Why do young American Catholics leave the church? In January, St. Mary’s Press, in collaboration with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, released a two-year national study of disaffiliation among young American Catholics in conjunction with a symposium on the topic at the Maritime Conference Center in Baltimore. The report, “Going, Going, Gone! The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics,” hones in on the reasons (note they are plural). The emphasis is on narrative, so the report includes stories told by young (ex-)Catholics—204 of them—explaining their decisions to exit. The research goal was pastoral: By hearing youthful voices, and taking seriously what they have to say about why they leave, the church might come up with more meaningful strategies for keeping them engaged.
Around the same time, the Barna Group, a California-based for-profit research organization, released a report titled “Atheism Doubles Among Generation Z.” Although the data sources and methods differed somewhat in these two national studies (the Barna Group focused on 13- to-18-year-olds; the St. Mary’s/CARA study included 15- to 25-year-olds), both asked about barriers to faith and church.
What the Research Shows
The study of so-called “nones” or “dones” has been an academic growth industry for several decades now, while social science research on post-Vatican II Catholic disaffiliation goes back nearly a half-century. “Going, Going, Gone!” and “Generation Z” are only the latest additions to this scholarly stockpile. When juxtaposed with other survey data and contemporary scholarship on the topic, the St. Mary’s/CARA and Barna Group projects get much right.
Research in general shows that religious disaffiliation cuts across almost all traditions, although not equally. It occurs among all age cohorts, but more dramatically among younger millennial and Generation Z respondents. Disaffiliation is a gradual process; one finds few road-to-Damascus de-conversion experiences in the literature. Nor does any single law of social causality explain all cases. Different people leave for different reasons. Catholic disaffiliation—which currently represents the greatest net loss of any American religious group—mirrors the intergenerational and intragenerational realignment of religious preference and disaffiliation characteristic of the current American religious landscape in general.
Studies of religious disaffiliation point unmistakably in the direction of a post-Christian American future.
The youthful voices in “Going, Going, Gone!”, along with the quantitative data reported in “Generation Z,” affirm other research findings that dropping out is largely about personal change in the spiritual lives of individuals, and often more about how they feel about church than how they feel about God—although the alarms ring louder in this latter regard in the Barna poll, especially the negative impact of the age-old problem of reconciling the world’s horrors with belief in an all-knowing, all-loving, all-good God. And as with other research, the St. Mary’s/CARA study shows that disaffiliation from the church is sometimes associated with the intensification, rather than diminishment, of personal faith.
The American penchant for religious revivalism notwithstanding, both studies point unmistakably in the direction of a post-Christian American future, one marked by declines in church attendance, religious institutional affiliation, belief in God, prayer and Bible-reading—even as unbounded “spirituality” gains more and more cultural capital.
The Bigger Picture
While these studies get much right, other matters remain overlooked, notably larger contextual issues. Pondering religious disaffiliation and appropriate responses to it necessitates differentiating between “micro” and “macro” factors. The former are the narrative elements or polling data relating to specific individuals. They paint personal portraits of the alienation and estrangement that drive (or serve as rationalization for) many faith departures. These are important and compelling factors. They need to be heard and respected. But broader, macro dynamics shaping contemporary American religious culture also merit attention. Consider the following with regard to Catholics.
Historically, a good part of the bond between American Catholics and the church derived from the tight relationship between religion and ethnicity, along with the general sense of Catholic “otherness” in American life. Ethnicity created a complex social ecology that sustained Catholic identity and commitment and made for strong parish life. Assimilation weakened this dynamic. By comparison with contemporary Hispanic and Asian Catholic populations, fewer Euro-American Catholics now experience their faith as a communal (ethnic) reality. As ethnicity declined and social mobility increased, and as Catholics become more integrated into other social spheres and developed more heterogeneous social networks, they became less embedded in relations with their co-religionists.
Historically, a good part of the bond between American Catholics and the church derived from the tight relationship between religion and ethnicity, along with the general sense of Catholic “otherness” in American life.
With the exception of some of the newer thriving parishes in different parts of the country, particularly in the South and Southwest, the waning influence of the parish as a locus of Catholic communalism is highly relevant here. Previous studies have all shown that many younger Catholics have a diminished sense of Catholic identity, not only as a coherent system of rituals, symbols and creedal affirmation, but as a vibrant reality of groups, friendships, organizations and associations. In addition, the hollowing out of Catholicism’s social core has combined with the gradual decline in the importance of a Catholic identity and with the declining credibility of the church’s authority structure. In this larger context, leaving the church becomes not only easier, but in some cases more probable.
