On Drifters and the Disaffected: Pew Study on Religious Practice

changed-faithThe Pew Research Firm recently issued further reflections on a a 2007 Survey it did on religious practice and affiliation. There are important matters raised in this report for the Catholic Church to consider. Rather than reinvent to reportage on this matter I thought I might use a “blog technique” of posting an AP report and then commenting (in red) along the way. Please feel free to comment back. I don’t claim to have all the answers here. Just some reflections, some wake up calls and some rebuttals of mine to the survey and the reportage. The reporter is Eric Gorski, AP Religion Writer. Here then follows the Article with my red commentary


The U.S. is a nation of religious drifters, with about half of adults restlessly switching faith affiliation at least once during their lives, a new survey has found. And the reasons behind all the swapping greatly depend on whether one grows up kneeling at Roman Catholic Mass, praying in a Protestant pew or occupied with nonreligious pursuits, according to a report issued Monday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

While Catholics are more likely to leave the church because they stopped believing its teachings, many Protestants are driven to trade one Protestant denomination oraffiliation  for another because of changed life circumstances, the survey found.

The ranks of those unaffiliated with any religion, meanwhile, are growing not so much because of a lack of religious belief but because of disenchantment with religious leaders and institutions. In a certain sense all the Christian Denominations are in the boat together!

The report estimates that between 47 and 59 percent of U.S. adults have changed affiliation at least once. Most described just gradually drifting away from their childhood faith. Again, this fact does not just affect Catholics. Note too that word “drifting.” This is an important word to help keep things in perspective. While much commentary follows below on how people left due to disagreements over doctrine, the plain  fact is that many people just “drift” away. They don’t leave angry or as some sort of protest. They just gradually disconnect. What this means for the Church however is that we have to do a better job of keeping people engaged and connected. Liturgies need to be effective, nourishing and properly celebrated. People need to be engaged to participate more fully in Church life and the Church needs to be more relevant to their broader needs. Perhaps to include: marriage support and enrichment, Parent support groups, more opportunities for younger adult Catholics to meet, fall in love, marry, have lots of kids and raise ’em Catholic :-)! Seminars in parishes on imporatant ethical and social issues etc. The point is that the drifting and disconnect is real and the MAIN source of loss.

“This shows a sort of religion a la carte and how pervasive it is,” said D. Michael Lindsay, a Rice University sociologist of religion. “In some ways, it’s an indictment of organized Christianity. It suggests there’s a big open door for newcomers, but a wide back door where people are leaving.”

The report, “Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.,” sought to answer questions about widespread religion-changing identified in a 2007 Pew survey of 35,000 Americans. The new report, based on re-interviews withmore than 2,800 people from the original survey, focuses on religious populations that showed a lot of movement: ex-Catholics, ex-Protestants, Protestants who’ve swapped denominational families within Protestantism, and people raised unaffiliated who now belong to a faith.

The 2007 survey estimated that 44 percent of U.S. adults had left their childhood religious affiliation. This is a huge number!

But the re-interviews found the extent of religion-swapping likely is much greater. The new survey revealed that one in six Americans who belong to their childhood faith are “reverts” – people who left the faith, only to return later.

About two-thirds of those raised Catholic or Protestant who now claim no religious affiliation say they have changed faiths at least twice. Thirty-two percent of unaffiliated ex-Protestants said they’ve changed three times or more. What this means is that a lot of Catholic are no where now. They tried several other places but now belong nowhere: they claim “no religious affiliation” There is a saying, I have not seen numbers to back it up that the Largest denomination in this country by far is the Roman Catholic Church (this is clear numerically). But the second largest denomination is “former Catholics” who now go no where. The harvest is rich but the laborers seem few. One of the  purposes of this blog is to try to reach out and reconnect.

Age is another factor. Most people who left their childhood faith did so before turning 24, and a majority joined their current religion before 36.

Sixteen percent of U.S. adults identified as unaffiliated in the 2007 survey; 7 percent of Americans described being raised unaffiliated, suggesting many Americans end up leaving their religion for none.

About half of those who have become unaffiliated cited a belief that religious people are hypocritical, judgmental or insincere. Large numbers said they think religious organizations focus too much on rules, or that religious leaders are too focused on money and power. The uninspiring example of many Christians remains a big image problem for the churches. To be sure, we don’t evangelize merely with words but also with transformed lives. However one of the things we have to communicate a little better is that the Church is like a hospital. People are not surprised to find sick people in hospitals, a place theoretically associated with healing. But they understand that people are “on the mend” or being treated because they are sick. Well the Church is the same. We are not running some sort of “sanctified society ” here. We are here because to some extent we are all sick and in need of healing. The Church dispenses that healing as well as knowledge of “best practices” to avoid poor spiritual health but the fact is, we’re running a hospital and people should not be surprised to the “sick” among our ranks, all in various stages of recovery. As for being Judgemental, we expect doctors and healthcare workers to speak to us truthfully about what can harm us. We do not consider this judgemental. We may not always like it but we understand that it is their job to speak in this way and to exhort us to more healthy living. Why do fingers start wagging when clergy and Church leaders do this? Isn’t it really their job to prophetically uphold biblical doctrine and morality?  As for rules, what kind of healthcare can take place without rules. Clearly there are foods to be avoided in large quantities, clearly exercise is called for, clearly prescribed medicines must be taken in exactly proper does. But when it comes religion many people want to make it a vague sort of wishy-washy directive-free zone. So here too, we have a lot of work to do to answer thoughtfully and respectfully on the view that we are hypocritical, judgemental, too many rules etc. But we ought to have a clear answer as well that questions some of the premises involved in this criticism .

