Two more helpful pieces of commentary on the recently published PRRI report about why Americans (and especially younger ones) are leaving religion behind — both at Religion Dispatches:
Patricia Miller notes that the report shows that the Catholic rate of disaffiliation dwarfs that of any other faith tradition, and as 36% of Nones, "Catholics are punching above their weight in adding to the growth of the nones in terms of their overall representation in the population." She writes:
[W]hile the rise of the "nones" will continue to make headlines and shape culture for a long time to come, there is another largely unnoticed trend lurking in the numbers: just how much the growth in the nones has been fueled by the disaffiliation of Roman Catholics. According to PPRI:
"While non-white Protestants and non-Christian religious groups have remained fairly stable, white Protestants and Catholics have all experienced declines, with Catholics suffering the largest decline among major religious groups: a 10-percentage point loss overall. Nearly one-third (31%) of Americans report being raised in a Catholic household, but only about one in five (21%) Americans identify as Catholic currently."
The Catholic rate of disaffiliation dwarfs the rate for any other faith tradition; the next biggest "loser" in terms of disaffiliation are the mainline Protestant denominations, which saw a 4.5-point loss, while white evangelical denominations saw a net drop of only 2.2 points, largely because they have both a lower rate of disaffiliation and a fairly robust rate of new adherents.
Patti Miller also points to that section of the PRRI report I've been highlighting for you, which finds that those raised Catholic were more likely (at 39%) than members of any other religious group to cite their church's abuse of gay people as a primary reason for leaving religion behind, and that 32% of former-Catholic Nones point to the clerical sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic church as their reason for leaving.
In an essay published at the same time at the Religion Dispatches site, Kaya Oakes writes,
Reasons people list for leaving religion remain about the same as they were in the Pew survey, but with some striking differences. Those who have "stopped believing" in a tradition's teachings are now at 60 percent, those from families that were not very religious are at 32 percent, and those who left because of "negative religious teachings" about LGBTQ people are at 29 percent.
The latter number, tellingly, is even higher among former Catholics. A full 39 percent of Catholics say they left the church because of its treatment of LGBTQ people. And the church lost huge numbers because of the sex abuse scandal—which drove away a full 23 percent of Catholics. . . .
If religions are still asking what they can do to bring the religiously unaffiliated back, the better question might be this: what can religion do without them? Because all evidence points to this conclusion: they are not coming back, and given what they’re being presented, why should they?
Even with these abundant data about why many people of religion are losing faith today, some religion journalists still want to spin the data as data about some disembodied "loss of faith" that has little or nothing to do with how religious groups sometimes treat targeted segments of the human community abusively. A case in point: Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin's commentary on the PRRI findings at Religion News Service this morning. Salkin pooh-poohs the notion that people are leaving religious groups behind due to the abuse of gay people or sexual abuse of minors by religious authority figures, and opts for the "simpler" idea that people are doing so because they have "stopped believing."
As I've noted repeatedly (and here), I find this simplistic "stopped believing" explanation for why Nones are on the rise shallow, as a hermeneutic tool for understanding what's driving younger people, in particular, away from religion. People live their lives as embodied persons. How religious groups behave — how they treat embodied persons — matters eminently as people make their choices to remain with or leave religious groups.
Doctrines and official religious teachings are themselves anything but disembodied: people engage religious teachings by way of the effect of those teachings on their real lives, in the real world. It's impossible to separate the real-life effect of religious teachings from the question of whether those teachings are true, for people living their lives as embodied persons in the real world.
People may not always be able to articulate clearly all the reasons they choose to give up on religious belief or practice, particularly when that choice occurs when they themselves are still unformed human persons, on their way to becoming adults. This does not mean, however, that their inchoate, intuitive sense that a religious group is unhealthy and they should leave it behind has nothing at all to do with how it treats, say, gay people as a targeted minority.
For me, the choice of my Southern Baptist church and of other white evangelical churches in my community to work against the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s was a watershed moment, calling into question everything I had ever been taught by my church about salvation, God's love, the bible as the inerrant Word of God, the gospel proclaimed by Christ, the church as a community of disciples embodying love in the world, etc. I could not reconcile what my church chose to do as legal segregation was abolished in our community, with what it said Sunday after Sunday.
And so I left. I made a decisive decision to turn my back on that religious tradition, and chose another, the Catholic church, in part, because of the very different way in which the Catholic community in my area chose to deal with the Civil Rights crisis. At this point, I was too young to have any clear inkling of my sexual orientation, and I could not foresee that, some years down the road, the Catholic community I had chosen as an alternative to the abusive white evangelical church of my youth would treat me and other gay people the very same way that white evangelical church chose to treat people of color during the Civil Rights period.
Even so, it's certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that part of what attracted me to the Catholic church was also its seeming repudiation of the kind of heavy-handed patriarchy from which I was running away as fast as my feet would carry me, in the person of a very abusive father who relied on religious warrants to back up his beatings and beratings of me as a boy who failed to meet his macho standards about what the ideal boy should be. I suspect this may well be why my Southern Baptist pastor gave me an essay by Walter Rauschenbusch to read as I thought about this religious decision — an essay focusing on how the liturgical froufrou of Catholicism, the smells and bells, sucked in credulous aesthetes (read: young gay boys) who did not understand that there was so much repressive baggage attached to the nice smells and the lovely bells.
It took years for me to become aware of the gay component of my personality and how it was interacting with religious ideas and symbols — but that is not to say that I was not, at some level, internalizing many insights about how religious groups deal with gay people even when I was less than conscious of my own gay sexual orientation.
Bottom line of this analysis: it seems to me that people who have the luxury of proclaiming that there are religious ideas or teachings over here, and the messy stuff of real life over here, are people who are not usually targeted in a malicious way by religious ideas or teachings. They are people who unconsciously believe that religious ideas and teachings belong to them — because they happen to belong to the slice of the human community that has generated the foundational texts, claimed the exclusive right to interpret those texts for centuries, and used those texts to keep targeted others outside the circle of interpretation.
Those who can so easily imagine that there's religious belief over here and real life over there, and the twain should not meet, turn out, not by accident, quite frequently to be heterosexual males or the kind of straight women a Methodist friend of mine calls "old boys of the opposite gender" — women who have much invested in maintaining the dominance of straight men in various institutions. And it's no accident that these are the folks who seem desperate to avoid noticing the rapidly accumulating data showing us that people are ceasing to believe because the real-life effects of religious faith are, to their judgment, proving harmful to members of targeted minority communities — and, notably, to gay people.
If religious groups ever made the morally correct and courageous decision to invite members of those targeted minority communities into their discussions of what it means to be religious today, they would probably hear an earful. But I suspect this is the very thing those controlling the definition of religious faith in many religious communities today do not want to hear.