If you see signs that the United States as a whole — and young people in particular — are becoming less religious than they once were, you’re right. 

An October 2012 study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, conducted jointly with the PBS program Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, showed that the number of Americans who identify themselves as “none” when asked their religion has grown to nearly 20 percent, the highest share since the question has been asked. Among those ages 18 to 30, about a third say they are not affiliated with any church, and, what’s more, they aren’t looking for a church.

Rising secularism

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Greg Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum, said the trend of having more people identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated has been going on for about 20 years, but it has accelerated dramatically in the last five. From the 1970s through the early 1990s, the number of people who said they were not a member of any church or religious organization held steady at about 7 or 8 percent. That started to increase in the 1990s, reaching more than 15 percent by 2007. Then it grew by more than 4 percentage points in the last five years. 

“Generational change is one of the factors behind this change,” Smith said, noting that only about 5 percent of the members of the Greatest Generation, aged 85 to 99 in 2012, claim no religious affiliation, while 34 percent of those aged 18 to 22 say they have no religion. 

That doesn’t mean they are all nonbelievers; indeed, more than two-thirds said they believe in God. But they are not “seekers,” either; nearly 90 percent are not looking for a church home. 

Curtis Martin, president and founder of FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, said much of the change has come because the Church is competing with everything else in the popular culture, from social media to sports to shopping, for people’s attention. 

“If you think about the 1500s, the secular culture, it didn’t really exist,” Martin said. “Everything was about the Church, and going to Mass and hearing the music and the bells and the incense and everything. It was the most exciting thing that happened all week. Now it’s gone from the most exciting thing you do all week to the most boring thing you do all week.” 

The problem with that is that the secular world doesn’t satisfy that deep spiritual needs of the human soul. 

“The world can offer people all kinds of attention-getting noises and bright lights, but it cannot offer joy and mercy,” he said. “The secular world isn’t satisfying anyone, even though it’s very distracting.” 

Far from satisfying anyone, Martin said, secular culture makes people crave spiritual connection even more, even if they do not know it. 

“It’s kind of like drinking salt water,” he said. “It’s satisfying for about two seconds, and then you’re thirstier than you were before. If you keep drinking it, it will make you throw up, and if you keep drinking more of it, it will drive you crazy, and if keep drinking even more of it, it will kill you.”

Change through friends

The alternative, he said, is the Living Water, Christ himself, and the way to spread the word is one person, one friendship at a time. 

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That’s the way FOCUS missionaries — recent college graduates who evangelize to current college students — do it: They simply offer genuine friendship, and as part of that friendship, they share their faith and invite people to learn more. 

“It’s not about a program,” he said. “It’s about people. They are just trying to be authentic friends with other people.” 

Doing that exposes people to the joy of living in Christ, the beauty of the truth of salvation. The secular culture doesn’t so much lie about the Church as it tells half-truths, focusing on what the Church says people can’t or shouldn’t do, he said. “That would be like if someone asked about my marriage and I said it means I can’t have sexual relations with other women, and I have to call if I’m going to be late getting home,” Martin said. “That’s true, but marriage is so much more. It’s a lesser truth.” 

In the same way, he said, “following God is hard — that’s true, and the people see it — but we believers know that it is so worth it. We, as Catholics, have to show them the value, and we haven’t.” 

Franciscan Father Michael Surufka, vocation director of the Franciscan’s Assumption BVM Province, said that in his position now and his previous position as pastor of a large, urban parish, he found that most people who have drifted from the Church and are looking for the way back need to see that there are people willing to listen to them; they want someone to not only understand their needs, but also to recognize their strengths and the contributions they can and do make. One of the best ways to help young adults see that in the Church is for the Church to focus more on the young adults who are already in its pews. 

“If we listen to the ones we have, then we’ll learn about the ones we might be losing,” Surufka said.

Ending polarity

One thing Father Surufka has heard from young people in the parish and those discerning a religious life is that the Church needs to find a way to stop being so polarized. 

He also suggested that the new generation will follow the pattern of those that came before, with young people moving away from the church around the time they leave their parents’ homes and then returning as they get married and have children of their own. The difference, he said, is that young adults are waiting longer to marry and start families, so they have a longer period away from the Church. 

What’s more, he said, the same Pew study showed that religious practice — the faithfulness with which people attend church or religious services — has not declined nearly as much as religious identification. 

Smith agreed with that, but said that doesn’t make it seem very likely that people will come back in droves when their circumstances change. 

“Before, people who were raised in a particular faith tradition might have said, ‘I’m Presbyterian, but I don’t really go,’” he said. “Now they are saying ‘I don’t belong to any religion.’ These are people whose behavior hasn’t changed.” 

Pew has not seen evidence that people are more likely to claim church affiliation as they age. If anything, the numbers of the religiously unaffiliated have held steady in each age cohort. For example, 13 percent of baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) claimed no religion in 1970 and the same percentage said they were religiously unaffiliated in 2012. 

Martin said he’s hopeful for the future when he sees the young people who are becoming active in the Church in FOCUS. “I believe there’s an infusion of grace,” he said. “The world cannot resist truth, goodness and beauty.” 

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.