Numbering Worshipers in Boston -- Sightings

The number of church goers is declining, despite the rise of the mega-church, while the numbers of those uncommitted or unbelieving continues to rise.  There are a lot of different factors involved, but while religion continues to make itself felt in public life, we are not gathering together as we once were for worship.   "In God we [may] trust," but what does that really mean for our lives?  Martin Marty writes of statistics in Boston, especially among Roman Catholics, that demonstrates the issues at hand -- where is the church going?  Take a read of his analysis and offer your thoughts on the state of belief and unbelief in our society.
Sightings  12/5/2011
Numbering Worshipers in Boston
-- Martin E. Marty

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 per cent reported that they were not active church members; 32 percent had not attended religious services in the previous three months. . . Only one per cent of all Americans stated that they are atheists, that they do not believe. Even in the group which expressed no religious preference, only 12 per cent 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 . . . .
This week’s sampling made headlines across the page in the Wall Street Journal. It’s 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 two-hundred 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 “Archdiocese Turns to Evangelizing,” 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.


Jennifer Levitz, “Archdiocese Turns to Evangelizing,” Wall Street Journal, December 2, 2011.

Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at


In this month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum, Emanuelle Burton’s “Whose Lion Is It, Anyway?” argues that scholarly commentary on C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia is too dominated by the Christian academy; thus, it often fails to understand (or to serve) a major portion of the books’ audience: readers who are uninterested in, or even disturbed by, the Chronicles’ “parallels to the Christian salvation story.” Writes Burton, “Simply put, it is time for Narnia criticism to broaden its horizons: to acknowledge a wider array of readers, and to take seriously the question of what draws so many readers to the books without drawing them closer to Christianity.”

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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