What’s the largest religious group in Canada? Christianity. What’s the second largest?
According to the Canadian government’s National Household Survey, almost a quarter of the population, or about 8 million people, have no religious affiliation. This is up from 16.5 percent in 2001 and up from one percent in the 1970s.
Something similar is happening in the U.S, where the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has found a record 20 percent of Americans now saying they are “nones” when asked what religion they belong to.
Seventy percent of that total used to attend churches. That prompted Elizabeth Drescher, who teaches religious studies and pastoral ministries at California’s Santa Clara University, to wonder why they leave.
During interviews with nones, she found that those who once attended evangelical churches left because they were angry. Roman Catholics left because they felt betrayed. Mainline Christians left because they were bored.
Evangelicals felt “they were tricked,” she says, leaving after feeling misled by church teachings about science, evolution and the environment.
“It makes them really angry,” she says.
Roman Catholics left because they feel betrayed by the clergy sexual abuse scandals and the church’s attitude toward women.
As for mainline Christians, they left because there’s nothing new to learn at church. They were bored.
“They’re saying, ‘We got the ethical lessons. Be nice, don’t be a jerk. We don’t need to hear that every Sunday. We have better things to do with our time.’ ”
The interesting thing, Drescher says, is this: Although these nones no longer attend church, most haven’t become atheists. More than two-thirds believe in God, and over half pray on a regular basis.
That finding is echoed in Canada, where a majority of Canadians still engage in personal religious and spiritual practices, even though many don’t attend worship services.
Why are many people becoming nones? According to Drescher, it’s because they find spiritual fulfillment outside of organized religion in what she calls the “four Fs of contemporary spirituality”: family, friends, food and Fido (pets).
“People feel most connected to whatever they understand as God, the divine, a Higher Power when they’re deeply engaged in the fabric of everyday life, spending time with family, with friends, preparing and sharing food, enjoying their pets,” she says.
Interestingly, she adds, these are the same things that churchgoers list as spiritually meaningful. Members of both groups rank attending worship services “as the least important way to experience God,” she adds.
Is there anything churches can do to win back the nones?
Most who Drescher interviewed have no desire to return. But if they did, they said they would be interested in churches that found ways to help them deepen their experience of God. Practical involvement in the community and around the world is important, she says.
“For half of the people I interviewed, the Jesus of radical compassion and justice remained spiritually and ethically significant,” she says.
All this brings to mind what a Canadian church leader said a number of years ago when he was asked why so many people were leaving his church.
“They aren’t leaving,” he said, noting that many still considered themselves to be Christians. ‘They just aren’t coming.’ ”
John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.