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Analysis shows number of nonreligious Americans stabilizing after prior surge

null / Credit: Thoranin Nokyoo/Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 23, 2024 / 06:00 am (CNA).

From the early 1990s through the 2010s, the number of Americans who identified as atheist, agnostic, and nonaffiliated saw a major surge — but that number appears to be stabilizing, according to an analysis published on May 20

Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University and a Baptist pastor, published an analysis of religious demographic data from the annual Cooperative Election Study, comparing 2023 numbers with previous years. He found that in the past five years — from 2019 through 2023 — the number of Americans who do not identify with a particular religion has been relatively stable.

In 2019, the analysis notes, the percentage of Americans who identified as nonreligious was at 35%. By 2023, the percentage only increased by one percentage point — to 36%. Over those five years, the percentage of nonreligious Americans fluctuated between 34% and 36% — without any major surge or reduction.

“It’s slowed down considerably,” Burge told CNA.

The stabilization shows a halt — or at least a pause — in previous trends, which showed a rise in Americans identifying themselves as atheist, agnostic, or no particular religion. The first major surge occurred in the 1990s, which continued into the 2010s.

The growth in this demographic slowed down between 2013 and 2018, increasing by only two percentage points in that time frame, from 30% to 32%. In 2019, it saw another surge to 35% but has remained relatively stable since then, only increasing by one more percentage point by 2023.

“We can definitely say there’s been a pause [in the growth of nonreligious Americans],” Joe Heschmeyer, a staff apologist at Catholic Answers, told CNA. “We can much less reliably predict what the future holds.”

Several factors contribute to the initial surge, along with the subsequent stabilization in the percentage of Americans who don’t identify with a particular religion, according to Burge.

Burge noted the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall as two factors contributing to this surge in the United States, because there was “less stigma [around atheism and a lack of religiosity] when we weren’t in the Cold War anymore.” The rise of the internet in the 1990s, he also mentioned, made it easier for skeptics of religion to associate with like-minded people, even if they lived in relatively religious communities.

In this time frame, Burge said “the marginal Christian” began to stop identifying with a particular religion. The current numbers, he said, demonstrate what the United States “really looks like religiously.”

Heschmeyer said there used to be a “default Christianity” in which people who did not strongly believe in the faith still identified with it. But that identity “is basically gone now” and as society has secularized, “they’ve kind of drifted along with that,” he added.

Heschmeyer noted a few factors that led to the surge in Americans no longer identifying with a particular religion. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he said there was an “anxiety” with “people worried about militant Islam.” He noted the rise in new atheism, which claimed the “problem is religion itself” but said as this fear has dissipated, “atheists can’t tap into that the same way.”

Another element noted in Burge’s analysis is the religiosity of various age groups. Although older Americans are more likely to identify with a particular religion than younger Americans, the analysis points out that Generation Z’s religiosity — at this moment — is nearly identical to the religiosity of millennials. This suggests that the growth of nonreligious Americans appears to be stabilizing at a generational level as well. 

“This drastic generational change ended with millennials,” Burge said.

Looking to the future, Burge said the lack of religiosity will probably grow slightly, “largely due to … replacement” as older Americans die. However, he said he expects “less deconversion over the next 10 years.”

Heschmeyer said there is “a real spiritual battle that is ongoing.” While he said the future religious makeup of the country is hard to predict, he noted that there have always been predictions that organized religion would fade away but that “none of those dire predictions came true.”

“The Church is not going anywhere,” Heschmeyer said.

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Our Lady of Guadalupe becomes point of contention in Mexican presidential debate

Mexico presidential candidates Claudia Sheinbaum (left) and Xóchitl Gálvez speak after the last presidential debate ahead the presidential election at Centro Cultural Tlatelolco on May 19, 2024, in Mexico City, Mexico. / Credit: Medios y Media/Getty Images

ACI Prensa Staff, May 22, 2024 / 17:03 pm (CNA).

Our Lady of Guadalupe took center stage during the presidential debate in Mexico this week after candidate Xóchitl Gálvez accused her opponent, Claudia Sheinbaum, of “political opportunism” for wearing a skirt with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, “even though you don’t believe in her or in God.”

