What to make of the ‘nones’

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | November 28, 2012

We all took a deep breath at that — though it might have helped to remember that the largest religious group is still the broad category of “Christians” — with 173.4 million (out of a population of 311.6 million) in the latest U.S. census. Still, one in five Americans listing themselves as not religiously affiliated is disturbing. And the largest numbers of these “nones” are young (49 and under). They are the future generations.

However, before we commence hand-wringing, consider this from Catholic News Service. After Hurricane Sandy struck on Oct. 29, Fr. Donald Baker of St. Teresa Church in New York City’s tough Lower East Side said people were trapped in cars. Strangers rescued them because fire personnel were elsewhere. This help came, the priest added, and is still coming, from exactly the same source as the survey above: the age group of “the nones.”

“The ‘millennials,’ those young people in the neighborhood who are in their 20s … have been outstanding, absolutely incredible,” said the 52-year-old pastor. “They truly embodied the charity of Christ. I turn around and there are another dozen eager and willing to help our community.”

Now, of course, not all these Good Samaritans were “non-religious” — maybe most weren’t. But they remind us of something else the Pew survey found, that many unaffiliated adults still believe in God (68 percent) and 21 percent pray daily.

So are they really “the nones”? Well, they pray. They step forward and help. They believe in God, or at least a higher spirituality than just themselves. In other words, they practice religious habits.

That’s a start. Something to build on. And it indicates that we might not be in for the same secular tsunami that Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., (speaking at October’s World Synod of Bishops in Rome) said recently flooded Western Europe.

Maybe the point lies in the above report’s executive summary: “With few exceptions … the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.”

So perhaps it’s not about rejection, but perception. And reception — as in a message that’s received garbled. “The nones” may not be getting the message we mean to send out about Christianity.

That message was addressed by Pope Benedict XVI at his Nov. 14 general audience. He called Christianity “an experience of love; it’s welcoming the person of Jesus.”

“Many people today have a limited concept of what the Christian faith is because they identify it with a mere system of beliefs and values and not with the truth of a God revealing himself in history, eager to communicate with humanity one-on-one in a relationship of love,” the pope added.

As if addressing “the nones” directly, the pope said that faith “isn’t an illusion, escapism, a comfortable safe haven or sentimentalism.” Rather, he said, people of faith are “not afraid of showing their beliefs in everyday life” and are open to expressing “deep friendship for the journey of every person.”

That certainly sounds like the message “the real nuns,” women in religious habits, have broadcast for centuries. And it also sounds just like the actions shown by the millennials of New York — whether or not they knew those actions were religious habits.

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