Imagining no heaven

Atheism always has a certain allure for the rebellious Catholic kid. I know that when I was in college, I tried disbelief on for size. It felt daring, while at the same time disposing of a lot of inconvenient “Thou shalt nots.” I grew out of it as I grew up. It was a stage that allowed me to shed some childish conceptions and make up my own mind about the faith I had inherited at birth.  

Unfortunately, not everyone is outgrowing disbelief these days. 

Just this month, a new study released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that the number of Americans who claim they have no religion has grown to 20 percent of the population.  

Just as the ancient Romans liked to hedge their bets, putting up statues to the gods of people they had conquered in the Pantheon, so Americans who claim “no religion” may describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” and even admit to praying. But the Pew report concludes that the no-religion folks are not looking for a church to belong to, and appear to have no desire to link with any organized religion. 

A friend of mine who teaches in a Catholic high school says that the number of students who claim they don’t believe in God is growing also. It may just be a great way to provoke a reaction from parents and teachers, along with smoking and getting a tattoo, but she’s worried that something deeper may be going on, and that Catholic schools need a more focused apologetics directly addressing the challenge of non-belief. 

The growing number of Americans who describe themselves as having no religion has broader implications for the future as well. Pew reports that those Americans are more likely to support abortion rights and gay marriage than the general population, and they are more likely to vote Democrat, acting, perhaps, as a counterbalance to the strong evangelical vote that is reliably Republican. If this is a steady trend, it will only increase the already extreme polarization between the two parties, and make it even more inhospitable for those who do not find a home in either party. 

The growth of those who claim no religion is not simply among kids or academics. Timothy Matovina, in his book “Latino Catholicism,” notes that the greater threat to Hispanic Catholic culture may not be the exodus of Latinos to Pentecostal churches. The fastest-growing segment of Hispanics is those who claim “no religion.” Secularism and the materialistic values of the United States may far more efficiently erode Hispanic Catholic identity than Protestant “sheep stealers.” 

In June, the U.S. bishops, during their meeting in Atlanta, heard two speakers warn about declining religious faith and its impact on religious liberty issues. John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, warned about the decline in religious faith among working class whites as a harbinger of what is to come. Thomas Farr of Georgetown University issued the same warning about Western Europe, where hostility to any form of religion is on the rise in England and France. In Germany, the number of Catholics and Protestants who are disassociating themselves from any church (and thus lowering their taxes) is growing as well. The conclusion of both Farr and Garvey was dire: Religious liberty is not likely to be a value where religion is not a value.  

America has always been an unusually religious country, and we may simply be seeing a blip on the cultural landscape. It is no coincidence, however, that Pope Benedict XVI is talking so much about evangelization these days. Combatting disbelief is ultimately not about argumentation, but about humble, joyful and steadfast witness. 

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.