The waning sense of Catholic “otherness” is another operative factor. In keeping with an old sociological dictum, “external threat; internal cohesion,” it is obvious that Catholicism’s coming of age in American culture, combined with sweeping changes in the post-Vatican II church, has had an impact on cohesion and commitment. This suggests, as noted in a 2001 book by me and some colleagues (“Young Adult Catholics: Religion in the Culture of Choice”), no small irony: that tolerance may prove more lethal to Catholic identity and commitment than intolerance.
Other macro factors driving youthful disaffiliation include declining institutional authority of all kinds (not just religious); the broad postmodern rejection of ascribed identity, with emphasis instead on identity construction that gives preference to personal “reflexivity”; the excesses of atomistic individualism; and the hegemonic influence of consumer capitalism, with its impetus to commodify all cultural wares—including religious ones—through market economy dynamics that accentuate “choice.”
The widespread destabilization of family life is another obvious contextual factor driving disaffiliation across the board. As the family goes, so goes the church. Although parenting styles and the transmission of parents’ religious values to their sons and daughters vary, where marital harmony exists, religious values—especially among adolescents—tend to mirror parents’ values.
In addition, as contemporary Catholicism’s institutional boundaries become more diffused and porous, and as Catholic identity has become less bounded by creed or doctrine, the questions of “Who’s in?” and “Who’s out?” have themselves become more complex. With some exceptions, traditional Catholic symbolic and ritual boundary mechanisms have weakened at the same time that the varieties of Catholic identity have expanded, such that “Catholic” now takes adjectives in an unprecedented way.
Faith and Reason(s)
Other relevant considerations raised in “Going, Going, Gone” and “Generation Z” have to do with assumptions about the actual rootedness in the faith of those who reject it—especially teenagers, given that the median age of disaffiliation in the “Going, Going, Gone” study was 13. Some readers might come away from these two studies with the impression that disaffiliation is a reasoned process by teenagers fully cognizant of the subtleties of doctrine, creed and church discipline. But I have on more than one occasion heard a rejection of the church rooted in (among other things) a fundamental misunderstanding of what the church has actually taught.
This raises an important question: When we consider the weight of traditional life-cycle-effect factors on religious disaffiliation that are not related to doctrinal or creedal discontent, can we also discern the actual depth of the knowledge of faith of those who reject it? A considerable body of previous research on nones and religious disaffiliates suggests that the reasons presented for disaffiliating are often vague and inarticulate, or are related to little more than personal changes (e.g., leaving a childhood home), losing interest, drifting away, laziness or the catch-all “no reason in particular.”
A related disaffiliation rationale that both reports suggest is in need of deeper exploration concerns the role of science. Significant numbers of teens indicated that their beliefs were now predicated on “factual evidence.” In one fashion or the other, they attributed their departure from religion to their ideas of what is required by a belief in science. These assertions, like knowledge of the content of their faith, raise the question of scientific literacy: How much do most respondents—especially young ones—actually know and understand about both scientific facts and scientific epistemology? Data on American scientific literacy in general is not encouraging in this regard. Nor is it apparent why Catholicism, a tradition that extols a positive relationship between faith and reason, apparently falls so short here.
Research on nones and religious disaffiliates suggests that the reasons presented for disaffiliating are often vague and inarticulate, or are related to little more than personal changes.
Finally, it is worth noting that a narrative approach to understanding religious disaffiliation presents a problem common to such descriptions: retrospective reporting. Sometimes explanations given for a particular behavior, like converting into or out of a tradition, are essentially learned narratives after the fact of the change. This is particularly the case when individuals have joined a new tradition in which they are likely to be exposed to a new motivational vocabulary. Incentives or attributions for leaving may have been framed by the new experience itself, and may or may not have a first-order relationship to what the individual was actually experiencing at the time of their departure. This is not to conjure up the specter of deception; it is to draw attention to the fact that narratives after the fact are themselves social constructs. This is a yellow caution light when it comes to taking at face value what young and old alike have to say about faith changes.
“Going, Going, Gone” and “Generation Z” offer important insights into the contemporary American religious landscape. The former is an especially laudable effort that takes the voices of young people seriously and enables them to be heard by a larger audience. Those hoping for stronger attachment of the young to the church are well-advised to digest what is reported in that study, notably the litany of “Why I left” grievances.
At the same time, wisdom is needed to recognize the difference between factors driving disaffiliation over which church leadership and faith communities can exercise some control and influence—and thereby creatively arrest some of the hemorrhaging—and factors over which they have little or no control.
Discernment is of the essence.