There has been a fair amount of discussion and commentary among Catholics in recent years about “Nones,” notably the work of Bishop Robert Barron, who last week “outlined five paths Church leaders should take to re-energize the religiously unaffiliated.” The same topic was taken up a few days ago in the Wall Street Journal (full article is behind a pay wall) by Timothy Beal, a non-Catholic and a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University who is, I discovered on his Amazon.com page, married to a “Presbyterian shaman”. Beal’s “take” is both informative and, I think, quite misguided—and thus misleading.
Beal provides some of the basic data: “Nones”—people who don’t identify with any religion—have increased in number from 16% in 2007 to 35% in 2018, and 44% of Americans aged 18 to 29 are Nones. He notes various reasons for this: there is “less social pressure to identify as religious, especially among young adults”; in fact, the opposite is now true—there is commonly more pressure to justify one’s religious beliefs than being None. Also, more and more children are born to parents of differing religious beliefs: “Children in such families are often raised with exposure to both identities and left to decide for themselves which to adopt. In many cases, they eventually choose neither.”
There is also a rise in “new communities” that, Beal notes, we might call “alt-religious,” which revolve around various interests: physical fitness, outdoor activities, and so forth. These movements all have a certain “myth” and various “rituals”; these all point (and this is my observation, not Beal’s) to the fact that humans are liturgical creatures, made for worship and contact with something or Someone that is other and transcendent.
Beal’s main point, however, is that in addition to these external factors, there “are things about religion, as [Nones] perceive it, that are actively driving them away.”
The two most significant reasons they give, according to a 2018 Pew poll, are that they “question a lot of religious teachings” (60%) and, relatedly, “don’t like the positions churches take on political/social issues” (49%).
Based on my own experience with hundreds of young adult Nones in my classes over more than two decades, I’ve found that the specific “religious teachings” and related “positions” they object to most often concern sexuality and science. Many of them question what they perceive as religion’s negative views about women’s reproductive rights and non-heteronormative sexuality, especially same-sex marriage and transgender rights. And they question religious teachings that appear to fly in the face of scientific research, especially with regard to evolutionary theory and climate change.
Again, not too much of a surprise here. But it’s still worth pondering for a moment, if only to note this fact: such Nones, in questioning traditional beliefs about sexuality and embracing trendy or wide-spread beliefs about evolution and climate, are undoubtedly relying upon certain sources and accepting—either knowingly or unwittingly (my bet is solidly on the latter)—the authority of those sources. This is hardly rocket science: if a 20-year-old man has been told continually and from numerous mouths and screens, from the time he was a toddler, that “love” is whatever consenting adults say it is and that the oceans are rising because of trillions of straws being dumped in them (along with other man-made factors), well, it’s hardly surprising he’ll believe just that.
Yes, of course it’s true that many young adults leave “conservative religions” and embrace more liberal, trendy views. But, again, a lot of that is due to the dominant culture, which truly dominates nearly every outlet and space, to the point that (again, as Beal notes) those who adhere to traditional views are usually the ones made to answer for being out step with the times. I was young once, and I experienced it—and I know it’s worse now in nearly every way. One key factor, and this is hardly news, is that far too few young Catholics (just to focus it on something I know a bit about) are well educated and deeply rooted in a robust understanding of the Faith that avoids both pietistic clichés and pugilistic rants.
Back to Beal and to his central assertion:
Rather, what many Nones have in common is a tragically narrow understanding of religion—namely, that a religion is a fixed set of teachings and positions, and that to be religious is to submit to them without question. It is presumed that religion is authoritative, univocal and changeless, and that religious identity is essentially a matter of passive adherence.
The Pew poll itself promotes this idea of religion with some of the response options it provides for identifying as None: “I question a lot of religious teachings” and “I don’t like the positions churches take on political/social issues.” The implication is that being religious means not questioning religious teachings and sharing the positions a religious organization takes on current issues.
