nevertheless, debates over research data aside, it cannot be denied that the church finds itself -- like the rest of American religion -- in the throes of tremendous change.

"It's an interesting phrase, 'nothing in particular,' " said William D'Antonio, who has spent the better part of his career surveying the beliefs and practices of American Catholics, publishing numerous books and countless articles. In 1993, he joined the Sociology Department at The Catholic University of America, and now is a fellow at the university's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.

"It's not at all surprising," he said. "Before 1960, we lived in a Catholic environment and Protestant environment in which hell was a very prominent possibility. That is, the belief that you would go to hell was so strong -- I mean we [Catholics] had a 75 percent Mass attendance back in 1958.

"But today, if you were to tell a young person, 'You might go to hell if you didn't go to church,' they would laugh. I would laugh.

"The fear is gone," he said. "Think about it."

D'Antonio believes "there is a loss of credibility in the old church, and that's what you find [Pope] Francis saying. ... It's worn out; it's not viable in this world."

At the same time, he notes, among millennials who still call themselves Catholic, only a small percentage, less than 25 percent, say they might leave the church. "In other words, in our samples still, a majority of young people say they will not leave the church," D'Antonio said.

Additionally, "within 10 years," he said, "the white non-Hispanic Catholic will be a minority. Catholics will be white, Hispanic, Asian, African -- and Asia includes India and the Philippines and the Vietnamese. This mix could produce an exciting new church."

"Could," said Green.

It's true "that most religious organizations will have a larger number of nonwhites going into the future," he said. "But our data sort of tempers that story by pointing out that the unaffiliated are rising among Hispanics and Asians and African-Americans, too. Particularly among younger ones.

"So one can't assume that just because of large Hispanic immigration that all those people will be religious. I mean, many of them may not. And so it could very well be that these trends in the growing numbers of nonwhites won't have as strong an impact as many have thought."

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is]

A version of this story appeared in the June 19-July 2, 2015 print issue under the headline: 'Nones' rise to second place.

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