By David G. Bonagura Jr., June 11, 2019
The number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation—dubbed “the Nones”—has been growing steadily for two decades. The Nones are now a slightly larger percentage of the American population than Catholics. But they are not all atheists: half say they believe in God. The problem for many of them is organized religion: over 70 percent of Nones never attend religious services, even though a little more than a third pray often and believe that heaven exists.
The issues that the Nones have with religion are well known: The Nones (as we all do) live in a radically individualistic culture that promotes personal choice when it comes to “values” like behaviors and beliefs; they have imbibed the relativist notion that there is no truth in spiritual or moral matters and that all religions are the same; they have been consumed by the inexhaustible quantity of worldly distractions and occupations that make the supernatural seem increasingly irrelevant.
Instead, the Nones who are not agnostics or atheists call themselves “spiritual,” meaning they seek after God as they like, entirely on their own terms.
Hence, for the Catholic faithful trying to reach the Nones, it is important to consider two questions: What is religion? And what does religion offer that the Nones may find attractive? The reality of the situation is painful: our society is constituted today so as to almost preclude religion as an impactful reality for Americans.
A religion is a prescribed set of beliefs and practices that regulate how we relate to the divine. Immediately we see how religion—with its prescriptions laid down in the past and rules for how we should believe and act—comes into conflict with the modern ethos of individualism and relativism. And this is only the beginning of the Nones quarrel with religion.
St. Thomas Aquinas defines religion as a virtue, classified under the cardinal virtue of justice, which regulates what a person rightfully owes another. A virtue is a good habit, and it is certainly good to render to another what he is owed. Since, as St. Thomas explains, “lordship belongs to God in a special and singular way, because He made all things, and has supreme dominion over all … a special kind of service is due to Him.”
Justice as a concept has not been lost on our society, but the idea of justice toward God certainly has, even for Catholics, who are rarely—if ever—taught that, since we receive the gift of life from God, we owe him certain things in return: attendance at Mass on Sunday; regular worship and prayer; obedience to the commandments and precepts of the Church. Today “the Sunday obligation” has been reduced to a life-style choice, as our common conception of God, in the Church and across America, has flipped the very notion of obligation: now we approach God with entitlement to what we think we are owed by him as we seek “self-help” and demand his approval of our will to be done.
Finally, religion has a tremendous impact on culture: the two are inseparable, as the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson reminds us: “Religion is the bond between man and God, between human society and the spiritual world” that inspires, in varying ways among different peoples and ages, our arts, architecture, governance, and social interaction. In fact, Dawson argues that “every great civilization that exists in the world today has a great religion associated with it.”
It is no surprise, then, that the secular wave consuming Europe and the United States, in driving religion from public life, can count the corruption of morality and society among its fruits. With the Christian religion no longer providing moral standards for our common life, into the vacuum has rushed abortion, a sexual immorality that was completely unimaginable seventy years ago, and a collapse of family life. The formlessness of modern art and the sheer ugliness of so many churches built in the last half century demonstrate that without respect for a transcendent order, we produce instead goofy distortions of our myopic views of the universe. And surely in a society animated by Christianity it is more difficult to conceive culture wars and anonymous neighbors as we have them today.
With so many factors working against religion today, the odds of evangelizing the Nones successfully are, frankly, low. Witness, for example, the “Nuns and Nones” project where Millennials move into a convent with Catholic religious sisters to learn how to be sustained in a lifelong commitment to social justice. We are told that “many of the Nones [in this program] are looking at Roman Catholicism anew, even as they rarely use the word, speaking about it more loosely in the new image of spirituality.” This includes a reinterpretation of the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience away from God and toward the priorities of our secular world. These Nones want “a road map for life and ritual, rather than a belief system.”
It is unlikely that, alone, a rational argument in favor of religion will convince these Nones of the importance and benefits of religion, though we certainly need to be ready to explain religion if the opportunity allows. Since religion is so stigmatized today, we have to present first its positive fruits—beauty, community, purpose—that will be attractive to Nones seeking a genuine spirituality. Later, we then point to the source of these fruits, the Triune God.
To succeed, faithful Catholics have to do their part to ensure that our Masses and church buildings are truly beautiful, that our parishes offer a genuine fellowship for those seeking it, and that our homilies and programs teach the fullness of our faith in light of our eternal destiny with God. We must provide a real encounter with the transcendent God and with a people genuinely in love with him. If we instead offer a religious version of contemporary entertainment and values, the Nones who are seeking something real will go look somewhere else.
Armed with the weapons of beauty, community, and purpose we can make the appeal that, when it comes to God, we are far better off relating to him in union with others, both our contemporaries and our ancestors, than on our own. For without the help of religion, we miss so much about God when doing spirituality on our own. Perhaps then the Nones will see that individualist spirituality is bound to fail since its strength rests on the many limits and foibles of the individual person. Far better to try religion, with its house built on the rock of God, than on the sandy foundation of secularism.
David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches classical languages at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism (Cluny Media).