Gálvez is running for president for the Fuerza y Corazón por México (Strength and Heart for Mexico) coalition — which brings together the political parties National Action Party (PAN), Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) — and Sheinbaum is running for the Sigamos Haciendo Historia (Let’s continue making history) alliance headed by Morena, the political party founded by the current president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Various surveys released in recent weeks in Mexico place Sheinbaum and Gálvez as the two leading candidates in the campaign for president. Trailing behind is Jorge Álvarez Máynez from the Movimiento Ciudadano (Citizens’ Movement). The election will take place on June 2.

During the third presidential debate on May 19, when the topic of “Migration and Foreign Policy” was addressed, Gálvez made reference to a previous meeting that both candidates had at the Vatican with Pope Francis in February.

“We both had a meeting with the pope; did you tell His Holiness how you wore the Virgin of Guadalupe on a skirt, even though you do not believe in her or in God? Did you tell him that you destroyed a church when you were the Tlalpan borough president? You have every right to not believe in God, it’s a personal issue. What you do not have the right to do is use the faith of Mexicans as political opportunism. That’s hypocrisy,” Gálvez charged.

In response, Sheinbaum said Gálvez’s accusations were “an absolute provocation” to which she would not respond.

According to the Infobae portal, on May 5, 2022, Sheinbaum, then head of the Mexico City government, attended a popular celebration held in the Venustiano Carranza sector of the Mexican capital. During the event, she received gifts, including a skirt with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which she later wore during the celebrations in the streets.

As for tearing down a church, this accusation refers to the partial demolition of the Lord of Labor Chapel (a local devotion to Christ as the protector of workers and the unemployed) in the Mexico City sector of Tlalpan on April 29, 2016. Sheinbaum was then president of that neighborhood’s borough when, in what the authorities described as a “mistake,” government workers demolished part of the Catholic church.

What impact does faith have on elections?

Father Hugo Valdemar, who for 15 years was the communications director for the Primatial Archdiocese of Mexico, at the time led by Cardinal Norberto Rivera, spoke with ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner, about the complex relationship between faith and politics in the context of the Mexican elections.

The priest explained that although “the element of faith is not a determining factor in the outcome of an election,” he noted that “it’s a sensitive issue, which can have negative effects on the candidates.”

“Public opinion does not approve of the Church intervening in politics and even less so in partisan politics, and the institutional Church is very careful not to cause division among the faithful due to partisan preferences,” Valdemar explained.

The priest attributed the “deep rupture between the people’s faith and political participation” to the religious persecution experienced in Mexico during the 1920s, which, in his words, turned the subject “into a real taboo.”

Conflicts between the Catholic Church and the Mexican state date back to the second half of the 19th century, but tensions reached a critical point with the promulgation of the 1917 Constitution, which was markedly anticlerical.

This constitution paved the way for the religious persecution that took place in Mexico in the 1920s under the regime of President Plutarco Elías Calles, which in turn sparked the Cristero War, with Catholics in various parts of the country taking up arms to defend themselves from government persecution. The conflict produced martyrs such as St. José Sánchez del Río, Jesuit Blessed Miguel Pro, Blessed Anacleto González, and St. Cristóbal Magallanes and Companions, among many more.

Although the Cristero War ended in mid-1929, the persecution lasted several more years. It would not be until 1992 that Mexico’s constitution was reformed and the Law on Religious Associations and Public Worship was promulgated, which recognizes the legal status of the Catholic Church in the country.

The Mexican constitution allows Mexican priests to vote but prohibits ministers of worship from “proselytizing for or against any candidate, party, or political association.”

Given this situation, Valdemar pointed out that “active and partisan” participation in politics is the responsibility of the laity and that it is through “formed laypeople” that “a positive influence can develop for politics that are more ethical and, why not, with Christian values.”

The Mexican priest said the country’s bishops “call for being aware of [the duty to] vote and participate. Likewise, the episcopate provides guidance from a moral perspective on values that are inalienable, such as the family, life from conception to its natural end, religious freedom, the right of parents to educate their children, and the common good, etc.”

“I think that in the dioceses that have organized workshops there can in fact be an influence on the vote,” he noted, although he lamented that “unfortunately there are few dioceses that have worked on” such initiatives.

