Vladimir Lenin infamously co-opted the question for his own Bolshevik party agenda in 1901, but his source - Russian writer Nikolai Chernyshevsky's 1863 novel What Is to Be Done? - helped to radicalize many 19th-century Russians to reexamine the direction of their society. It is a question which constantly resonates in all sectors, no less so now, no less so concerning the crises confronting both Church and society today.
In this media-saturated age of perpetual polling, any individual poll may prove problematic, but some general patterns appear to be persistent in the overall picture being presented of the present and future situation of religion in the United States. Thus, there was perhaps little that was all that new or all that shocking in the recent "Survey on Religious Attitudes and Practice" by The Pillar. Perhaps that itself is the main news - the survey's seeming reinforcement of admittedly limited but increasing and widespread impressions and intuitions about what has been happening to the American religious landscape.
Thus, some 70% of Americans appear still to identify as Christians - 24% as Catholics - while 14% identify as "Nothing in Particular." That latter pattern of increasing religious disaffiliation (the "Nones") has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. What I found particularly interesting, however, was the pattern of religious disaffiliation by generation. Thus, those born in the 1940s (my generation) appear in the Pillar study as 28% Catholic, 42% Other Christian, 12% Nothing in Particular, 17% Agnostic or Atheist, and 14% Other Faiths. The numbers vary slightly over the decades. Catholics are a high 31% of the 1980s generation, while Other Christians reached a high of 51% in the 1960s generation. Catholics dropped, however, to 19% of the 1990s generation and 12% of the generation born in the decade of the 2000s. In that last decade surveyed, Other Christians were again 42%, with 20% now Nothing in Particular and 17% Agnostic or Atheist. Unsurprisingly, the percentage of Nones and Agnostics or Atheists appears highest among the young. Inasmuch as Other Christians seem to have held their own in the 40% range, much of the increase in Nones, Agnostics, and Atheists appears to have come at the expense of Catholics. (There has also been a decrease among Other Faiths (Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc.) from a high of 14% among the 1940s generation to a low of 8% among those born in the decade of the 2000s.
The United States has always been "a country of converts," that is, a society in which many adults adopt a religious identity different from the one they grew up with. Thus, 28% of Americans describe their current religious affiliation as different from their childhood affiliation. In the Pillar study, Catholics appear right at the national average, with 28% of those raised Catholics having left. At the other end, however, ominously only 7% of those affiliated as Catholics are "converts" - the lowest of any group. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Agnostics and Atheists have the highest percentages who started out as something else, 77% and 68% respectively. Interestingly, both Hindus and Muslims report more joining than leaving, and while Judaism has lost 23% a remarkable 19% of Jews started life as something else. So the very low conversion rate for Catholicism, compared with its average attrition rates really stands out.
These are just a few of the statistics in the recent Pillar study. The statistics on religious beliefs, as opposed to affiliation, are also interesting although probably more difficult to interpret. Thus, 19% of Nones and 8% of Agnostics appear to believe their prayers are heard. On the other hand, only 57% of those born born in the decade of the 2000s "definitely believe there is a God," compared with 71% of those born in the 1940s. And a full 12% of those born in the decade of the 2000s "don't really care if there is a God or not," compared with much smaller percentages of those born in earlier decades, even as late as the 1990s.
These are all just numbers, of course. Like all surveys they are susceptible to errors and misinterpretations. They do, however, point to challenging trends that seem to be reflected in what one can anecdotally and intuitively observe on the ground.
At a time when so much religions energy seems to be directed excessively inward or politically (rather than religiously) outward, such findings represent one more set of challenges to religious institutions in the early 21st-century U.S., challenges that poke additional holes in the bubble of supposed American religious exceptionalism, challenges that cry out for deeper questioning and discussion of "What Is To Be Done?"
Photo: An unused baptismal font, consigned to a cemetery (from which it has since been rescued).