On a recent train ride, I sat next to a young German woman living in the United States. She was raised by atheists, but had a deep religious longing. She was baptized and tried Christianity. Her experience of Christianity in Germany left her wanting something deeper, and through a friend, became a full convert to Islam.
This encounter was particularly intriguing coming so soon after Pew’s study on religion in the public forum. Some media commentators hail the decline of religious participation as a sign of the new order and the death of traditional religion in the U.S.
Reba Riley writing for Time sees a vindication of her catchy new book title, Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome. The flight of nones from traditional organized religion is a response to the inflexible dogmatism of said churches, and PTCS manifests itself physically as well as spiritually and emotionally. Recovery is a long process.
For Peter Manseau in the New York Times, this rise of the nones is a normal, healthy process; it’s an expression of the individual. Being members of a culture which demands independence and choice, a growing number of Americans are throwing off old-world dogmas in favor of a more personalized creed, and this is empowering.
Some commentators were more nuanced in their reception of the survey. David Briggs of the Association of Religious Data Archives wrote that the data for the nones is “inflated.” Many Americans are still Christian, but aren’t familiar with the specifics of their denomination, and the necessary follow-up questions were not asked.
Michael Gerson’s piece yesterday in the Washington Post is particularly insightful. Gerson does not rail against organized religion, nor does he hail empty churches as a sign of a new and improved zeitgeist. Rather, the rise of the nones is rooted in the exodus of “casual Christians.” These Christians were willing to participate in public ecclesial life insofar as it conformed to the public life of the day, but they were not interiorly convicted of the truths of the faith they professed.
It is indeed important to have a culture which supports a public religious life, and it’s a shame that this aspect of society is in decline. But it doesn’t seem like we should fill out the death certificate for Christianity, nor is there any coherence in Manseau’s do-it-yourself religion. The exit of casual, cultural Christians is unfortunate, but it provides an opportunity for renewal and the re-presentation of an all-encompassing faith in Jesus Christ.
In the past century or so, Christian denominations have often supported a belief system that appeals to the lowest common denominator, fears offending most of all, and ultimately fails to answer any of life’s deepest questions.
The young lady I talked with on the train sought something deeper than the emptiness of her parent’s atheism and the mores of a secular culture that focuses exclusively on self-satisfaction.
The Pew study challenges Christians. As the children of nones reject the non-faith of their parents, either Christians must offer them a real, coherent system, or expect to lose them to other, more radical systems of belief.
Dominic Bouck, O.P., is a Dominican brother of the Province of St. Joseph and a summer intern at First Things.