The Return of Secularization

As you may have heard, there is a brand new study out from Pew that has some interesting statistics about the state of American religion.  Take a look at the graph:The death of the Protestant ascendancy in the United States has long been heralded, but now we have the facts to back up the claim.  Protestants are no longer in the majority in our country.  We also now know that a full 20% of Americans have no stated religious affiliation whatsoever.

A few thoughts:

  • Secularization, a thesis that claimed modern societies almost inevitably headed towards a de-religionification within society, has in the past few decades perceived to be rather flawed.  This study shows that the thesis might not be as dead as we thought.
  • Alternately, this study may simply reveal a more static state of belief that has long existed in America, with current societal norms  allowing people to be more honest than in the past.
  • Of this 71% that self-identify as Christian, how many would either identify with or carry the characteristics of Pentecostal-Charismatic Movement?  We know they constitute two of the top ten denominations in the US (Church of God in Christ and Assemblies of God) at 8.5 million…but how pervasive is their influence?
  • I know we have a Mormon running for the highest office in the land, but it is, at some level, surprising that a full 2% of the American population is Mormon.  That is a significant number.

10 comments on “The Return of Secularization

  1. Andy Wong says:

    One thing I can’t stand inter- and intra-denominationally is turf wars. Like “Don’t plant a new church near my established church. We’re having a hard enough time already.”

    As if we’re running out of people to evangelize.

  2. This new research has given rise to some questions that I have as well. I’m curious to know how much of the decline in Protestantism comes from Mainline denominations losing people. There is obviously some level of “transfer growth” from Mainline to more Evangelical/Pentecostal denominations, but I’m curious how many are abandoning to the “none” category out of those denominations. Same question goes for Catholic and Evangelical/Pentecostals as well.

    I think you might be on target RE the static state of “nones” having existed in the American status quo for years, but now it’s becoming more acceptable to simply declare yourself a “none.” I do wonder, however, how much this study would be impacted by some other criterion than self-description. Surely there are a number of people who would simply claim a mental assent to Christianity while not really engaging with the faith at all that self-identify as Christian? Perhaps with a more stringent metric we could have a more accurate understanding of the religious make-up of America.

    Also- I find it interesting that you see Mormonism at 2% as being a substantive number in the overall religious ID of America. 2% is actually quite surprisingly low to me, since an entire state is made up of a large majority of Mormons. Though I guess my perception of the number of Mormons is skewed, given my relation to so many Mormons.

    Regardless- we don’t need studies to confirm the obvious social trends we are experiencing. The Church is in rapid numerical shrinking in the U.S., and we’ve known it for a while. Many are trying to fight it tooth and nail. I’m not so sure it’s necessarily a bad thing. Suppression and oppression has historically been a catalyst for a boom in authentic Christian conversions. Perhaps we need a little more?

    • Joshua R. Ziefle says:


      We East Coasters have little sense of really how many Mormons there are out there. 2% does seem high, considering I’ve never really met a Mormon in my life (that I can remember off the top of my head).

      I hear the “oppression is good for the church” argument, but I’m not sure that we should ask for it, or even if the argument can be definitively proved that persecution equals growth. Perhaps a “post hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacy?

      I will say this: it stands to reason that belonging to a faith where you will be persecuting for following it definitely whittles down the faithful to only “true believers,” which admittedly has a certain purity and attraction to it.

  3. Andy Wong says:

    I do remember reading a few years ago that on any given Sunday, 17% of Americans are in church. Even if you account for vacations and emergencies and whatever, that’s not even in the same ballpark as the number of people who self-identify as Christian.

    I also don’t think we should ask for or welcome persecution (especially since this appears to be more decline than persecution which may be a completely different thing) , but I’m also not entirely worried. Biblically, God’s people have gone through this exact same cycle over and over and each time it radically transformed the faith but it never killed it. The trick is to be the Joshua’s and the Caleb’s who welcome the challenge of the new land instead of the older generation who is afraid that God isn’t big enough.

  4. Andy,

    I hear what you are saying. Question: do you think this is the “exact same cycle” or something new? To be sure, there have been other periods when faith was seen to be on the decline…but is this world of secularization different?

    Part of me wants to say: “no way.” At the same time, maybe because of the direction of our society, a part of me wants to say “yes, this is different..”

    Beyond this, how do you think we ought to be transformative or be transformed in this new day?

    Hope all is well.


  5. Andy Wong says:

    Is it “exactly the same”? Of course not. However, I also do not think it’s qualitatively different from the exile periods or the 40 years in the desert from a broad theological place. Ultimately, I think the answer to whether it’s different isn’t as important as the answer to what to do about it which I think is the same either way: As long as we as God’s people are more concerned about our survival and the preservation of our institution (whether that’s the Israelites, the religious traditions of the two kingdoms, or the survival of the church – which really means the financial survival of the church) we will decline. If our good news is, “Come to Jesus because, man, our church really needs some young people,” whether or not that’s explicitly what we say, people will know it and be turned off by it.

    • Andy Wong says:

      I guess to more explicitly answer your question, our churches need to design ministry not around “how do we get people to come in here?” but around “how do we get out there to the people?”

  6. wcosnett says:

    I also think it’s important to realize that this is not something that has happened to us, or has been done to us, but that in at least some part, the church has done to itself. Many churches, in response to the decline in cultural support in the latter half of the last century, responded by working really hard at being accommodating, or focused on the services they provided. “Come here, and we will educate your children, and provide counseling, and be a place for you to meet friends, and it’s okay if you can’t come every week, or if you can’t help out with anything, we understand and won’t judge, all you have to do is show up occasionally and put some money in the basket.”. I think part of this is that we’ve raised a generation that we didn’t ask anything of, that we didn’t hold accountable, and as a result they don’t feel any connection or meaning in their life of faith.

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