The Sciences

The secularizing & de-Catholicizing 1990s

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanApr 12, 2009 9:30 PM


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Gallup has a new report up, This Easter, Smaller Percentage of Americans Are Christian, which is rather self-explanatory. These data aren't surprising, other surveys report the same general finding. Here's an interesting chart with some long term trends:

I want to point to the numbers for Catholicism. In the early 1990s I remember reading popular press accounts about how Catholicism would become the dominant religion of the United States in the early decades of the 20th century because of immigration. That doesn't seem like it's panning out. Why? The American Religious Identification Survey reports massive defection from Catholicism among younger Latinos, while the Religious Landscape Survey highlights Catholic problems with retention of those who were raised Catholic. Obviously the projections based on what we knew in 1990 had some faulty assumptions. Something to keep in mind when we make straight line extrapolations. Another trend in the 1990s was the massive disaffiliation from organized religion, as evidenced by this chart:

I want to emphasize that most of these people are not atheists or agnostics. Most data (e.g., check the General Social Survey or Religious Landscape Survey) imply that only around 1/3 of people with "No religion" are atheists or agnostics. That being said, it is clear that after a period of secularization in the 1970s in the wake of the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, the trends for religious affiliation stabilized in the 1980s. If you read some of the scholarly literature there is an assumption that the 1970s was sui generis insofar as it was simply the defection of those who were nominal believers to begin with. The stabilization of the 1980s was assumed to be a new stable state that would persist indefinitely. As it happens that was not so, as the 1990s was a second period of massive secularization. Massive in that those with "No religion" jumped as a proportion of the population on the order of 50-100% (depending on survey & methodology). In fact, if "No religion" was its own religious category it would be the fastest growing religion in the United States (at least if you put an appropriate cut-off in terms of initial numbers). Of course you didn't read this in the media. Unlike revivals or mass conversions, the consistent dynamic of defection is relatively imperceptible. Rather than documenting the massive wave of secularization, the media reported on the religious revival occurring among the evangelicals. And though it is true that evangelicals are a larger and larger proportion of American Christians, that is a slice of the pie which is shrinking! Does this mean that the teens will continue the process of secularization? I wouldn't bet on anything....

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