Religion, Secularization, and Social Change

Decline of Religious Membership in the United States

Religious membership in established churches in the United States has declined over time, as the marketplace for churches has created other opportunities to congregate.

The United States is considered to be a highly religious society, especially among industrialized nations. But a dichotomy exists in American society. On the one hand, religious participation in general has steadily declined as the country has become less religious overall. On the other hand, religious conservatism is a consistent thread in American culture.

Since the mid-20th century, religious membership in established churches in the United States has declined. Religious membership signifies the total number of members of a religious group. The percentage of Americans who identify with a religious group has dropped as those who identify as unaffiliated has risen. In addition, participation in religious activities, such as attending religious services, has declined in frequency.

Part of the decline stems from increased scientific knowledge and the continuous development of technology. Medical technologies that allow life support when people would otherwise die challenge different religions' understanding of death. Advances in cloning and genetics challenge ideas about conception, birth, and life. Increased understandings of how the physical structures of the brain affect consciousness and personality can impact how people think about concepts such as an eternal soul. These changes lead some people to adapt their religious beliefs to accommodate scientific knowledge and encourage others to abandon religion. Still others choose to reject science, defining it as a threat to or attack on religion.

While macro forces such as changing technology can account for some of the decline in religious membership, it is a complex trend. Other factors also contribute to this decline. One factor is changing family composition. In 1960 the majority of babies in the United States were born to married parents, with only 9 percent of children living with a single parent. Since 1960 there has been a steady rise in single-parent families, with 26 percent of children living with one parent in 2014. In single parent families, there can be less time for religious activities, religious education, and religious socialization. Some single parents do prioritize religious education and activities. But when one parent shoulders the demands of providing financial support, housework, child care, and other parenting responsibilities, there is less time and energy for attending services and other religious activities.

Another important factor in the decline of religious membership is the erosion of trust in religious authority. This is partly because of advances in science and other technologies but there are also other factors, including financial and sexual abuse. Numerous reports of fraud at religious institutions have made headlines since the 1980s. For example, in 1989 Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, leaders of a Christian television ministry, were convicted of defrauding followers of $158 million. In 2018 the pastor of a Houston megachurch was indicted for fraudulently selling $3.5 million worth of bonds to investors. Allegations of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests began to receive major publicity in 2002. In 2018 a Pennsylvania grand jury report provided details about 300 Catholic priests accused of child sex abuse in the state. There are also many reports of sexual abuse in Protestant and evangelical churches. A 2002 investigation reported evidence of sexual abuse of children by ministers and missionaries in the United States and Africa. A 2012 investigation of the evangelical Bob Jones University found a pattern of covering up allegations of sexual assault. These types of scandals play a role in weakening people's trust in religious institutions and reducing interest in participating in religious activities and communities.


Secularization is increasing, but the moral values of religion often shape public policy.
The United States, along with much of the Western world, is becoming more secularized. Secularization is the historical decline in the importance of the supernatural and the sacred. Religion is becoming less important to people and plays a smaller role in their daily lives. Over 20 percent of Americans identify as unaffiliated with any religious group. Among younger Americans, the percentage of unaffiliated people is higher.

Percent of Religiously Unaffiliated Americans

Christianity is the largest religion in the United States by a large margin, but the number of Americans who identify as unaffiliated is growing as the number who identify as Christian declines.
However, while church membership and participation have dropped overall, they remain high among conservative Protestants. Protestants are the largest religious group in the United States. Over 50 percent of Americans identify as Protestant. Conservative religious affiliation is linked to a rise in the influence of the religious right in U.S. politics. While the United States may be more secular overall, the values of the religious right have a major impact on public policy.


Religious fundamentalism becomes more or less prevalent based on broader social changes.

Fundamentalism is on the rise in the United States and around the world. Religious fundamentalism is a form of a religion characterized by opposition to change and strict adherence to a narrow interpretation of religious texts. It is an approach to religion that stands in opposition to religious pluralism, the belief that all or many religions are fundamentally valid. Pluralism indicates cooperation, understanding, and acceptance between religions. Fundamentalists believe in the inerrancy of their sacred text and do not tolerate challenges to their interpretation of faith. These movements can arise within any religion. Fundamentalism is often a reaction against the concept of modernity. Individuals or groups who feel that society has abandoned valued traditions and patterns reject what they perceive to be the negative consequences of the modern age. They call for a return to traditional beliefs and practices. Fundamentalist perceptions of the traditions of the past may not be accurate. However, fundamentalism generally includes a sense that the social and religious norms of the present are flawed. It is important to note that this idea of tension between modernity and the traditional past is not limited to the 21st century, but is a longstanding historical pattern.

The term fundamentalism came into use in the early 20th century. The expression was used to describe American Protestants who opposed science education and insisted on the historical accuracy of the Bible. Starting in the late 20th century American Christian fundamentalists, in response to the civil rights, feminist, and gay rights movements, became more politically active. Fundamentalist groups and individuals seek to secure their moral and religious values within society through political means. This includes donations to candidates and support for legislation and judicial nominees aligned with fundamentalist views.

Fundamentalism has also been used to describe anti-modernist movements in other religions. In Islam, fundamentalist groups subscribe to a literal interpretation of and strict adherence to Islamic sacred texts. The term Islamic fundamentalism is sometimes used to describe the religious beliefs of some terrorists, but most Islamic fundamentalists do not engage in terrorism. Jewish fundamentalist groups have emerged in Israel, where ultraorthodox groups insist on strict adherence to Jewish laws and Jewish sacred texts. Buddhists fundamentalists in Thailand, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka want to create all-Buddhist states and sometimes attack religious minorities. As secularization and social change continue, fundamentalism is likely to continue to rise around the globe.