Just a few days ago, the latest findings of the American Religious Identification Survey were published, and they revealed several interesting trends. One of the most startling is that northern New England — once a bastion of both Protestant and Catholic Christianity — is now the most unchurched section of the country, a distinction formerly held by the Pacific Northwest. Another intriguing fact is that, due to massive Hispanic immigration, the center of gravity for American Catholicism has shifted from the great cities of the eastern seaboard to the Southwest and southern California. (Something the Vatican recognized when it recently established Houston as a Cardinatial see).
And the survey shows that despite the exertions of Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher and their legion of media supporters, atheism has made very few inroads in the United States: only 1.6% of Americans self-identify as either atheist or agnostic. The professional atheists would no doubt attribute this to the ignorance of most Americans, but what it in fact shows is that atheism is not only unattractive but deeply irrational. Though most believers couldn’t state it with philosophical precision, they know instinctually that the contingency of the world has to be grounded, finally, in something non-contingent and that the universal intelligibility of nature is the result of a creative intelligence. They know, in a word, that it is reasonable to believe in God.
But the statistic that I found most intriguing and alarming is this one: the group that has grown most vigorously since the last comparable survey is the “nones,” that is to say, those who claim no religious affiliation at all. In 1990, only 8.2% of Americans claimed to belong to no church; in 2001, the number had risen to 14.2%, and in the recent poll, it has increased to 15%. One of the analysts commented that the “nones” were the only “denomination” whose numbers increased in every state in the Union. Now it is most important to note where the “nones” came from. They represent, disproportionately, a falling away from the mainstream Protestant churches. While the numbers of Roman Catholics and evangelical protestants have remained, since the last survey, fairly constant, the mainstream Protestant figures have plummeted: now only about 12% of Americans self-identify as Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist or United Church of Christ. And thereupon hangs a tale.
In the course of the twentieth century — and intensifying in the last forty years or so — the mainstream Protestant churches dramatically liberalized themselves. By this I mean that they abandoned, or at least softened, many of the doctrines of classical Christianity — Trinity, Incarnation, Sin, Redemption, Heaven and Hell — and embraced a kind of soft “spirituality.” They also heartily endorsed the social justice program of political liberalism without providing anything close to a properly theological justification for it. The result is that they became, more often than not, a faint echo of the political and psychological convictions of the secular culture. I have a friend who converted from Quakerism about ten years ago. He said that what prompted his conversion (at least in part) was that when his fellow Quakers rose to speak at the their Sunday assembly, presumably at the urging of the Holy Spirit, their opinions were remarkably similar to those expressed on the editorial page of the New York Times! A fellow student of mine years ago in a hospital chaplaincy training program was a member of a mainstream Protestant church, and he said one day, with great pride, that the doctrinal statements of his denomination were kept in a loose-leaf binder, since they were always subject to change!
That kind of doctrinal indifferentism and lazy secularism is precisely the recipe that produces the “nones.” John Henry Newman commented that one of the marks of a robust Christianity is “the power of assimilation,” by which he meant the capacity to take in from its environment what is conducive to its flourishing and to resist what is detrimental to its well-being. In this sense, a healthy religion is like a healthy organism that ranges around its world confidently taking in what it can and holding off what it must. The surest sign that an animal is unhealthy is that one or both of these capacities breaks down, and the surest sign that it is dead is that it has lost its distinctiveness, becoming utterly absorbed by its environment. That absorption by the cultural environment is precisely the fate of those Christian churches that lost their power of assimilation and resistance. The “nones” are, for the most part, simply those who have acknowledged this fact.
An authentic Christianity never hunkers down behind defensive walls, because its purpose is to transfigure the culture. But if it is to accomplish this end, it must be clear about what it stands for and what, by implication, it stands against. We Catholics must be vigilant in this regard, lest more of our own join the swelling ranks of the “nones.”