I recently read a very sad article entitled, “’Nones’ at the Peripheries.” It appeared on the website of a Catholic news provider called The Pillar and was the final installment of a series of articles about a survey commissioned by The Pillar which I also wrote about in this space a few weeks ago. This particular article focused in on a segment of our country’s population that is religiously unaffiliated. They are often referred to as the “nones,” since their response to the question of religious affiliation is “none.” And their number is growing rapidly. The survey reports that, “Among people born from 1960 to 1989, ‘nones’ make up 14% of our national sample. But among those born since 1990, 20% of respondents say they have no religious affiliation.” Even more striking is the statistic that shows that among those born since 1990, more people identify as “nones” than identify as Catholics.
The tendency of disaffiliation among “nones” extends beyond religion. They are also less likely to identify with either traditional political party, and are twice as unlikely to vote in elections than other members of their demographic cohort. In fact, when asked whether they would identify themselves as liberal or conservative, 16% of “nones” born in the 1990s responded, “I don’t know,” compared with 9% of other participants in the poll. “Nones” are less likely to get married, and even more unlikely to have children. The Pillar found that almost half of “nones” between the ages of 32-41 have no children. The poll shows that this growing segment of our population is “less affluent, less educated, less likely to be married, less likely to have children, more likely to belong to racial minorities, and less likely to fit within mainstream political parties and movements than others their age.”
The article is sad because Christ loves these young men and women, and it seems like they have been left to drift through life without real help from the Church. The problem seems to stem from their deep skepticism about authority in general – including religious authority. Although they are in many ways alienated from institutional religion, 44% of those who are “nones” say they “definitely” believe in God. In fact, 70% of “nones” profess belief in some higher power. This means that they have hearts and minds open to the transcendent, which should make them open to hear the Gospel.
The authors of the study write: “As the Church seeks to fulfill its mission of evangelization, especially toward those who are socially marginalized, the “nones” are clearly both a priority and a challenge. Alienated from relationships, from religion, and from politics; poorer, less educated, made up of a larger percentage of minorities than the rest of Americans, the “nones” seem precisely those to whom Catholics are called to proclaim the Gospel, and stand in solidarity.”
So how does one connect with someone who is suspicious of institutional authority but open to a relationship with God? The answer, it seems to me, is Christian friendship. But friendship can be difficult and time-consuming. It requires investing ourselves in people, which is harder than creating committees, strategic plans, and programs. The good news is that friendship is inherent to our Catholic faith. The gospel reveals that God has called us to friendship with Him (John 15:15), and that He is willing to enter into our messy lives. That’s something that maybe we shrink from ourselves, at least I do. But if we believe that Catholicism is true and the best way to live, and if we care about those who find themselves adrift in the world, the first thing we must learn to do is be friends with them. And they are all around us.