Wow. I just found out that there are a lot more of you than I realized.
56 million out of 245 million adults in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center, now describe themselves religiously “unaffiliated”: atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” That’s 22.8 percent of the adult American population, and apparently, that proportion has been steadily growing since the 1990s. If you happen to be age 18-29, the proportion is even higher: four in ten (39%) young adults are religiously unaffiliated, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. Statistics like these have led many people to worry that you are ushering in a post-religious era in this country.
I actually understand where you’re coming from. I, too, was Unaffiliated. For the majority of my life, from my teenage years to age 50, I claimed no religious faith and attended a church service only once in a blue moon. (That’s why I know that you’re reading this only if a well-meaning friend or relative sent you the link.)
Over three years ago, though, I changed categories. I moved from the 22.8 percent of Americans who are Unaffiliated to the 20.8 percent who are Catholic and the 70.6 percent who describe themselves as Christian.
It was a good decision. You might be interested in hearing about five important benefits I gained by affiliating myself.
1. A deep, unshakable sense of self-worth.
Like everyone else, I was reminded repeatedly by our secular American culture that I wasn’t smart enough or attractive enough or fashionable enough or popular enough or rich enough. I fell short. I should constantly strive (and buy things) to be worthy. Fortunately, Christianity has taught me the opposite message: I am a child of God, so I am already worthy, regardless of what anyone else tells me. That’s the message I encounter when I read Biblical passages such as this excerpt from Psalm 139:
You formed my inmost being;
you knit me in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, because I am wonderfully made;
wonderful are your works!
My very self you know.
My bones are not hidden from you,
When I was being made in secret,
fashioned in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw me unformed;
in your book all are written down;
my days were shaped, before one came to be.
This is a message that girls and young women, in particular, need to hear. I wish I had internalized it before I hit my 20s and 30s. Then, I would have held myself in higher esteem as a precious creation of God, and I would have made some very different choices when it came to men and romantic relationships. Today, I’m always pleased to see adolescent girls participating in Mass and absorbing this Truth, for it will help them to resist any attempts that others might make to diminish them, or use them, or abuse them.
2. A defined moral compass to use for navigating life’s complexities.
In “Building Better Secularists”, New York Times columnist David Brooks says that the Unaffiliated (which he refers to as “secularists” or “secular people”) “put unprecedented moral burdens on themselves”:
Secular individuals have to build their own moral philosophies. Religious people inherit creeds that have evolved over centuries….Secular people have to fashion their own moral motivation. It’s not enough to want to be a decent person. You have to be powerfully motivated to behave well. Religious people are motivated by their love for God and their fervent desire to please Him. Secularists have to come up with their own powerful drive that will compel sacrifice and service.
I like to read and think, but that’s a lot of challenging mental work to do on your own. I’m grateful for the answers that have been provided by the many dedicated and learned moral/spiritual philosophers who came before me, and I agree with K. Albert Little, who said in “The Catholic Church Makes Sense, Because I Don’t Know Best“, “One of the incredible gifts of becoming a Catholic is knowing that my theology, what I believe, has been figured out by people much smarter than I am over thousands of years.”
3. A stable and supportive community.
It used to be that a handful of institutions — our families, our schools, our churches, and our civic organizations — provided us with shared values and a sense of belonging to a community. They also helped to balance our secular culture’s extreme emphasis on individualism and competition. In recent decades, though, all of these traditional institutions have suffered deterioration, leaving people feeling isolated and adrift. For me, the Church remains a dependable source for the fulfillment of an essential need: a feeling of connection to other human beings.
4. A source of comfort during dark times.
I have found that, sometimes, during times of trouble, the only source of solace is God. Because I nurture my relationship with Him every day, it’s easy for me to connect with Him when I need Him.
5. Meaning and joy.
When I was trying to go it alone, I sometimes felt bored, anxious, or depressed. I didn’t know that Homo sapiens is also known as Homo religiosus. Our species has been seeking connection to a higher power since the second we evolved into Homo sapiens. We know that everything — including all human relationships, all accomplishments, and all acquisitions — is transient and ephemeral. So, we need to feel connected to something greater, something permanent, to give our lives meaning and significance. When we totally reject religion, we deny a primal yearning at the core of every human’s being, which may explain my occasional feelings of being unbalanced. Religious observance has shown me how to establish and maintain a connection to God that makes me feel part of something important, and that feeling brings deep contentment.
Maybe you’re like I was in my 20s, 30s, and 40s and not yet aware of what you’re missing. Maybe you don’t yet have children, and when you do, you’ll discover — like I did — the importance of giving your kids a spiritual foundation. Maybe you’ll just realize one day, all of a sudden, that religion has been around for such a long time because it provides us with valuable guidance for cultivating a rich spiritual life and great joy.