Why Catholics should be alarmed about the rise of the religious 'nones'

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With so many saying they have abandoned their childhood faith because of science, the Church in the United States has an urgent mission to engage the culture, said one expert.

"The new evangelization is as needed as ever," Dr. Matthew Bunson, EWTN Senior Contributor, concluded from a Pew Research study on "Choosing a New Church."

"As Catholics we need to be very much aware of the immense dangers that are emerging, culturally, when we lose a sense of God," he added, saying that "dialogue with culture is absolutely essential now."

The Pew study, released Tuesday, shows that among the "nones" – those currently not a member of any religion – around eight-in-ten were once raised in a particular religion. About half of those explained their departure from their childhood faith by saying they simply didn't believe anymore, and some mentioned "science" as a reason for their unbelief.

"I'm a scientist now, and I don't believe in miracles," one respondent was reported as saying. Others cited "common sense," "logic," or "lack of evidence" as reasons for their unbelief.

The "nones" have been growing in number quickly, from an estimated 36.6 million in 2007 to an estimated 55.8 million in 2014, Pew reported in 2015. "35% of Millennials (those born 1981-1996) are 'nones,'" Pew said. Some identify as atheists or agnostics, others say their religion is "nothing in particular."

Tuesday's numbers showed the "mainline Protestant" ecclesial communions in a "state of total collapse," Bunson noted, especially among "young people in particular" who said they stopped believing in their religion because of reasons such as they "discovered evolution in college."

"All of us need to be much more aware of how susceptible young people are to what is now a relentless cultural message of scepticism, of cynicism, and outright hostility," he insisted. "And it cuts across all areas of life today, from morality and sexual identity to science, to the basic perception of how the world functions."

"And we need to have a much stronger Catholic ethos that prepares young people for that level of hostility," he said, "especially in college."

Overall, the numbers of people dropping out of institutional religion show that many believe there to be "an apparent, irreconcilable conflict between faith and reason, between science and the Church," Bunson said.

"So it's incumbent on us then, in the area of apologetics but also in evangelization, to help people in what is the age of not just skepticism, but the age of cynicism, to understand the faith, to explain the faith, and to live the faith."

Among other findings of the Pew report were that, among Catholics who were searching for a new "congregation" to attend, 36 percent admitted to considering another denomination or religion.

That number, while high, was actually the lowest among the different religious identities, Bunson noted.

"There is a certain fidelity to remaining Catholic while looking," he said, but the overall numbers of people considering a change in religion "ties into the wider phenomenon of the spiritual quest that we see across the board" that "people are much more open to changing denominationally, which I think from a Catholic standpoint is very disturbing."

Among Catholics who were looking at changing to a new parish, the important factors listed were "location" (76 percent), "feeling welcomed by leaders" (71 percent), "quality of sermons" (67 percent), and "style of worship" (63 percent).

Among those who listed "quality of sermons" as an important factor in their decision, Catholics were actually much lower than Evangelical Protestants (94 percent), Mainline Protestants (87 percent) and Historically Black Protestants (92 percent), Bunson said.

This may be because "Catholics seem to have either lower expectations regarding sermons, or because as Catholics we are much more sacramentally-oriented, that they are willing to put up with a sermon that's less than stellar," Bunson said, especially since the Protestant communities traditionally "place a greater priority on that."

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However, Pope Francis has specifically exhorted priests to make sure their homilies "are not boring."

"Homiletics," Bunson said, "is something that has been stressed for a while now."

"Pope Francis is absolutely right, and I think Pope Francis has his finger on this very neatly, that when we're creating an environment that brings Catholics together, where they feel welcome but they feel also that they're receiving a nourishing form of preaching," he added.

More than seven-in-ten Catholics listed location as an "important" factor in looking for a new parish. The numbers showed "the relative ease that Catholics have in finding a new location to worship," Bunson continued, that "even in the face of parish closings and clusterings, Catholics still feel a ready access to a faith community, to worship, and obviously, then, to the sacraments."

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