How Not Alone You Are.

How Not Alone You Are. February 6, 2015

When one is first contemplating the loss of one’s religion, one can start feeling really alone.

But none of us is really alone, especially right then.

Here is how not-alone you are if you’re starting to climb out of that pit.

The Pew Forum, a huge religion research group, has discovered that while officially some 25% of Americans are counted as Catholic, that doesn’t quite translate into such a huge group as Catholics would probably like to have. Some one-third of Americans were born and raised Catholic. But of those, just 25% actually still count themselves so. This same group also discovered that one out of ten Americans are ex-Catholic. Among native-born Americans, Protestants far outnumber them because Catholics in America are getting most of their numbers–and whatever growth they can claim to have–from immigrants.

Roman Catholic Church in Győrvár
Roman Catholic Church in Győrvár (Photo credit: Wikipedia). My favorite coffeeshop locally is in a repurposed church just like this one.

Catholics are definitely having a tough time of it. Just a couple of months ago, Catholics in the New York Archdiocese were stunned to hear that their 112 parishes are merging into 55 and that of those 55, 31 will likely be losing at least one of their two churches by the end of summer. The Brooklyn Diocese apparently did a similar merger a few years ago, moving from 199 parishes to 187. It’s not hard to see why these leaders must take such desperate measures; they might claim almost 3 million members around that area, but only 12% of those members actually regularly attend Mass–a number that’s been declining steadily for a while and does not seem likely to reverse.

What is happening in New York is just a small taste of what’s going on worldwide with the once-utterly-dominant Roman Catholic Church. In Ireland, a country that is likely synonymous with Catholicism, church attendance has dropped from 90% in 1984 to 18% in 2011, and that shift, too, seems unlikely to reverse. Ireland is facing a serious priest shortage at this point that seems unsalvageable, but then again, so is everywhere–and along with that shortage is a similar problem with nuns, whose average age hovers around 74 years old (for priests, things aren’t quite that dire; their average age is 59, but that still isn’t awesome).

Want to look at just Protestants? The numbers don’t look a lot healthier. Blogger Jack Wellman, reporting on a sermon by pastor James MacDonald, reports that some 80% of Protestant churches are either declining in growth or stagnating, and that thousands of churches close permanently every year. He goes on to claim that there are only half the number of churches today than there were a century ago and that “3500 people leave the church every single day.” Megachurches and some of the more extreme evangelical and fundamentalist denominations, as well as Mormons, are growing a tiny little bit, but smaller churches and the less extreme denominations (called “Mainline Protestants” by the cool kids) are shrinking. Pastors are starting to notice that young people, especially, reject the overwhelming sexism, racism, classism, and over-politicization of the worst aspects of Christianity–and are voting with their feet. For a couple of years now, various evangelicals have been trying to warn their peers of what’s written on the wall, but not to any marked success.

Though Americans tend to inflate their church attendance to pollsters, in reality less than 20% of Americans actually do attend church on any given Sunday. Of people who still identify as Christian, most don’t actually practice it; that study goes on to say that anywhere from 40-60% of the members of any given church are inactive. Even in states heavily dominated by Christianity, like Arkansas and Louisiana, regular church attendance hovers in the 25% range. The authors of that study go on to say that they suspect church attendance is going to drop to about 11% in the next few decades.

The Southern Baptists are very likely downright terrified at this point, given that their baptisms are lower now than they’ve been at any point since 1948. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) measures its growth in part by counting the number of baptisms they do, which is why they’re especially concerned that 25% of their churches didn’t baptize a single person in 2012 and that the majority hadn’t baptized any young people. But they were doing great at baptizing children under the age of five (to which one can only snarl disapprovingly at the rather predatory idea of doing something like that to a child too young to understand what’s going on just to inflate the numbers)! In 2006 they decided to set the rather ambitious goal of baptizing one million people, and not only did they not meet that goal but their actual number of baptisms, 364,826, marked a decline from the 371,850 they did in 2005. Whoopsie! (You’ll all be totally happy to know that the SBC’s president blamed this hilarious failure on members’ lack of proper obedience.) It’s hard to tell exactly how many of their churches are closing, but the conventional wisdom is 3500-4000 per year as of 2004 and I’ve heard that number echoed more recently by Thom Rainer of Lifeway.

