Misunderstanding the Rise of the Nones

By Phil Davignon, 15 October 2022
Image: Cody Lannom/Unsplash

 

By now it is well known that the Catholic Church in America—and organized religion more generally—must contend with the sudden growth of people who identify with “no religion.” Nearly 30% of Americans now check the box for “no religion,”[1] including 40 percent of millennials.[2] The Catholic Church has been hit especially hard: for each person who joins the Catholic Church, nearly seven leave.[3] Many who become religious “Nones” claim they no longer affiliate with organized religion because of its closemindedness, corruption, or an apparent incompatibility between science and religion.[4]

To some, these developments present a clear challenge with an obvious solution: do a better job catechizing young people by presenting them with arguments that prevent them from believing misconceptions about the Church. One of the most prominent promoters of this perspective is Bishop Robert Barron, who laments that “the reasons [Nones] offer for abandoning Christianity are just so uncompelling.” He continues, “I do blame teachers, catechists, evangelists, and academics within the Christian churches for not doing enough to keep our young people engaged. These studies consistently demonstrate that unless we believers seriously pick up our game intellectually, we’re going to keep losing our kids.”[5]

On the surface, this diagnosis is appealing because it identifies a clear problem whose solution fits within the existing ministry framework at most parishes and dioceses. If only catechists offered more intentional and compelling arguments for the faith, then fewer young people would drift away from the Church. While it is certainly true that better catechesis would provide a sturdier intellectual foundation for a life of faith—preventing some from leaving the Church—the idea that the growth of religious Nones can be attributed primarily to a low awareness of Catholic doctrine represents a misunderstanding of formation, deconversion processes, and human behavior more generally. Targeting common theological misconceptions may be helpful in some cases, but ultimately it only addresses the surface-level effects of the “rise of the Nones” rather than its underlying causes.

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Phil Davignon is Associate Professor and Chair of Sociology at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. His forthcoming book is Practicing Christians, Practical Atheists: How Cultural Liturgies and Everyday Practices Shape the Christian Life.

With thanks to Church Life Journal, a journal of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana, where this article originally appeared.

 

[1] Gregory A. Smith, “About Three-in-Ten U.S. Adults Are Now Religiously Unaffiliated.” Pew Research Center, December 14, 2021 (Accessed February 16, 2022).

[2] See “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.” Pew Research Center. October 17, 2019 (Accessed February 9, 2022)

[3] See Research Center. “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” Pew Research Center. May 12, 2015 (Accessed February 9, 2022).

[4] Michael Lipka. “Religious ‘Nones’ Are Not Only Growing, They’re Becoming More Secular.” Pew Research Center. November 11, 2015 (Accessed January 12, 2022). See also Nicolette Manglos-Weber and Christian Smith, “Understanding Former Young Catholics,” https://churchlife-info.nd.edu/former-young-catholics-report-chris-smith-notre-dame, 14. (Accessed June 16, 2022).

[5] Bishop Robert Barron, “Apologists, Catechists, Theologians: Wake Up!” August 30, 2016 (Accessed June 16, 2022).

 

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