Moderate Worship Losing Ground

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.

Sociological Science

Sociological Science2

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.

10 comments for “Moderate Worship Losing Ground

  1. Jerry Schmidt
    December 15, 2017 at 10:54 pm

    I’m going to advance an alternate interpretation. I don’t believe the decline is necessarily based in religious belief, but cultural shift. The religions that dominated and defined world Christianity up until about the 1800s in North America are of the Constantinian tradition. In North America, Christian religions outside the Constantinian tradition formed: LDS, Christian Science, and Jehovah’s Witness, that I can name off the top of my head.

    Even those who had been converted to Catholicism in Scotland and Ireland became more generic Christians as they migrated to North America. I’ll admit this may be a biased view from my study of my own ancestors, who migrated to Canada from Scotland then into the newly-formed western American territories like Washington/Oregon. If they were Catholic when they left Scotland, they qualified as more generic Christians by the time my parents came into the picture.

    What I see is not a de-Christianization in North America, but a de-Romanization. Cultural aspects of ancient Rome, such as infamia and virtus, found their way to North America via religions with cultural DNA from ancient Rome. Humans in North America have been slowly, persistently divesting their culture of these ancient Roman cultural elements, and religions with ancestral ties to ancient Rome found themselves necessarily in the way. Those in the LDS church who also found themselves mysteriously invested in infamia and virtus were also impacted.

  2. Northern Virginia
    December 18, 2017 at 9:04 am

    Jerry, I’ve been re-reading your post for three days and still don’t understand what you’re trying to say. My understanding of infamia in ancient Rome is that it was a loss of legal or social standing and could include informal damage to one’s esteem or reputation. Virtus included a range of Roman virtues, including prudence, temperance, and courage. I don’t see how the supposed loss of those values has led to a less religious populace in the U.S. Infamia is still alive and well; it’s just the the types of things that cause infamia have changed (just ask Al Franken). Likewise, I personally believe Americans still believe in virtue, though what makes up being virtuous is probably quite different from the Roman ideal.

    I think Clark’s statement about the idea that being part of the community (or finding your own sub-community) now doesn’t necessitate church attendance is much closer to the truth. The rise of the internet has allowed people to find like-minded sub-communities, not just online, but also in their own cities and neighborhoods. If one’s church attendance was only really ever about having a community, and not the theology or spiritual uplift, why not find another secular sub-community that fits one best?

  3. Clark Goble
    December 18, 2017 at 1:54 pm

    To add, we tend to think about religiosity and church attendance as closely entwined. Throughout much of the 20th century they have been. However that connection really isn’t a strong one. Again a lot depends upon what one means by religiosity. But if we speak about belief rather than practices, then it’s easy to argue that in much of the 19th century despite some periods of strong sectarian commitment most people didn’t tie belonging to a church to being religious. The role of a church has a complex social role. Not just in the United States but in Europe too even during the domination in the west by the Catholic Church. I think we tend to assume that the place and role of church in the 20th century America is the norm. It just isn’t.

    My sense is that we’re seeing rapid evolution in how religion functions socially. As Northern Virginia hints, if we look at behavior rather than belief, then we have the rise of quasi-religions. While quasi-religions are somewhat understandably controversial since they don’t really hold to theistic beliefs, they’re not new. One can point to idealogical movements such as forms of Marxism as quasi-religious going back to the 19th century. What’s interesting today is that rather than just a few major movements with a degree of centralization we now have lots of movements. While I might be wrong, my guess is that much as Marxism did from the late 19th century through the 80’s, these new quasi-religious movements are in competition with religion. (Although Marxism also sometimes merged with religion as we saw in some liberation theology movements in Latin America)

  4. Jerry Schmidt
    December 18, 2017 at 10:01 pm

    In ancient Rome, virtus was less about internal belief (behavior when no one is looking) and more about social standing, model masculine behavior. Women, not being masculine, by social definition did not show virtus; instead they showed proper behavior and respect to men.

    Infamia were those deemed unfit for citizenship. Only Roman citizens could have a say in government and social affairs, so effectively slaves and infamia had no legal leverage. Entertainers and open homosexuals were usually considered infamia.

    For me, the U.S. has been steadily (not necessarily unitedly) eliminating slavery, the definition of women as having little or no socio-political influence or power, and who qualifies as being considered effectively a citizen (black Americans under Jim Crow, legal marriage as exclusively for heterosexual citizens). I do think that these Roman cultural elements survived through Christianity in the Constantinian tradition, and therefore the elimination of these elements both socially and politically impacted religions of the Constantinian tradition directly and indirectly.

    I can appreciate that from the Constantinian point of view, they would necessarily see themselves as under attack and interpret members falling away as not turning away from the Constantinian tradition to a more generic Christianity or religosity but as
    victims who were lead astray by seemingly atheistic social and political forces.

    Based on my lineage, my own experience, and perhaps my own bias, I see this turning away from the Constantinian tradition as leading my parents to consider the Book of Mormon and the restored gospel as claimed by the LDS church. After all, Joseph Smith was unable to emphatically join up with those churches of the Constantinian tradition in his day, leading him down a Christian but almost wholly different path.

