By Christopher Gunty
More and more people these days indicate that they have no religious preference. In surveys on religious trends in the United States reported recently by the Pew Center and by Gallup, about one in five or one in six Americans identify themselves as atheist, agnostic or “no religion in particular.”
The numbers are staggering. In a seminar conducted in mid-August in Washington, D.C., and attended by journalists and academics, researchers noted the changes in religious affiliation. The number of “nones,” that is, those who indicate no religious preference, rose sharply in the 1990s.
Even in tracking over the last five years, the trend continues upward. According to Gallup, the percentage of nones rose from 14.6 percent in 2008 to 17.8 percent. In surveys by Pew, the portion of nones grew from just over 15 percent in 2007 to just under 20 percent in 2012.
The researchers don’t quite agree on reasons for the increase. Gallup’s Frank Newport thinks people may feel freer these days to admit to not having a religious persuasion. The thinking goes that as our society has become more secularized, it’s OK – maybe even celebrated – to tell people you are not connected to a religion.
Researchers Michael Hout of New York University and Claude S. Fischer of the University of California, Berkeley, noted that the religiously unaffiliated are a complex group. They are not simply secular, nor are they necessarily “seekers.” Only about 30 percent of them are atheist or agnostic, but almost nine out of 10 of the unaffiliated (88 percent) are not looking for the right religion.
Several of the panelists noted that while many of the nones come from Protestant churches, the Catholic Church is in trouble, too. Greg Smith, director of religion surveys for Pew, pointed out that there are four former Catholics for every new convert.
How do we, as Catholic Christians, respond to such news? We could just throw up our hands and say, “They don’t know what they are missing,” but that is not what Jesus meant when he said, “Go, and teach all nations.”
Some of the nones attend religious services regularly, perhaps out of obligation, or because they attend with a family member. But the saddest part is that many of them are not seeking any connection to a higher power, and are not looking for a community to belong to. Where do they turn in times of trouble? With whom do they rejoice in times of joy?
In a May 3 homily, Pope Francis noted that people are courageous in pursuing careers and ambitions, but do not use the same courage in spreading the faith. “The lukewarm, lukewarm Christians, without courage … that hurts the Church so much,” he said. “We no longer have the … courage to pray toward heaven, or the courage to proclaim the Gospel.”
Do we have the courage to proclaim Christ and the Gospel message to our friends and families, even to strangers, who have no religious preference? They should see in us the joy we find in our faith. If not, we can expect more “nones,” and that’s none too good for our world.