From ‘shruggers’ to ‘sceptics’: the six different kinds of lapsed Catholic

Richard Dawkins. 'Many atheists are closer to the Church than we think,' says Brandon Vogt (Photo: PA)

A recent poll, which Fr Lucie-Smith has blogged about earlier this week, suggests that 40 per cent of the British don’t believe that Jesus was a real historical figure. Here is another depressing statistic from the US: 79 per cent of Catholics who lapse, do so before the age of 23. I learnt this from the blog of Brandon Vogt here. Vogt is an eloquent and erudite young American who is actively trying to share his faith, challenge the dreary zeitgeist and bring back the lapsed with his website:

Vogt describes six different reasons why young Catholics leave the faith. The first is that they are merely “cultural Catholics” who go under the label “Catholic” but who have no personal, meaningful faith whatsoever. They might go to Mass sometimes to please their parents, or at Christmas, but the label merely masks “a lifeless and decaying faith life”. Vogt thinks it is easier to talk to an atheist than a cultural Catholic, as the atheist at least knows he/she isn’t a Catholic. According to Vogt, most US Catholics are in this category.

The second group are the “shruggers” – complacent people who simply shrug their shoulders at the big questions in life. They are too mentally lazy to care about faith. They need to be convinced that knowing the purpose of our lives does matter and that responding with “whatever” is ducking their responsibility to engage with profound questions. I suspect this might be a hard category to reconvert.

The third group is “I am spiritual but not religious” – those who reject doctrine or religion but who still believe in a higher power and who still pray. For this group, watching a sunset is a spiritual experience as valid as anything else; what you feel is all that matters.

The fourth group, which I think is very common, is the “moral movers” ie those people who reject the Church’s teachings on moral matters, usually when they start to conflict with the lifestyle they choose to live. Such people usually have a distorted and negative view of what the Church actually teaches. They can be hard to shift if it means overturning a settled and long-term way of life.

The fifth group are “religious switchers” – those who switch to another faith, usually Evangelical Christianity (though I also know a former Catholic who became a Muslim). Their grievance is that they were not being “spiritually fed” within the Catholic community. It rather smites my heart when I hear this. Why are Catholic parishes not more welcoming? The answer is possibly that many of us also come under the category of “cultural Catholics”: we go to Mass out of a vague sense of duty or propriety – but we have no living faith to share with newcomers. At Evangelical services on the other hand, the love of Jesus, and the wish to share the Good News, is palpable among the congregation.

The final group are the “sceptics” – predictably swelled by reading popular authors such as Richard Dawkins, who depicts Christians as irrational and bigoted. Vogt runs a website for this category too,, in which he engages in argument with atheists. He believes that “many atheists are closer to the Church than we think. First, they are willing to investigate. Second, they are passionate about questions of God. Even if they don’t believe, they know the question is worth considering.”

These groups are familiar to most of us – even within our own families. Seventy-nine per cent is a huge figure, and it is likely to be higher over here, where people of all ages are generally less religious than in the US. It is easy to wring one’s hands; better to check out Vogt’s website and see how we can make a difference.