Sharp decline of Latino Catholicism – Is this really surprising?

Pew published a poll on April 13 which revealed that many young Latinos are abandoning their traditional Catholicism and are instead becoming “Nones” (Nothing in Particular).

Let’s first take a pass at what they survey reveals. Be warned, data statistics might sound “dull”, but there are a couple of “wow” moments coming up.

Poll: Among U.S. Latinos, Catholicism Continues to Decline but Is Still the Largest Faith

I confess that I love graphs that show you exactly what has been going on over time for things I care about. The visualisation of data that represents literally millions of people enables you to see the big picture, the long term trend. So here it is …

What you can see above is this – Between 2010 and now, the percentage of all Latinos …

  • Who identify as “Evangelical”, or “Protestant”, or “Other”, has remained roughly the same … well OK, some moderate upticks, but nothing dramatic
  • Meanwhile, those that identify as Nones, and grown from 14% to 30% (not 1 in 4 but now rapidly closing in on 1 in 3) … an increase of 16%
  • Those who identify as Catholic has shrunk from 62% to 43% … a decrease of 19%.

My initial comment when faced with data that reveals a huge change is often just one word. I find that comment to be wholly appropriate here.

This is it …


But wait, there is more. An even more surprising plot twist is coming up.

Here is what happens if you break the latest data down by age

This is quite frankly an even bigger “Wow” …

Notice the numbers of young latinos (Aged 18-29) …a whopping 49% of them, almost half, are religiously unaffiliated and have rejected their legacy of Catholicism.

If you ever want to know where things are going in the long term, then break the numbers down by age. Looking at the numbers of the younger generation tells you what is coming in the decades to come.

One possible counter argument runs like this … “no no no, what really happens is that as Latinos get older and settle down, they simply lean more into their Catholicism“. The flaw within that stance is the first chart. Quite clearly there is a trend of younger far less religious Latinos replacing older Catholic Latinos.

Is this demographic really changing in a dramatic manner?

Yes, it really is.

Another way they examined this question was to ask, “What religion were your raised in?”. They can then compare that with their current stated position. The result is that roughly one third had switched.

It gets complicated of course, for example some converted to Catholicism and away from being “None”, but overall the big trends were clear …

  • Biggest loss was Catholicism (about 23% quit … and 1% joined)
  • Biggest gain was being non religious (about a 20% gain … and 3% quit)
  • 9% switched to being Protestant and 6% quit that.

There are also other ways to measure all this

People might indeed identify with a specific religious label. Those doing so are people who interpret the question as “What is your culture?” when asked what their religious affiliation is. A way to gain a deeper insight is to also find out if they attend religious services on a regular basis. In other words, beyond being just a cultural identity do they actually believe and practice that belief?

The insights they got were as follows …

Across all Latinos, 50% do not practise a religion.

Well yes, that’s the nones in the mix. What is a tad more interesting are the numbers of those that do have a religious identity, but don’t tend to practise it … 38% of Catholics, 24% of protestants.

But wait … 1% of the non-religious do attend a regular weekly religious service, so what the heck is that about?

I can speculate without taking a huge leap. Even if you yourself as an individual do not identify as religious or actually believe, you might still attend because a partner or a parent does and you simply go along to be with them and support them. Life is complicated, and we don’t all fall into neat boxes.

Why the on-going Decline amongst younger Latinos?

Pew simply report statistics, so they don’t mull over the “why” question.

One of the most immediate and obvious observations is that we now have a generation of Latinos who are the first generation to have grown up with a very conscious awareness of Catholic clerical abuse on a global industrial scale. Case after case after case. Again and again and again. It has been a saga of not just a few bad apples, but a conscious conspiracy, a cover-up that enabled known sexual abusers to be moved from parish to parish. Many lives were devastated. It truly is a strong motivation to walk away.

If you have not been emotionally invested in a belief for decades then it becomes a lot easier to walk away when something deeply disturbing is revealed.

What would perhaps have been deeply surprising was the lack of a consequence such as this. The fact that so many are leaving is really not a shock.

Yes, but why “Nones”, when the leap to being protestant might be a more natural switch?

What also very much plays a role here has been the Evangelical embrace of right-wing politics. I really don’t need to remind you of their support for politicians who promote xenophobic policies, the frantic plea to build the wall, and the declaration that immigrants are all rapists who are smuggling drugs, etc… It is not exactly a compelling tantalising message that entices large numbers into that fold.

The path of least resistance, the one that does not throw up huge problems, has rather obviously been the road that leads to being a “none”.

When faith, be that Catholic or Evangelical, offers intolerance, abuse, and a great deal of real harm, then the social outcome that results from all of that really should not be a surprise … and yet for some it really is.

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