Given the current political situation, Valdemar thinks that “the Church has failed miserably in the search for and formation of laypeople who will fight to make politics more decent, now so degraded and corrupted, and the formation of Catholic leaders who will make possible the integration of the social doctrine of the Church in public life.”

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

Archbishop Lori completes court-ordered ‘listening sessions’ with sexual abuse victims

"I was deeply moved by their very powerful testimony,” Archbishop William Lori said following a second bankruptcy court-ordered listening session with sexual abuse victims on May 20, 2024. / Credit: Matthew Balan

Baltimore, Md., May 22, 2024 / 16:21 pm (CNA).

Baltimore Archbishop William Lori has completed the second of two federal bankruptcy court-ordered “listening sessions” with alleged victims of sexual abuse at the hands of priests and religious of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

The eight men and women who testified during the May 20 hearing gave disturbing accounts of their experiences, which allegedly occurred between the 1950s and the 1980s. The archdiocese had previously agreed to the sessions, the first of which took place with six claimants on April 8.

Last fall, Lori announced that the Archdiocese of Baltimore would declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy as a result of hundreds of abuse claims against it in recent decades.

Judge Michelle Harner emphasized that the hearing was a “listening session” and that the testimonies would not be evidentiary in nature. Lori and Auxiliary Bishop Adam Parker sat in the courtroom during the two-hour hearing.

Two of the eight claimants were students at St. Peter Claver Parish and School in West Baltimore. The first to testify was 12 when she said she started being stalked by a priest. She said she was ultimately raped by the cleric after numerous instances of lewd behavior. Her mother pulled her out of the parochial school. She said she later attempted suicide, which led to a monthslong stay in a state mental hospital.

Both former students of St. Peter Claver School disclosed that the abuse led to many years of alcohol and drug addiction. The second former student from that parish said she started doing drugs at age 13 after she was abused. Her mother worked for many years at the rectory. She said she was reluctant to hold her mother’s funeral at the parish due to the alleged sex crimes.

All eight detailed the lifelong impact of the abuse — ranging from not being able to trust others, post-traumatic stress disorder, and long periods of addiction. The second claimant, who attended Archbishop Curley High School in the 1980s, detailed how a religious brother introduced him to pornography during a visit to the school’s friary. The alleged victim had trouble forming relationships after his abuse, which he said ultimately led to a divorce in adulthood.

Later in the hearing, two other adult survivors disclosed that their siblings were also abused. The last claimant to testify said she and her twin sister were groomed by a priest at St. Joseph’s Monastery Parish in Baltimore, which adjoined their childhood home. The cleric befriended their family and would regularly visit the residence. Despite the abuse, the female claimant emphasized that she still believed in God: “I don’t blame God. I love God.”

Earlier in the hearing, the sixth claimant noted that his abuser had also established a close relationship with his family. He said the cleric abused him for five years and even followed him on assignment from his parish to his high school.

Following the hearing, Paul Zdunek, who chairs the Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors, a group of seven individuals who organized to represent all of the hundreds of claimants against the archdiocese, spoke with the press outside the courtroom. He stated that the archdiocese is “saying the right things. We hope they do the right things.”

Lori and Parker decided to not speak to the press gathered outside the courtroom. However, the archbishop did give an impromptu reaction to some journalists who approached him, saying: “I was deeply moved by their very powerful testimony.”

Later, the archbishop released a more detailed statement in which he said: “Hearing these stories renews our collective determination to guard against this evil and do all we can to protect those entrusted to our care.”

“The Church’s strong child-protection policies in place today cannot remove the life-altering pain victim-survivors have endured,” he noted. “While nothing could reverse the harm suffered, it is my sincere prayer that survivors can find healing through this process and solace in our joint commitment toward the safety of children."

Look to the Skies

Alex Smalley wants everyone to wake up earlier—or perhaps pause more at day’s end. Why? To gaze at sunrises and sunsets. Those fleeting moments are the most beautiful, awe-inspiring times of the day, according to Smalley, the lead researcher of a British study on awe-inducing weather effects. Even more than blue skies or glittering nightscapes, a stunning sunrise or sunset can improve mood, increase positive emotions, and decrease stress. Smalley says, “When you see something vast and overwhelming or something that produces this feeling of awe, your own problems can feel diminished and so you don’t worry so much about them.”

