Atheism Fading, But So Too Is Religious Fervor

Data Reveal Belief Without Belonging

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VATICAN CITY, MARCH 11, 2004 ( Research carried out by the Pontifical Council for Culture reveals that atheism is receding while religious indifference and «alternative religions» are growing.

The pontifical council conducted a worldwide survey on unbelief and religious indifference to prepare for its plenary assembly, which runs today through Saturday in the Vatican.

«From the militant and organized atheism of other times there has been a move to a situation of practical indifference, of the loss of importance of the question of God, and of abandonment of religious practice, especially in the Western world,» the presentation of the council’s report pointed out.

Yet, this trend is not a question of «abandonment of belief in God,» the report said.

The study, which will be the working document of the plenary meeting, was prepared using a «Survey on Unbelief» to which correspondents of the council worldwide have responded.

The up-to-date «map» of unbelief drawn by the study arrives at six conclusions, presented Monday to a group of journalists, including one from ZENIT, by Cardinal Paul Poupard, president of the pontifical council. The conclusions:

— «Unbelief is not increasing in the world. It is a phenomenon connected especially to the Western world. It is not connected to the Asian, Latin American or African world, and even less so to the Muslim.»

— «Militant atheism is receding and it exerts no public influence, with the exception of regimes in which an atheist political system is still in force. One observes, however, the awakening of a certain militant laicism, especially in Europe.»

— «Religious indifference or practical atheism is growing. Agnostics and non-practicing believers tend to be mixed in an environment where people live, in fact, as if God did not exist.»

— «Atheism and unbelief, typically masculine phenomena … usually found in persons with a medium-high cultural level in the past, today have spread also to women who work outside the home: unbelief increases among the latter and reaches levels that are almost the same as those of men.»

— «The number of persons who go to Church regularly is decreasing everywhere. This does not mean an increase in unbelief, but rather the transformation of religious practice and of the way of believing: to believe without belonging.»

— «Also growing is a more spiritual rather than religious search, which does not always coincide with a return to traditional religious practices.»

Cardinal Poupard explained that the study «does not seek to continue analyzing the problem of the loss of the faith, but of giving concrete answers. We are not sociologists; we are pastors.»

In this plenary assembly, the cardinal said, the members of the Council for Culture — 21 cardinals and 12 archbishops and bishops — seek «to help to respond to a very simple question: What must we do?»

«The real enemy of faith is not aggressive atheism. Today, for the majority of persons, God is considered totally insignificant,» he said, quoting a study made in England, in The Tablet, on Jan. 10. «There is no place or need for him in the needs and desires of their daily life.»

The council’s plenary assembly seeks «to indicate new ways to respond to the unsatisfied expectations of man who continues to be, despite everything, a religious man,» the cardinal said.

«There is a whole series of means that must be proposed to evangelize the culture of unbelief and of indifference,» he added.

Specifically, Cardinal Poupard proposed «a renewed presence of the Church in the public debate» and «a new language that touches reason and the heart.»

He also proposed «that Christian initiation be assumed by the family and the community of believers, prolonged by educational institutions, and supported by a catechesis watered by a solid liturgy of beauty,» to share «love by following the example of Christ, redeemer of the world.»

Cardinals and bishops who were recently appointed as members of the dicastery will participate for the first time in the plenary assembly.

Among the speakers are:

— Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor of Westminster, who will speak on «Personal Dialogue with Nonbelievers»;

— Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, who will address the topic «The Christian Churches Facing the Challenge of Unbelief»;

— Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who will speak on «Educational Institutes: Schools and Universities»;

— Cardinal Ivan Dias of Bombay, India, on «The Way of Love.»

On Saturday, the closing session will take place with a Mass in the Basilica of St. Mary in Trastevere, presided over by Cardinal Juan Sandoval Íñiguez of Guadalajara, Mexico.

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