A new study by researchers from Harvard and Indiana University finds that while liberal denominations continue to shed members, there has been no decrease in the number of committed Christians in the United States. Intense religious commitment in the U.S. is not waning. Landon Schnabel and Sean Bock state:
Recent research argues that the United States is secularizing, that this religious change is consistent with the secularization thesis . . . But we show that rather than religion fading into irrelevance as the secularization thesis would suggest, intense religion—strong affiliation, very frequent practice, literalism, and evangelicalism—is persistent and, in fact, only moderate religion is on the decline in the United States.
The secularization thesis asserts that as a result of ongoing modernization and the advance of science, religion will become increasingly irrelevant in public and private life. This pattern is borne out in many advanced industrial societies, as religion has grown increasingly irrelevant in the public sphere and in people’s everyday lives.
There are aspects of religion in America that make it appear to fit this pattern. For example, those claiming no religious affiliation has grown from about 8% of the population in 1990 to over 20% today. Mainline Protestant affiliation has fallen from 35% in 1972 to just 12% today. Those who view the Bible as “a book of fables” have grown from about 15% to over 20%.
But other data suggest that committed Christianity is not only holding steady but even growing. In 1972, evangelicals made up 18% of the population, but have grown to 28%. The percentage of Americans who pray at least daily is growing, and the percentage who pray more than once a day has been growing steadily for decades. Those who view the Bible as the literal word of God are holding steady at well over 30%. Those whose religious affiliation is characterized as “strong” are holding steady at 39%.
The study authors favor the thesis that apparent “secularization” is really just the shrinkage of moderate, or less intensely committed religion, not any decrease in committed religion:
“Rather than growing irrelevance of religion in America as suggested by the secularization thesis, rising secularism is solely a function of the decline of moderate religion . . . the highest levels of religious commitment and involvement remain steady, as do literalism and sectarian identity, demonstrating the persistent intensity of American religion. Because the more moderate groups are shrinking as the more intense categories persist, these intense categories make up a growing proportion of those who are religious.”
Glenn Stanton, at the Federalist, puts it more colorfully:
“Mainline churches are tanking as if they have super-sized millstones around their necks. Yes, these churches are hemorrhaging members in startling numbers, but many of those folks are not leaving Christianity. They are simply going elsewhere. Because of this shifting, other very different kinds of churches are holding strong in crowds and have been for as long as such data has been collected. In some ways, they are even growing. This is what this new research has found.”
“When the so-called ‘progressive’ churches question the historicity of Jesus, deny the reality of sin, support abortion, ordain clergy in same-sex relationships and perform their marriages, people desiring real Christianity head elsewhere. Fact: evangelical churches gain five new congregants exiled from the liberal churches for every one they lose for any reason. They also do a better job of retaining believers from childhood to adulthood than do mainline churches.”
Schnabel and Bock do not discuss the reasons why committed Christianity continues to more than hold its own in America even as liberal Christianity implodes and irreligion waxes stronger. But Glenn Stanton has some ideas on that topic.
First, conservative Christians are generally more fertile. “Those who have the babies and raise and educate them well tend to direct the future of humanity. Serious Christians are doing this. Those redefining the faith and reality itself are not.”
Stanton also points out interesting research done at Baylor that found, when looking at U.S. church attendance numbers going back to colonial times, that the percentage of church-attending Americans relative to overall population is more than four times greater today than it was in 1776, the year of the declaration of independence.