Dolores Campbell: None of the above?

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f you happen to be a “none” (no, not a “nun”), you’re one of a growing number of people (more than a billion worldwide actually, especially in America and Europe) who identify themselves as having no religious affiliation, even if they were brought up in homes where religion was practiced, and where they received a grounding in the faith of their parents. The percentage of Canadians who identify as atheist, agnostic or humanist has been growing, from 16.2% in the 2001 census to 23.9% in the 2011 census. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, one in six Americans is a “none” and that number will be one in four by 2050. Daniel Dennett, co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University and co-author of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind, writing in The Wall Street Journal in 2015, said “religious institutions have survived by controlling what their adherents know” something that today is pretty well impossible.

Interior Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis Church, Paris, France. (Photo by David Iliff, CC-by-SA 3.0 By Diliff (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Interior Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis Church, Paris, France. (Photo by David Iliff, own work, CC-by-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Certainly, churches of all stripes are closing, many populations are ageing and many millennials are less inclined to accept or even believe much of what they were taught as children, although it was presented as the “Gospel” truth. Dennett indicates that with few “significant exceptions, religion recedes whenever human security and well-being rises,” and cites John Calvin, who abandoned Catholicism and left France for Geneva, Switzerland in 1533, having discovered the writings of Martin Luther. Calvinism, his “clear articulation of Reformation teachings,” enraptured many followers but even in the 16th century, Calvin noted that the “more prosperous and comfortable his Genevans became, the less dependent they were on church.”


[dropcap]A[/dropcap]ccording to Dennett, “the soil in which religion flourishes” is usually a “catastrophe,” such as war or plague, which throws the population into misery and fear, though he doubts that anyone who deplores the decline of religion would want to see it revived because of a major horror somewhere in the world. Fact is, religions have always been able to pass along beliefs and tenets to their congregations without fear of being contradicted. In today’s wired world with information at our fingertips, those same congregations can discover anything they wish to know about their own faith or any other faith. Let’s face it though, much of what we’re told to accept “on faith” because we really can’t understand it, is completely unbelievable, and while many accepted all the tenets of their faith as kids, as adults they came to reject much of what they had been taught over the years. In some cases, they realized that their parents had also rejected much of what they had once accepted, possibly through conversations with their offspring if they were open to such discussions.

John Calvin (Artist unknown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

John Calvin (Artist unknown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Many of us who attended Catholic schools were taught by members of religious orders whose vocation to religious life included the obligation to spread the faith. Parents were often happy to see their children “raised in the faith” by religious women educated in the ins and outs of that faith. In fact, it was our teachers who made sure that we attended the Mass designated for children, who made sure we studied the Baltimore Catechism,* who prepared us for the various sacraments and marched us over to church for bi-weekly confession, where we often felt obligated to come up with what I learned much later was referred to by clergy as a “laundry list of sins.”

The next generation, for the most part, received similar instruction in the faith but, as schools became public institutions, that instruction was delivered outside the schools, in churches or church halls, by those hired to deliver “rel-ed” programs. Parents were often obliged not only to bring their children to said classes, but to participate in programs designed to update their own faith.


[dropcap]B[/dropcap]ut times have changed, especially over the past 30 or so years. For Catholics, the obligation to have children baptized in the faith has diminished, and when it does happen, those children may not be involved in religious instruction until the time comes for First Communion and perhaps not even then, especially if their parents have joined the ranks of the “nones.” Catholics, of course, are expected to attend Sunday (or Saturday) Mass, and while we don’t hear it articulated much anymore, are guilty of a mortal sin if they don’t. (Who really talks about venial or mortal sin any more?)

So what accounts for the decline in religion? Dennett attributes much of it to the fact that people are less inclined to believe simply because their faith says they must. He suggests that hardly anyone wants to believe in “the wrathful” God we first meet in the Old Testament as opposed to the more “loving” and “forgiving” God that has replaced Him over the centuries. Dennett has no truck, however, with a God who “works in mysterious ways” and who may hear our prayers which, he concludes is a “face-saving” way of saying that “He doesn’t answer them at all.” This can be tough medicine for those who pray regularly and believe that God will answer their prayer to cure a family member of a deadly disease, bring an end to the suffering of those experiencing bombings and terrorist raids or help their favorite hockey team win a Stanley Cup!

Daniell Dennett (Photo by David Orban, davidorban on [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Daniell Dennett (Photo by David Orban, davidorban on, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The “nones” are not monolithic, according to Michael Lipka of Pew Research, but “can be broken down into three broad subgroups: self-identified atheists, those who call themselves agnostic and people who describe their religion as ‘nothing in particular.'” Their reasons for joining the ever-growing number of “nones” vary. Many indicate that “common sense” brought them to conclude that most of the tenets of their faith were not believable. Many continue to believe in God and consider themselves “spiritual” and are mostly quite at peace with their decision to walk away from organized religion.

For many, however, the crunch came when they had children of their own and debated whether they should involve them in a form of organized religion. Some have done so but others chose to give them what is referred to as a “secular upbringing,” given that studies suggest such an upbringing may be “healthier for children.” A Duke University study showed that such kids display “less susceptibility to racism and peer pressure,” are “less vengeful, less nationalistic, less authoritarian, and more tolerant, on average, than religious adults.” The New York Times‘ Phil Zuckerman, writes that with godlessness on the rise, researchers are “analyzing the benefits of nonreligious child rearing more closely.” It was discovered that the majority of non-religious parents “appeared to live goal-filled lives characterized by moral direction” as well as “a sense of life having a purpose.”

Zuckerman says that “for secular people, morality is predicated on one simple principle: emphatic reciprocity, widely known as the Golden Rule. Treating others as you would like to be treated. It is an ancient, universal ethical imperative. And it requires no supernatural beliefs.” And, it should be noted, that every major religion has its own version of The Golden Rule. Zuckerman makes note of a very interesting fact – “atheists were almost absent from America’s prison population as of the late 1990s,” thereby echoing “what the criminology field has documented for more than a century – that the unaffiliated and the nonreligious engage in far fewer crimes.”

Do the “nones” have it?


*A Catechism of Christian Doctrine, Prepared and Enjoined by Order of the Third Council of Baltimore, the first catechism written for Catholics in North America, was the standard Catholic school text from 1885 to the late 1960s.


Dolores Campbell


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.



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