What the Numbers Don’t Tell Us: Religion Is a Lived, Shifting Experience

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Having spent most of the last two years in conversation with Nones, seekers, doubters, and those who feel culturally bound to a religious tradition even while they don’t participate in one, the latest Pew survey results come as no surprise. It’s been clear for years that Mainline Protestant Christianity in America is on the decline.

That Catholicism also is in precipitous decline—and the news that the religiously unaffiliated now outnumber Catholics—is perhaps only surprising to those who haven’t attended a Catholic church recently.

Today, 13 percent of American adults are former Catholics. For every person who joins the Catholic church, six Catholics leave. “No other group,” according to Pew, “has such a lopsided ratio of losses to gains.”

When it comes to the topic of religious switching and the decline of converts to Catholicism, in spite of the popularity of Pope Francis, the church has work to do in terms of how it meets people where they arrive. The seeker who arrives at a Catholic church has very few options for being introduced to the faith.

After Vatican II, the Church designed an introductory course titled “The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults,” more commonly known as RCIA. The official handbook for RCIA focuses on what Paolo Friere would call the “banking concept” of education: pouring a lot of information about history and theology into the seeker, rather than providing people a space to ask questions, air doubts, and puzzle out what faith might mean in their everyday lives.

Among many other obvious reasons, including the sex abuse scandal and a lack of parity for women and LGBTQ people, this may be why the number of converts to Catholicism in America has shrunk so dramatically. The church, in many ways, has failed at being a place of encounter. In terms of its failure of retention, the church also has failed at asking itself some hard questions about what kind of religion it is modeling.

Rather than placing mercy and compassion at the forefront of its message, the American Catholic church in particular has become caught up in the culture wars, with a relentless and alienating focus on antiquated notions of sexuality and upholding “traditional marriage” that are deeply unappealing to Millennials and Gen Xers in particular.

An interesting point that many of the people I interviewed for my forthcoming book made is that they see themselves as “picky”— because they may choose and combine bits and pieces from many religious traditions but adhere strictly to no single one, they are practicing a new kind of religion, one which we might loosely call “DIY.”

But is pickiness really the reason why Christianity—and Catholicism in particular—is on the decline in America?

Perhaps. But pickiness also may indicate a level of discernment and thoughtfulness about what is non-negotiable in people’s search for a way of believing. The identity of being a seeker is no longer one that might result in a lifelong adherence to a single faith.

Younger generations of Americans are used to being able to customize and curate many things. Additionally, the shifts in the ways we live out careers, marriage, and family means that we are becoming more adaptable, more accustomed to constant change, and more able to see religion as one piece of a complex puzzle of life rather than a centralizing force.

Religion for many is becoming a lived and constantly shifting experience rather than a series of handed-down gestures and prayers.

The new Pew survey doesn’t tell us why that’s occurring, only that it is occurring, and that it is unstoppable. If we want to find out why, numbers and statistics are only a start. The next step will getting to know the religiously unaffiliated as individual people.


  • tosharen@yahoo.com' sharen says:

    Try, The Grace teachings of PASTOR JOSEPH PRINCE, Joel Osteen and family and Nick Vujicic, try all or one of the 3 giants that teach us all what we have always wanted to know. Jesus is the way the truth and life (LIGHT) Because of his great love for us all- he gave his life for our sins, plus tells us all exactly what we need to do in our daily walk to get a peace and joy like we have never known, EVER. Change is = teaching us all how to get a head in our life, not on someone else’s faith . On OUR FAITH, ON OUR OWN we can listen and learn from the best.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Have you considered the possibility that life might be such a complex puzzle because religion made it that way in the first place?

  • carole645@rocketmail.com' seashell says:

    As a none, this article helped me to realize why I stay a none. The religion I hear preached from political and religious leaders has nothing to do with mercy and compassion and living a rewarding, graceful life in the present. It seems to be full of God’s wrath, unending demands to repent and atone and threats of hell-fire in the present as well as eternity. No thanks.

  • dkeane123@comcast.net' DKeane123 says:

    “rather than providing people a space to ask questions, air doubts, and puzzle out what faith might mean in their everyday lives….this may be why the number of converts to Catholicism in America has shrunk so dramatically.” – I have a difficult time believing that there are somehow this group of people out there who are longing to become Catholics, but can’t seem to find the right space to discover the faith. Especially since the Vatican characterized the Irish Gay Marriage popular vote as a “defeat for humanity”.

  • dkeane123@comcast.net' DKeane123 says:

    Everyone knows that Vishnu is the only way – silly rabbit.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    If you want to know why this is occurring you have come to the right place. Try this little experiment. Look through the responses in the various threads here on RD and place them into two piles, nones and Christians. Look through these and that should give you the answer.

  • Dennis.Lurvey@live.com' GeniusPhx says:

    growing up in a Baptist family in the 50’s if we had a ‘crisis in faith’ (or a moment of clarity) we first went to our parents who told us the bible is the only truth we needed and just doubting that would get us to burn in hell. If that didn’t work they would take us to the pastor who would pray w us and have us ‘rededicate’ our lives to Jesus. There was no other alternative for us. As soon as I left home for the military I never gave Jesus another thought and still experienced growth and success in my life.

    Now we (and younger ppl) can go online and find ancient texts, archaeology from the first century and before, well researched documentaries, and evidence/proof of how the bible was written, by who, and why (might have something to do with the oldest written document being the recipe for beer).
    Even Israel has rejected the stories they started, 25% are atheist and 50% are seculars (no religion). That’s why religion is going away, because it was never true and now we know it.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    in the 50’s

    You must have served in Vietnam and not Iraq. That explains a lot.

  • Weissmanassoc@aol.com' Bagbabe53 says:

    I’m a boomer and a stubborn Cafeteria Catholic. The stats don’t surprise me at all, especially those concerning women. Several years ago, the theology department at Georgetown U found that the more formal education a woman achieves, the more likely she is to leave the church (three times more likely!). I think there are several reasons for this, the first being the second class status of RC women, the theological explanations for it and celibate clergy which make no sense (yes, all twelve of the apostles were male, but several were married, and they make no allowances for prominent female followers of Jesus, plus we allow married former Episcopal priests who convert to serve as RC priests). The early church allowed married clergy and female deacons; the questions of inheritance and land ownership are no longer relevant with modern legal contract systems.
    The RC church really needs to do a better job of priest recruitment and training, as well as putting the crazies out to pasture (they did this with Father Coughlin). Most priests (including my own pastor) are great, but I have to wonder when they send certain clueless guys out to the parishes. My daughter’s old doc and his wife (an RN and psychotherapist) are a case in point, and belong to a very educated, sophisticated, and affluent parish in VA just outside DC. Parishioners include prominent female scientists, lawyers, MDs, academics, and government leaders. One day a new priest came in and preached against women being ordained or taking any leadership roles in RC. The doc, his wife, and nearly all the women and girls (and many men) immediately walked out. And they are surprised women don’t flock to RC or stay in RC? WHERE DO THEY GET THESE PEOPLE?

  • tojby_2000@yahoo.com' apotropoxy says:

    “But is pickiness really the reason why Christianity—and Catholicism in particular—is on the decline in America?”


    Nope. Pickiness is the reason why folks still tolerate the tradition. Without it, there would be very little left.

  • s.d.stewart@gmail.com' Sam says:

    I am interested to see where this all leads. I wonder what more dynamic studies will find in 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100 years from now.

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