While it’s not really new news, Sociological Science had an interesting story on how American religion is becoming polarized and losing its middle ground. We’ve known for quite some time that mainline churches were rapidly losing members since the 1980’s. Further we’ve known that the rise of the Nones the past 15 years often came from people objecting politically to the social conservatism of religion. The question was whether the United States was secularizing like Europe.
Quoting from the study,
We are convinced by the steep downward trend in average religiousness noted by Voas and Chaves (2016). Clearly, America appears to be secularizing. We are not yet convinced, however, by the assertion that the religious change occurring in the United States fits the secularization thesis. Is America really secularizing like other countries where religion is simply fading into obscurity? Or could average U.S. religiosity be declining despite, or maybe even because of, persistently intense religion?
Moderates are leaving religion both from liberal mainline sects but also from more high-intensity religions. The study argues that this is more because of intensity than politics.
In addition to stating that a moderate level of strictness strengthens commitment to religion, Iannaccone also argued that too much strictness and intensity can push away those more loosely tied to religion. If it is primarily moderate religionists and those with loose ties to their religions driving the decline in average American religiosity, then we may be seeing more of a polarization of religion than a pattern consistent with the secularization thesis.
One strong piece of data for this conclusion is that strong-affiliation religions seem to be maintaining their relative numbers.
If this is the case, this goes along with my view from several years ago that much of the shift is a nominalistic change. That is it’s a change in name only. People with weak intensity and belief simply are no longer identifying with Christian religions because there’s no need. The stigma for not belonging to the group is disappearing. They likely aren’t really (in aggregate) changing their behaviors or beliefs much. (The paper gives several other graphs – the above are most illustrative though)
Now it’s hard to say how much this is affecting Mormonism. Mormonism, at least since the 1960’s, has been an extremely high intensity religion. There’s simply a lot required of Mormons. It may well be that even Mormons in rural areas to not feel the need to maintain social commitment to the church. That’s due to changing demographics in the Mormon corridor along with increasing cosmopolitan aculturation due to first TV and then the internet. There’s just many more social options for people in high density Mormon areas such that they don’t feel the need to say they are Mormon anymore.
We’ll have to see how this affects Mormonism as further studies come out. However I think the authors make a compelling case that the polarization we’ve seen in politics is occurring in religion. I think once you see this pointed out that it’s hard not to see it. Further, just as in politics, the middle ground is fast disappearing. This in turn leads to a certain degree of mutual inability to even comprehend each other.
One extra thing I should note is that many have the assumption that both high intensity religion and conservative or at least social conservative politics overlap. While there’s definitely some of that, one need only look at Black Protestantism to see that breaking down. Black Protestantism includes a lot of high intensity religious behavior but they are politically tied to Democrats and not conservative Republicans. Now admittedly despite that connection Black Protestants tend to be fairly conservative socially in terms of many traditional signifiers of social conservatism. Yet on economic issues they are quite liberal. There’s also starting to be a rise in high intensity liberal Christianity. Thus far that movement doesn’t appear big enough to really reduce the outflow in mainline Christianity. However it’s quite possible that we’ll see two types of Christianity, both high intensity, and then moderates all becoming Nones.