  5. Jerry Schmidt
    December 18, 2017 at 10:09 pm

    I don’t intend my theory to supplant Clark’s theory; I think his theory makes sense. I think my theory adds dimension to the dialogue; of course l, I would think that about my own theory ;).

  6. Ted B
    December 19, 2017 at 12:26 pm

    Great observations, Clark. To add to this, I think that Islam has held out more strongly against secularization in Europe, the US, and the much of the Muslim world (i.e., Turkey, Albania, Bosnia, Uzbekistan, and other Central Asian former Soviet countries where secular currents have been strong for decades) for these very same reasons. Islam is a more high intensity religion. An interesting case is Turkey where secularist nationalism was so strong right after WWI that Turkey divested itself of many Muslim cultural symbols (banned the wearing of the headscarf in many public spaces like universities and many other examples) and secular nationalist parties dominated politics for decades. Now, Islam has made a comeback, or at least traditional Muslims have become increasingly politically conscious, such that the AKP, a mildly Islamist party, has dominated the elections since the early 2000s. Consequently the political climate in Turkey has become increasingly polarized.

  7. Chris g
    December 19, 2017 at 11:40 pm

    Clark,I think your comment about other moralized groups competing in religion’s market space is dead on. People have innate needs for groups which fulfill existential, social and adaptive roles. Religion is not unique in what it can provide. While many may think secular or non-supernatural versions may be cheap replacements that don’t provide adequate long term rewards, as the stats suggest, many find these replacements fine. Costs are lower and they seem to satisfy biological (gene-culture) needs.

    I think one of the best insights into how the more moral, rational and less zealous forms of secular new “religious” movements may go is found in the recent conversation between Bret Weinstein & Sam Harris. The dynamics are interesting. I suspect Weinstein’s approach may, in the long term, win over some of Harris’ more moderate hyper-rationalists. Or at least I hope so. Harris’ hubris and utopian rationalism really puts me off. On the other hand, Weinstein is in touch with questions or factual vs. practical reality (what he calls metaphorical truth). I think coming to terms with this is critical for educated approaches to quasi-religious engineering. Most social media groups are just so controlled by base proclivities it is hard for them to stumble into the right adaptive mixtures. They miss out on how to stabilize their “altruist” core and get swamped by migration and freeloader effects.

  8. Martin James
    January 3, 2018 at 2:40 pm

    To make sense of these trends I think several other things need to be considered. Each of these has its own set of uncertainties also.
    1. Globalism. US religiousity is affected by immigration and global trends in religion since almost all of the churches have roots in other areas and many have leadership in other countries.
    2. Demographic transition: the single biggest factor in religious adherence is the religion of one’s parents. Different parts of the world have entered into the demographic transition (fertility rates, say 2.5 or lower compared to 2.5 and higher). The main evolutionary advantage of religion in today’s world is a higher birth rate. There are long time lags in fertility rate change to population change. We have never had a post-demographic transition world with high income levels to know what comes next.
    3. Economic and technological progress. Again we are only starting a third century since the industrial revolution, a second century of large corporations and are scarcely half a century into significant use of computing tools for information sharing. No one knows how these will affect society. No one.
    4. Multiple overlapping social networks for most people: national, ethnic, economic, religious, gender, sexual, political, etc. Again, I don’t think anyone knows what this means for the future.

  9. January 8, 2018 at 11:34 am

    Nice analysis, Clark. I would love to see more on your thoughts behind the statement, “People with weak intensity and belief simply are no longer identifying with Christian religions because there’s no need.” It seems like a strong argument, but it would be interesting to see a breakdown of the different reasons there is no longer a need along with potential catalysts for the change in mindset.

    Great work. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Clark Goble
    January 8, 2018 at 7:11 pm

    More or less it’s just the idea that the change is primarily a nominal one. That is a change in name but not a change in behavior. So in the 1980’s people might rarely go to church, not really think about the theology, not really let religion affect their behavior, but due to the nature of identity and “appropriateness” in the community say they were baptist, or catholic or whatever suited the other identity-groups they belonged to. Today those people simply don’t need to say they’re baptist. They can say they’re nothing much at all although they believe in God. There’s not really the same degree of social stigma to saying such a thing that there would have been in the 1970’s or 80’s.

    Now I don’t want to be reductive and say that’s all that’s going on. Undeniably the numbers of formal atheists and agnostics are increasing. Further we have to pay attention to the fact these are aggregate statistics. Someone may very well feel like they have to call themselves baptist at one point in their life and maybe 10 years later feel like they aren’t and then 10 more years later say they are. People are entering and exiting these categories over time, although that’s not as well studied. They are thus “foamy” in a certain way.

    As for the need, I think that’s fairly easy to establish. There were pretty severe social costs in the United States and even Canada for breaking from the dominant religion of a community. There’s simply not anymore. For one you have the internet allowing groups to no longer be tied as much to physical location. So you might live in some small Utah town but intellectually socialize via Facebook or some forum with people from around the world holding views quite unlike your community’s. More significantly though the generational change shows the shift and it’s peer groups that tend to determine behavior the most. Those peer groups are significantly affected by media in a way that has led to fairly fast shifts socially the past 30 years.

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