In the March, 2018 issue of The Lutheran Witness, Dr. Gene Edward Veith shares some information that you have probably already heard – that there has been a decline in religious affiliation in this country – but also some information that you may not have heard – what specific areas of religious affiliation that have not changed in the last 50 years.
According to Dr. Veith, “Statistics have been showing a decline in religious affiliation, with church membership down and more Americans claiming that their religion is ‘none.’ But a new study has found that nearly all of the decline comes from what we would describe as ‘nominal’ believers – that is, Christians in name only – and from ‘moderate’ believers, what we would describe as more ‘liberal’ adherents.”
The new study that Dr Veith is referencing is summarized in a recent article in the journal Sociological Science. The article states “We show that rather than religion fading into irrelevance as the secularization thesis would suggest, intense religion – strong affiliation, very frequent practice, literalism, and evangelicalism – is persistent and, in fact, only moderate religion is on the decline in the United States.”
Dr Veith explains that, “If a person goes to church not out of conviction but because it is culturally expected, it’s no surprise that when the culture turns hostile to Christianity, that person will stop attending. It makes perfect sense that people with only a ‘moderate’ commitment to Christian beliefs – or a liberal commitment to changing them – will be more likely to drift away completely.”
According to the study, “Over a third of Americans have an ‘intense religion’ and this percentage has varied little over the last 50 years.” And, “As the nominals and moderates leave, existing churches have become even more ‘intense.’”
The intense religion described by this study includes four elements: strong affiliation, very frequent practice, literalism, and evangelism.
Strong affiliation would mean commitment to a specific set of beliefs as confessed and practiced by a particular church or denomination. It also means rejecting contradictory beliefs, not thinking that everyone believes the same.
Frequent practice would include faithful attendance at worship services, regular involvement in other ministries of the church and a consistent pattern of giving in support of the church. In other words, having a significant amount of “skin in the game.”
Literalism means taking the Bible literally; everything from Adam and Eve as the first humans to the creation of the world in six regular days to the virgin birth of Jesus to Jesus’ physical resurrection from the dead. Who believes all that anymore? Hasn’t science shown us that the Bible is just a bunch of myths and fables? Although many have tried to refute the Bible’s claims, a large segment of believers, myself included, still believe that the Bible is literally true.
The final characteristic of intense believers is evangelicalism which means being oriented toward telling the good news of the free salvation through faith in Jesus Christ with the goal of gaining new adherents to the faith. It’s no surprise that people with a significant amount of skin in the game who are convinced that the Bible has a true, life-saving message for the world would want to be involved in sharing that message with others.
And there is more from the article in Sociological Science: “We also show that in comparable countries, intense religion is on the decline or already at very low levels. Therefore, the intensity of American religion is actually becoming more exceptional over time. We conclude that intense religion in the United States is persistent and exceptional in ways that do not fit the secularization thesis.”
So now you know the rest of the story. As our culture becomes more secularized, even to the point of being hostile to Christianity, nominal Christians are leaving while intense Christians are staying. But this only seems to be happening in the United States.