Secularization and the Woes of Conservative Churches

The conventional wisdom (at least among many religious conservatives) is that conservative churches, with their uncompromising stances on moral issues, are growing and vibrant, while liberal mainline churches that capitulated to “the world” are shrinking. However, the truth is a bit more complicated than that.

The Pew Research Center estimates that one in ten American adults is a former Catholic:

http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

While the percentage of Catholics remains the same in the United States, the number of Catholic adults has declined by 1-3 million since 2007 (the margin of error in the report is such that it could be as high as 3 million, but as low as 1 million). Although conservotrads and traditionalists would blame Vatican II and the loss of moral and liturgical certainty for these lost Catholics, the Catholic church has a reputation for being morally uncompromising, even if its not as hardline as “orthodox” Catholics would want.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Protestant denomination is essentially stagnant, meaning that people who were not born into a SBC home are not likely to join a SBC church as an adult:

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/06/01/did-the-southern-baptist-conservative-resurgence-fail.html

Evangelical growth is not really occurring among individuals who are a complete religious blank slate or non-Christians having “road to Damascus” experiences, but rather among people who are already Christian conservatives and look for a new “church home.” While much has been made of Hispanics becoming evangelical, many are joining that nebulous “none” category, especially among the young:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-faith/hispanics-increasingly-identify-as-nones/2013/10/17/c4b1015c-3751-11e3-89db-8002ba99b894_story.html

Even Pentecostalism seems to be stagnating, or at the very least, experiencing a slowdown in growth. For example, the Assemblies of God, one of the largest Pentecostal denominations in the world issued these statistics, which indicate very modest growth, both in the US and globally:

http://agchurches.org/Sitefiles/Default/RSS/AG.org%20TOP/AG%20Statistical%20Reports/2012/Online%20Stats%202012.pdf

My previous post mentioned how the Greek Orthodox church is hemorrhaging members, despite being even more resistant to change than the Catholic church:

http://ocl.org/pew-study-reveals-critical-decline-in-orthodox-religious-membership/

Clearly, having a firm stance on morality isn’t enough to get people, especially young adults in the door.

Although the secularization thesis is highly disputed in sociological circles to the point where some, such as Jose Casanova, call it a myth, I think that the United States is slowly secularizing, albeit in a very different way than Western Europe has. Even in the American South, a region often characterized by noisy piety, it’s not unusual for people to blow off church services if they conflict with football, which is often regarded as the South’s real religion. The very fact that many Americans, Southern or not, would rather spend Sundays watching sports than at church is already a sign that traditional religion is not the end-all, be-all in American life that many ostensibly pious Christian would claim it is. While belief in god may still be quite high among the American public, belief in traditional religious institutions is not.

Given this, I don’t think I’m quite ready to count secularization out, whether here in the US or in the developing world. Societies can and do change quite rapidly when they feel a need to do so. Eighty years ago, Quebec was one of the most pious and poorest regions in North America. Today it’s one of the most secular, modern, and diverse in North America. Who would have thought twenty or even five years ago that Ireland would be the first country to democratically vote for same-sex marriage? I certainly wouldn’t have. It’s easy to forget that much of sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East were much more secular in the 1950s and 1960s than they are today, and there are still atheists and humanists in these areas in spite of social, legal, and political repercussions for those who dare to question the religious status quo:

https://newhumanist.org.uk/articles/4898/the-rise-of-arab-atheism

http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/igwe20150623

These numbers may be small, it’s worth mentioning that most of the achievements attributed to “the West” were done by a handful of skeptical intellectuals, while the bulk of the European population remained blithely unaware of anything happening beyond their local villages. I think secularization will eventually occur in the United States and the developing world, but as to when and how it will occur, I cannot say.

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2 thoughts on “Secularization and the Woes of Conservative Churches

  1. Very interesting post. There’s a great lecture on YouTube by Dr John Rao on Americanism and he discusses some of thing. The channel it can be found on is Sensus Fidelium if you’re interested

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