But questioning religious teachings and positions has always been an essential part of religion. No faith is fixed or changeless. On the contrary, reinterpreting inherited scriptures and traditions in light of new horizons of meaning is critical to the life of any religion. Think of Jesus or the Buddha; think of the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th-century founder of Hasidic Judaism, or Dorothy Day, who helped to create the Catholic Worker Movement. Religion’s ongoing vitality depends on those who question and challenge inherited teachings and positions. Without such engagement, any religious tradition will die from the inside long before it begins to lose adherents.
I find that when my students, including the majority Nones, are given access to religion not as a set of teachings and positions but as a space for active engagement with enduring questions, they lean in. Indeed, they find this way of thinking about religion a refreshing change from their generally polarized political interactions and personalized newsfeeds.
Several points could be made here; I’ll stick to three:
(1) I think Beal is partially correct in identifying how many young people view religion: as an oppressive, even coercive, set of beliefs that cannot be questioned. But I think he also sets up a false conflict between “a fixed set of teachings and positions” and the possibility of asking questions. The questions here, I insist, are both simple and fundamental: Can we know truth? Does truth exist outside of ourselves? And, if so, shouldn’t we want to know it?
Catholicism, for its part, says, “Yes, yes, and yes!” to these questions—which is to say, it insists there are fixed teachings (it’s called dogma) about God, man, life, death, and so forth, and we should ask plenty of questions while being receptive to hearing good and true answers. “The Catholic,” wrote Chesterton, “is much more certain about the fixed truths than about the fixed stars.” Along the same lines, Catholicism is indeed “authoritative, univocal, and changeless” in certain, essential ways—but that doesn’t lead to “passive adherence.” Or, at least it shouldn’t. Love of Truth, which is ultimately love of Jesus Christ, is about an active, transforming relationship with the Triune God; it is only “passive” in the sense that God always initiates and we respond, in both humility and love. Alas, yes, Catholicism can be practiced in a manner that either obscures or crushes in on this inner dynamism, but that’s a somewhat different matter.
(2) Is it not revealing that Beal, from what I can tell, accepts without question various secular/skeptical dogmas about religion, without ever applying his same questions and criteria to secularism and skepticism? After all, secular humanism (using the term broadly but, I think, fairly) has a very fixed set of teachings and positions, and there’s plenty of evidence that is demands full acceptance and passive adherence! The Reign of Gay is an obvious example, as well as the growing Tyranny of Trans, never mind the Cult of Climate Change, the Church of Borderless Nations, and the Fellowship of Non-Judgmental Multicultural Bliss. Beal himself, not surprisingly, lauds the ridiculous and radical books of Nadia Bolz-Weber, author of Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, a book which “urges us to take antiquated, sexist ideas about sex, gender, and our bodies and ‘burn them the f*ck down and start all over.’” Frankly, that sort of puerile nonsense (dangerous, yes; nonsensical, also yes) is dull and boring. The perpetual insistence that pursuing genital pleasure while flipping off The Man is edgy and exciting is actually just old and shallow, no matter how many tattoos and piercings are involved.
(3) “What we need,” says Beal, “is sustained conversation in a context that allows and even welcomes different experiences and points of view. What do you mean when you self-define as religiously None? What is the story behind that box you checked? What are the teachings and positions that you question? Did you always question them, or did something in your life lead you to think differently?” On one hand, these are legitimate questions. But they are also quite self-serving and mostly lead to navel-gazing dead ends.
Again, I think we need to insist on the ancient and perennial questions: What is truth? Do I desire it? How can I find it? And then, more specifically: What do you say about Jesus Christ? Who is He? What do you do with Him? For Catholics, Jesus Christ is the Fixed Teaching and Teacher, the Alpha and Omega, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is fully God, fully man. We declare it in the Creeds—which are, by the way, fixed rules of faith.
Beal, in short, is trying to sell the notion that a relativistic, hyper-individualized, and subjective way of living and thinking is somehow a way out of the current morass. In fact, that’s the very essence of that morass, which has old roots (Satan’s rebellion, gnosticism, sexual deviancy, etc.) and is always trying to dress up in new clothes. “Error may flourish for a time,” wrote Saint John Henry Newman, “but truth will prevail in the end. The only effect of error ultimately is to promote truth.”
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