John Green, a University of Akron political scientist and a senior fellow with the Pew Forum, classified most unaffiliated as “dissatisfied consumers.” Only 4 percent identify as atheist or agnostic, and one-third say they just haven’t found the right religion. Some good news here. Outright Atheism seems a much bigger problem in Europe but here in American we still seem to be a nation that generally believes in the existence of God. However, that does not necessarily mean that all, even most believers go to Church regularly

“A lot of the unaffiliated seem to be OK with religion in the abstract,” Green said. “It’s just the religion they were involved in bothered them or they disagreed with it.”

The unaffiliated category is not just a destination. It’s also a departure point: a slight majority of those raised unaffiliated eventually join a faith tradition. Again, some good news here. Just because a person was not raised with religious observance does not necessarily mean that they will always stay unchurched. A lot of them, more than half, eventually find a church home.

Those who do eventually join a faith tradition cite several reasons: attraction of religious services and worship (74 percent), feeling unfulfilled spiritually (51 percent) or feeling called by God (55 percent). Interesting how 3/4 of the unchurched report that the liturgy is an important reason for their embrace of a faith tradition. Once again, we are reminded of the critical importance of liturgy celebrated well, effectively and in conformity with Church norms.

The survey found that Catholicism has suffered the greatest net loss in all the religion switching. Nearly six in 10 former Catholics who now are unaffiliated say they left Catholicism because of dissatisfaction with Catholic teachings on abortion and homosexuality. About half cited concerns about Catholic teachings on birth control and about four in 10 named unhappiness with Catholicism’s treatment of women. And here is a soul searching moment for the Church. Will we change our teachings just to keep members or will we preach the Gospel in season and out of season? Jesus often suffered the loss of many disciples for his teaching. In John 6 “Many left him and would no longer follow in his company as a result of the this [teaching on the Eucharist].” Likewise in Matthew 19 most seemingly rejected his teaching against divorce. So, is the Church about numbers or about the truth? But here too is another challenge for the Church. Many simply do not understand our teachings well. It is not our teachings that are being rejected but rather, a caricature of our teachings that is being rejected. In my conversations with Catholics, former Catholics and non-Catholics it is very often the case that the teachings of the Church have not been faithfully or fully communicated to them. Much of what they know has come from a hostile media or culture. Many of the teachings are often understood “out of context” or in extreme versions. The nuance of our teachings are not well communicated. This is on us. We cannot simply complain of a hostile culture or media. We have to get out there in the mix and effectively present our teachings thoughtfully and effectively. Our Sunday School, and adult Education has to get better and clearer. None of this guarantees that we will keep our numbers, but we ought to be sure that, if people reject our teachings, it really IS our teachings they reject. I am convinced that some are not rejecting Catholic teaching, but a false or incomplete version of Catholic teaching.

Converts to evangelicalism were more likely to cite their belief that Catholicism didn’t take the Bible literally enough, while mainline Protestants focused more on the treatment of women. But the mainline Protestants are in steep decline themselves and those who depart there are fewer in number. Further those who depart there often carry issues with them that we can do little to change. We cannot change our teachings on the ordination of women, or on homosexuality, or on abortion which the study also indicates as issues of importance to those who depart to mainline Protestant denominations. However, from those who depart to Evangelical denominations we might be able to learn more about things we CAN change. We can and should work more on developing better preaching in the Catholic clergy. We can and should do a better job of demonstratingour faith from the Scriptures. Good, solid Biblical based preaching is not at odds with Catholicism. Our teachings are there in Scripture and we need to do a better job of teaching from the Scripture. It is true we also have the sources of the Apostolic Tradition and have great respect for Natural Law. But it remains true that people report their hunger to taught the Scriptures and we can and should do a better job of teaching clearly. As for the reference to interpreting the Bible the Literally, no one does that all the time. If you think the Evangelicals or others do then why do they not interpret literally passage that call us to cut off our foot, or hand or tear out eye? Why do they not interpret the words of our Lord “This is my Body” literally? The notion of literalism is a simplistic one and again, as a Church we need to better explain our position here. But NO ONE interprets all of the Bible literally all the time. Catholics take a  lot of passages literally, others, due to context we interpret more symbolically. But so do the Evangelicals. The question is what to read literally. In the end I think the view that Catholics don’t “take the Bible Literally enough” really means that they don’t think we take the Bible seriously enough. Here I think we can make improvements. I think we do take the Bible very seriously as a Church. But our preaching and other teaching methods don’t always convey this very well.

Fewer than three in 10 former Catholics cited the clergy sexual abuse scandal as a factor – a finding that Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl cited as an example of the faith’s resilience.“Catholics can separate the sins and human failings of individuals from the substance of the faith,” Wuerl said in a statement. This is my experience too.

Wuerl said getting teenagers to weekly Mass greatly improves their chances of staying in the fold; the same holds true for Protestant teens attending services. Amen. Another huge group is young adults, 21-35 especially those who are not yet married. We need to do a better job of reaching them.

Perhaps too not enough study was done of those who have been hurt by the Church. Not by doctrine but by some insensitivity, by an omission, or comission of sin, whether by clergy or one of the faithful. If you are among those please consider contacting your local parish to let the healing begin. Don’t let anyone or anything get between you and the Lord who wants to minister to you through the sacraments and in the liturgy. The following video is about clergy sexual abuse specifically but allow it also to speak to others who were wounded in other ways. Let the healing begin.

One Reply to “On Drifters and the Disaffected: Pew Study on Religious Practice”

  1. “Sheep Stealing” would be a very appropriate name for this blog entry.

Comments are closed.