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Catholicism and “Nones”: The Data on Youth and Young Adults

World Youth Day pilgrims hold candles during eucharistic adoration with Pope Francis at the July 30, 2016 prayer vigil at the Field of Mercy in Krakow, Poland. (CNS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard)

Catholic campus ministry programs at secular institutions may provide the most immediate channel through which to spark more vigorous discussion among young adults concerning the limits of science and the role of faith.

Last year’s news was packed with reports of polling results.  Debates over what the data reveal and how best to respond to what they portend saturated talk shows and opinion pieces.

Most of the chatter, of course, concerned matters presidential.  Buried within all the noise about the race for the White House though, a series of surveys sounded out a different set of results with particular significance for the Catholic landscape in America.  With the campaign of 2016 now in the rear view mirror, and with the 2018 synod of bishops starting to appear on the horizon, an examination of reports released in the latter half of last year by the Pew Research Center and The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), respectively, is in order.  A comparison of the results of these surveys reveal some alarming consistencies that, while giving rise to concern, suggest a path forward toward fostering the faith of today’s younger generations.

The Pew survey was a follow-up to its 2015 report (discussed elsewhere in an earlier article) that revealed a sharp rise in the US adult population of ‘nones’—those identifying either as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular.  This religiously unaffiliated group grew from just over 16% of the US adult population in 2007 to 22.8% in 2014.  Most of the ‘nones’ have roots in organized religion.  Nearly 80% reported having been raised within a particular religious tradition.  It comes as little surprise then, that the increase in ‘nones’ paralleled a nearly eight percentage point decline in the number of Christians over the same period.  The Pew survey reported that Catholics were among segments of the Christian population that suffered the largest loss in numbers.

The news is cause for alarm.  Yet deeper concern for the future of the Church arises when taking into account the divergent paths in age demographic being taken by Catholics and ‘nones.’  The median age of ‘nones’ dropped from 36 to 38 from 2007 to 2014, while the median age of Catholic adults grew from 45 to 49 over the same period.  According to the data, Catholics are aging while the ‘nones’ are expanding their ranks among the young.

Pew set out to examine in further detail some of the reasons behind the growth of the ‘nones.’  The more recent report sets forth its results.  While the responses varied, topping the list of motives for ceasing the practice of any religion was the loss of faith.  Nearly half reported that a lack of belief triggered the decision to leave religion behind.  A frequently cited reason for the abandonment of religious practice was a perceived incompatibility of faith with science.

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