Atheism now gets more attention than usual when people measure religious trends in North America.
More people put the name “atheism” on their a-religiousness than did so decades ago.

For the record, my Ph.D. thesis in 1956 was on “unbelief,” and a series of lectures in 1963 became the book, “Varieties of Unbelief.” 

It was written in the years following what many called the “religious revival of the Eisenhower era.” I have kept tracking belief and unbelief, practice and non-practice ever since.

So we look at a benchmark: the Ben Gaffin survey published in Catholic Digest in 1952 is the beginning of the “revival.”

“Twenty seven percent reported that they were not active church members; 32 percent had not attended religious services in the previous three months… Only 1 percent of all Americans stated that they are atheists, that they do not believe. Even in the group which expressed no religious preference, only 12 percent were self-confessed non-believers.”

Better samplings and appraisals followed, and they revealed more modest gains and losses. A few more atheists showed up. But …

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reflects only a local accounting, but the locale holds interest since it deals with Boston Catholics, dwellers in the Catholic capital of the Northeast, a storied center for Catholics for 200 years.

Its lower numbering of faithful no doubt reflects Boston stories, including the clerical abuse and hierarchical cover-up tests of the patience and faithfulness of the faithful, but few analysts see those by themselves occasioning the change.

Jennifer Levitz discusses how the “ArchdioceseTurnstoEvangelizing,” an activity and a term generally associated mainly with certain kinds of Protestantism.

The subhead has the statistics: “With 16% of Local Catholics Attending Mass, Boston Church Leaders Take a New Tack; ‘We’re Not Used to Doing That.'” Leaders confessed that earlier Boston Catholicism could coast and relax. No more.

“Boston is far from alone. Dioceses all around the country are looking at evangelism,” in one case, “door to door.”

(There are and have been notable efforts at Catholic evangelizing and “churching,” through an Extension Society and efforts of charismatic leaders, but they are grand exceptions to the rule.)

Msgr. William P. Fay, a planner for the archdiocese, notes that many people are too busy to commit to church because communicants need two jobs to survive or prosper. Certainly.

But what we seem to be seeing is what in 1963 I cited among the “Varieties of Unbelief,” something like “practical atheism,” which means acting the same whether or not God exists. Or: changing priorities and the values that go with them.

Leaders in thousands of parishes note that Sunday soccer takes priority over worship.

Jews note the same lower participation in organized and communal life.

Faiths can sustain themselves for individuals through individualized “spirituality,” but they demonstrably live off communally shared stories, nurture, charitable activities, mutual nourishing of morale, and, as many would put it, forming companies of those who “praise God.”

Most cultural trends make it hard to recover stories, pledges, resolves and regular participation in worship.

Gaining new gatherings seems to be harder. Lots of luck, Boston. Or, better, let faith and hope and love promote the causes.

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His column first appeared in Sightings.

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