It is a fact that there are about 22.5 million people in the U.S. who were baptized and raised Catholic, but who no longer self-identify as Catholic. A huge number to be sure.
But to be fair, the Catholic Church is huge to start with. There are 68 million Catholics in the US (in 2011), a number that dwarfs the second place finisher, Southern Baptists who report 16 million. Then come Methodists (7.6 million), then Mormons (6.1 million), etc., et al.
In other words, the biggest Christian Church by far is the Catholic Church and the second biggest Christian denomination by far is “Former Catholics.” Some, most actually, leave for nothing, others join other denominations, mostly Evangelicals, of many varieties.
But while our overall number of drifters and those who have departed is large, our actual rate of retention ranks significantly higher than any Protestant denomination.
Over at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) blog there is a significant amount of data presented [HERE]. Among the data is the Table at the upper right. It will be seen that Catholics retain 68% of those baptized and raised in the faith. This number is well ahead of all Protestant denominations, and as you can see, the Jewish people, Hindus, Muslims, Mormons and Greek Orthodox rank ahead of us in retaining members.
But take a special look at that number at the bottom of the pile, yes the very bottom. Atheists “retain” only thirty percent of their “flock.” To quote the CARA blog: And if you think it is challenging to be a Catholic parent, try being an Atheist parent! Some 70% of Americans raised to believe God does not exist end up being a member of a religion as an adult (about one in five former Atheists drift off to become an open-minded agnostic or None).
N.B this number reflects only those raised as Atheists. A large number of Atheists in this Country are “made” in the sense that they were raised to believe but now are Atheists. It remains to study how many of them remain atheists and for how long.
But as for those who are raised Atheist, the vast majority of whom later reject that atheism, Wow, and what a relief too.
Why? I remember the venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen observing many years ago that “Atheism is acquired.” In other words, no one is born an atheist, and atheism is not natural to the human person. Even the most casual observer of the human scene must accept that belief in God, is a natural and ubiquitous human trait. It therefore makes sense that Atheism, while a phase many pass through, it not usually an enduring state. We are spiritual by nature and “wired” to see beyond the merely physical, to the metaphysical, beyond the merely material to the mystical.
The catechism of the Catholic Church says,
- The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for (#27)
- Let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice.”5 Although man can forget God or reject him, He never ceases to call every man to seek him, so as to find life and happiness. (# 30)
- The human person: with his openness to truth and beauty, his sense of moral goodness, his freedom and the voice of his conscience, with his longings for the infinite and for happiness, man questions himself about God’s existence. In all this he discerns signs of his spiritual soul. the soul, the “seed of eternity we bear in ourselves, irreducible to the merely material”,9 can have its origin only in God. (# 33)
So there it is, we were made to know God, and God never stops calling! And in our infinite longings (something a finite world cannot give), and the deep drives in us toward goodness, beauty, truth, justice and the search for ultimate meaning, it makes sense that Atheism has a hard time holding the day.
Atheism is not our natural state, it is an acquired malady, a woefully, reductionist, materialist and inadequate explanation for us who are wired for the spiritual, the mystical, the eternal; yes, wired for God Himself. 70% of Atheists reject it, for some form of faith.
Therefore, do not give up, when it comes to evangelizing those who call themselves atheists. Stay in the conversation, even with the most militant. For remember militancy is often a sign of inner struggle. Remember too, they are made to know God, wired for the spiritual, and God is calling in innumerable ways.
Let me know your own thoughts at why Atheism has such a low “retention” rate.