Possibly the most damning figure of all regarding Protestantism’s prospects is an article from Reuters back in 2012 noting that banks are foreclosing on mortgage-defaulted churches in record–and dramatically rising–numbers, rising from “a handful” of bank-controlled churches being sold in the early 2000s, to 24 in 2008, to 138 in 2011, and to 270 since 2010, almost all of them, Reuters notes, occurring after foreclosure. A lot of churches in Europe have already been turned into art galleries, museums, and the like, and over here, I know of several that have become coffeshops and restaurants. Really, it’s too bad the Blues Brothers were Catholic; it sounds like these Protestant churches could sure use their help.

Adding to the existing problem of declining church membership, Americans move around a lot in terms of religion. The Pew Forum discovered that 28% of its survey respondents had left their birth religion for something else–either another religion or no religion. If you’re just looking at Protestantism, they go on to say, you’re looking at more like 44% of Americans making such a jump. Quite a few of those folks are moving to “None” territory: 16% of people in general are now unaffiliated “Nones,” but the younger the respondent the more likely that becomes–to the tune of 28% of the 18-25 crowd being “Nones.”

A “None” might not be an atheist; sometimes someone using that term is indicating mere disengagement, which is a term that means to pull away from outward shows of formal religious observance like prayer, church attendance, evangelism, Bible study, and the like. Nones might still be Christians, but they’re not affiliated with any formal groups. When asked what religion they are, these folks answer “none” instead of “Catholic” or whatever.

Just as the number of atheists is rising dramatically (with a huge number deconverting from Christianity, according to this admittedly self-reported poll of 250,000+ respondents so far), so are the numbers of these Nones. In the 1930s, only about 5% of Americans were Nones. That author goes on to say that in the UK the numbers are even more astonishing: from 3% in the 1960s to 44% today. Moreover, Nones aren’t actually interested in locating a replacement religion or church. They’re out, and they’re likely to stay out.

But those who don’t know about all these numbers would never know just how many people are leaving.

Nor would such folks in need necessarily know that there is a veritable flood of other ex-Christians alongside them, many similarly unaware of each other.

You’d certainly never know about this flood from Christian leaders themselves, whose entire livelihoods depend on donations from the flocks they are fleecing. Catholic leaders consistently claim that their numbers are holding steady–though their own surveys indicate that baptisms, wedding ceremonies, and confirmations are all either down or not holding steady with the growth they’re claiming and that of those Catholics who remain, more and more of them aren’t actually practicing the religion much, and I hear similar insistences from Protestant leaders who, if they can be compelled to admit there’s any problem at all, call “a challenge” what looks much more like an arterial spray of members departing.

Now, let’s stress something. A group’s number of members isn’t an indicator of its trueness or falseness, necessarily. There’ve been lots of false ideas with thousands, millions, even billions of believers, and lots of true ideas that have very few believers. There’s a good reason why there’s a fallacy about that called the Argument from Numbers. We don’t want to fall into that fallacy. My goal here is not to bury Christianity but to highlight the numbers of people who are recognizing that it isn’t working for them and who are subsequently leaving, so that if you’re in that kind of a boat, you know that even though it may look like there aren’t a lot of folks around who are like you, there really are.

You are not alone.

You are never alone.

Next week we’re going to start digging into how to tell what’s true and what’s false. By now, Christianity is a veritable minefield of pseudoscience and pseudohistory–some of it not only considered canonical but unquestionable. For laypeople and those not deeply educated in science, history, or for that matter Biblical criticism, it can be really hard to tell what to trust. I had to learn a lot of things from scratch, and I’m betting a lot of other ex-Christians find themselves in that same situation. So I want to talk next week about how I go about determining what’s true and how I go about forming an opinion. As always, I hope you’ll join me.

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