His findings on wonder echo those of the prophet Jeremiah: “Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you” (Jeremiah 32:17).

King David also beheld God’s creation, declaring “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands” (Psalm 19:1). As for the sun, “It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth.” Therefore, writes David, “The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul” (vv. 6-7). God’s glorious creation reflects the all-powerful Creator. Why not take time today to look to the skies and marvel in Him!

Cuba’s government shuts down priest’s peaceful protest

Father Alberto Reyes has emerged as a critical voice against the extreme poverty and repressive actions of Cuba's police state. / Credit: Rachel Diez/EWTN Noticias

ACI Prensa Staff, May 22, 2024 / 15:45 pm (CNA).

Last week, Cuban priest Father Alberto Reyes started a peaceful protest over the situation in the country: ringing the bells of his parish as a sign of mourning every night there was no electricity. 

The priest of the Archdiocese of Camagüey had announced his plan on May 17 in his column called “He Estado Pensando” (“I Have Been Thinking”), which he posts periodically on Facebook to reflect on the reality of life in Cuba.

In his post, Reyes had encouraged Cubans to stop collaborating with the regime by taking actions such as not attending its political meetings or joining the rapid-response brigades — used to repress opponents — among other measures.

Instead, he invited his compatriots to “speak based on the truth, publicly and from what is evident, from the reality that cannot be denied, without lying, without justifying the unjustifiable. And pray, so that the freedom with which God created us makes headway in our land.”

“I, in fact, have thought of a way, and it’s this: From now on, every night that we do not have electricity, I will ring the church bells 30 times, with the slow ringing of funeral processions, with the ringing that announces death and mourning: the agonizing death of our freedom and our rights, the suffocation and collapse of our lives,” wrote Reyes, pastor of the parish in Esmeralda.

However, after two nights, the priest was ordered to stop his peaceful protest.

On Facebook Cuban layman Osvaldo Gallardo, who currently lives in the United States and maintains contact with Reyes, indicated that the archbishop of Camagüey, Wilfredo Pino, told the priest to stop his initiative.

“Behind this ban, without a doubt,” Gallardo said, “is Caridad Diego Bello and her Office of Religious Affairs at the service of the PCC [Cuban Communist Party].” 

Citing sources close to the Church, the Cuban media outlet 14ymedio indicated that Pino’s request was “clear” and “for the good of the Church and Father Alberto.”

According to the news outlet, “pressure from the PCC Religious Affairs Office, headed by Caridad Diego, are constant, but in the last three years, after the demonstrations of July 11, 2021, they have intensified, especially with the prohibition of processions and celebrations in numerous churches for fear of new protests.”

The Office of Religious Affairs of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba “manages the different aspects of religious life” in the country, as noted in the 2023 Religious Freedom Report of Aid to the Church in Need.

In this regard, in his Dec. 14, 2022, column, Reyes said that this office is “in charge of controlling the practice of the faith, of supervising each movement of the Church, and of insistently calling the bishops and superiors when what a priest or religious says or does bothers them, to try to make them the ones who ‘bring that priest or religious to heel’ while those really behind it are left with clean hands.”

In December 2020, ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner, learned of one example of the pressure exerted by the PCC office when it ordered a parish in Camagüey not to hold Christmas parades, arguing that it was to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, despite the fact that other activities in the province had not been restricted.

Reyes in danger

Speaking with ACI Prensa, Gallardo asked Christians to pray for the personal safety of Reyes. “According to my opinion and judgment, he is in danger because it’s difficult to be a prophet in Cuba, … where he may or may not find support in the people around him, even within the Church itself,” he said.

Gallardo noted that for years the pastor of the Esmeralda parish has “raised his voice” in support of all the Cuban people “to denounce, to raise awareness about the reality” of the country. There is no religious freedom in Cuba, there is no freedom in Cuba, in any way,” he added.

“Cuba suffers and the Catholic Church in Cuba suffers the repression of a regime that ignores all the demands of the people or for freedom,” he stressed.

Gallardo thus reiterated his request for believers and people of goodwill to pray “for Father Alberto, because I believe that his personal safety and his freedom may be in danger at this time.”

Diego López Marina contributed to this article.

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.