The rise of the religious ‘nones’

More people in Malta are choosing not to identify with any particular religion.

The State of the Nation survey revealed interesting trends regarding religion among us Maltese. The study included a sample of 1,064 people aged 16 and over. Of those who responded, 88.9% said they believe in God, 8.2% said they don’t, and 3% said they don’t know.

Although nearly 90% said they believe in God, only 56.7% said that religion is very important in their lives. Furthermore, only 38.9% said they consider religion significantly when making decisions about what is right or wrong—a notable drop from 49% in 2023.

To analyse these trends, we spoke to the Rector of the Archbishop’s Seminary, Fr Jimmy Bonnici. He explained that when someone says they ‘believe in God’ there is significant depth to this statement, leading to various interpretations. Some define it as the knowledge of something greater than what they see with their eyes, while others hold the Christian perspective, which involves building a personal relationship with the Creator.

Fr Bonnici explained that in Malta, there is a wide range of interpretations of ‘belief in God’. He also highlighted the importance of considering those among us who were not born and did not grow up in our country. “This is part of the reality, and as a Church this is also important because we are not only interested in those who were born here or who are Christians,” he said.

Fr Jimmy Bonnici.

The increase in the ‘nones’

Fr Bonnici observed that, even in Malta, there is an increase in those called Nones: individuals who do not associate themselves with a particular religion. This group includes atheists and agnostics, i.e., those who believe that the existence of God or the divine cannot be known to humans. These are not necessarily people who say they are not spiritual, but rather that they do not belong to a religion.

In the United States, Nones represented 29% of the adult population in 2021. In England and Wales, more people under the age of 40 are declaring that they have “no religion” than those professing to be Christian — the first time that the dominant religion in the UK has dropped to second place. This is according to the findings of a census carried out in 2023.

This is still not the reality in our country, as confirmed by the last census carried out in Malta in 2021. When asked about their religious affiliation, a total of 373,304 residents aged 15 or over (82.6%) identified themselves as Roman Catholics. A total of 17,454 people reported that they belong to Islam, followed by 16,457 people who identified themselves as Orthodox Christians. Another 23,243 declared that they had no religious affiliation. We could not compare this with the census carried out in 2011, as questions about religion had not been included.

Between what we say and what we do

Fr Bonnici explained the difference between merely confessing a belief in God and allowing that relationship and belief to influence one’s decisions. He noted that, in the past, this was a more automatic process and certain habits were more natural. Today, Maltese culture is more varied, with individuals receiving information and influences on their lifestyle from various sources, including the internet.

The Rector views this as a reality. “Among young people, there is a greater search for authenticity and more personal reflection,” he told us. He believes that young people are becoming more critical, which he does not view negatively. “After all, it doesn’t mean that in the past, everyone who attended mass automatically made choices inspired by the Gospel,” he added.

From his experience working with teenagers, Fr Jimmy told us that, given the opportunity, the moments they seek the most are moments of silence, despite being exposed to a great deal of alienation. “In today’s society, with its multitude of voices and influencing factors, the primary responsibility now rests with individuals who seek to make more sense of their lives,” explained Fr Jimmy.

We asked what all this means for the Church.

Fr Jimmy explained that many people receive their initial exposure to religion through precepts and Confirmation. However, as they face deeper questions later in life, they often seek to re-examine and discuss what they have learned. “Without this ongoing exploration, religion can lose its relevance and people may feel disconnected,” Fr Jimmy explained. He added that the actions the Church is taking may not necessarily result in measurable success in terms of attendance at mass or numerical growth.

“Success means responding to the evolving circumstances. The Church’s responsibility is to address the new questions people are asking by interpreting the Gospel more effectively and deepening our understanding of truth. Most importantly, this should be achieved through relationships of trust and authenticity fostered by all members of the Church.”

What is the Church doing, concretely?

Among other initiatives, it is organising activities to listen to young people. For instance, the Church currently invites those interested to participate and respond to significant questions. This isn’t about asking questions with predefined answers to be followed, but rather emphasising the importance of everyone’s participation. This approach encourages people from diverse backgrounds to reflect together and develop thoughtful responses that address today’s complex situations in the context of Gospel teachings.

For example, a recent workshop focused on hope in the economy, examining which economic models uphold human dignity more effectively. This approach ensures that reflections are grounded in practical considerations. Another instance is the Pope’s recent address at the G7 meeting on the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) on human dignity.

What do we conclude?

The trends surrounding ‘Nones’ in Malta reflect broader shifts in how individuals engage with religion and spirituality. While the majority still identify as Roman Catholics, there is a noticeable increase in those who do not affiliate with any religion. This trend parallels international patterns seen in countries like the United States and parts of the UK.

The Church acknowledges these changes and is adapting by engaging deeper dialogue, particularly among young people, and addressing contemporary issues such as the impact of technology and economic models on human dignity.

By promoting open discussion and reflection, the Church aims to remain relevant and responsive to the evolving spiritual needs of the community, guided by principles of trust, authenticity, and a deeper understanding of Gospel teachings.

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