American religiosity is declining. Apostasy was the Greek word for insurrection centuries ago. In my youth, Catholics who ceased believing were called “fallen away.” Today, we call “the unaffiliated” “the rise of the nones” (research poll respondents who chose “no religion”). “It’s not like I believe in nothing!” said one of my theology graduate students’ partner.
This is what right-wing commentators (mainly) say about the unaffiliated. These “nones” have been influenced by a secularist wave that threatens to replace traditional religiosity with moral relativism and collective decision-making with radical individual autonomy.
Everything becomes a personal whim.
Critics argue that young people have been captivated by nihilism, even if the shift is attributed to larger social factors. Despite research showing that most “nones” believe in a higher power.
This narrative is tempting because it fits with an apocalyptic picture of modernity that many on the Right (and some on the Left) like. Religious disaffiliation requires some secularization. Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher, argues that “no religion” is impossible without a universal religious consensus.
It wasn’t available before. Medieval Europeans could not “opt out” of religion because they lived in a religious world. Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, among others, did so freely after the Enlightenment. In the early Republic, many ordinary people did, but the Second Great Awakening shifted popular passion toward spirituality.
However, the evidence does not support the secularist tide theory of disaffiliation. Rather, such theory suggests confirmation bias. Sociological evidence is undisputed. Numerous American surveys—Gallup, Pew Research Center, General Social Survey, and others—show a strikingly similar pattern. From the late 1960s until 1990, only 7% of Americans claimed no faith. Nearly a third do, including nearly half of under-25 Americans.
From 1990, opting-out expanded rapidly. My pupil wondered, “What in the hell happened in 1990?” The US did not become secular. When Evangelical leaders grew hyper-focused on opposing LGBT individuals and same-sex couples, the strong association between Christianity and conservative politics became more prominent in the media.
Sociologists Michael Hout, Claude Fischer, and David Campbell and political scientist Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone) noted that many Americans decided that if being religious meant being conservative and condemning LGBT relationships, they could not be religious.
Disaffiliation has grown across generations and groups, especially among youth, during the 1990s. My undergraduate students have defaulted to not being religious. At the same time, America has become much more intellectually and politically split since the current disaffiliation began three decades ago.
Evangelicalism and Republican conservatism—which included many churchgoing white Catholics—became so intertwined that religious identity appeared increasingly defined by partisan agendas.
No surprise. The strong ideological division makes us use one side’s vocabulary. Most Catholic tradition is gone.
During the 2020 election, a faithful priest I’ve known for years defended his support of Donald Trump with Republican talking points, not Catholic teaching. Many Catholics now define Catholic identity by political purity, not doctrinal orthodoxy or sacramental discipleship.
Many Catholics view my Catholic university’s efforts to educate and resource Catholic pastoral leaders, practice Jesuit pedagogy, foster undergraduate moral formation, and publicly critique social injustice as irrelevant to its Catholic identity.
Even important social issues like abortion on the Right and economic justice on the Left have been reduced to political language, often forcefully stated without reference to Church doctrine. In disputes about abortion, racial justice, and gender identity, Catholic conceptions of personhood, unity, and God’s image are absent.
In a contentious situation, religious identity risks being separated from religion. Politics supplants morality. Many religious apologists sound secular. Indeed, those who accuse “nones” of believing in “nothing” act like they believe only in party politics. We teach unaffiliated youth that “religion” is political tribalism. Why bother?