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Studies follow uneven paths of secularization while debunking popular myths

By Richard Cimino

The debate about whether the world is entering a more secular age and whether the growth of religiously non-affiliated people is hastening such secularization in part revolves around questions of timing.

In other words, when did these trends start and what led to them?

Two new studies using time-related data argue that the growth of secularism and non-affiliation has been happening for some time, that its causes are far from clear, and that they don’t necessarily signal a one-way secular future.

A recent article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion looks particularly at “political secularization,” which relates to the degree that nations show religious influence in their political life.

The study finds that most of the secular changes took place several decades ago.

Secularization: A Political and Religious Stalemate

Davis Brown is a researcher in the areas international relations, international law, and religion. He has a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Virginia and an LL.M. in international law from George Washington University.

Davis Brown

Political scientist Davis Brown, who is affiliated with ARDA, compiled the Government Religious Preference data set, which measures government favoritism toward—and disfavor against—30 religious denominations, including atheism, from the 1800s to 2015. The ambitious effort offers the first long-term quantitative measurement of political secularization and therefore can help settle questions about the timing of this trend.

Political secularization can mean different things—ranging from the growth of anti-religious political ideology that emerged as communism spread during the 20th century to the adoption of church-state separation by various countries.

Brown looks at political secularization in the way that countries abandon a religious preference and adopt a neutral stance, specifying five areas: official status, public religious education, financial support, regulatory burdens and freedom of practice.

He finds strong support for the claim that political secularization “took place gradually over the long 19th century, accelerated after World War II, and peaked in the 1970s or 1980s.” The most noticeable decline was between the years 1957 to 1963.

In terms of specific “atheist government ideology” that a nation may adopt, Brown finds that secularization begins in 1881, peaks a century later and then has modestly declined. Starting in 1978, there was a modest increase in favoritism toward religion.

Against claims that the world’s nations have seen a process of “desecularization,” Brown sees few signs of such political-religious revival taking place. Rather, the world has not significantly secularized or desecularized since 1992. In fact, it may be the case that “preferred and non-preferred religions have reached stalemate in an ongoing contest in which each is trying to overcome the will of the other,” Brown writes.

The author notes that while his study looks at political secularization through the framework of government favoritism toward or disfavor against religions, it does not consider demographic factors that can drive up the rate of secularization, such as trends of minority religions, atheism, and “non-religion.”

In fact, such a demographic trend as the growth of non-affiliation among Americans, especially young adults, which was first noticeable in the 1990s, has been viewed as a significant sign of secularization.

Changing ‘nones’

But another time-based study in the same issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion finds that the causes behind this trend are more varied and inconsistent than has previously been suggested, making it difficult to predict.

Kelley Strawn teaches about the intersection of religion and politics at Willamette University.

Kelley Strawn teaches about the intersection of religion and politics at Willamette University. (Photo courtesy of Willamette University Communications.)

The study, by sociologist Kelley Strawn of Willamette University, looks at factors that have been viewed by many social scientists as predicting non-affiliation, such as age, political orientation, and college education. Using five decades of General Social Surveys (1972-2016), the researcher finds that some of the standard variables, especially education, don’t hold up as predictors of non-affiliation.

In the 1970s and 1980s, having a college education showed a higher likelihood of religious non-affiliation and was in line with secularization theories arguing that modernization (that would include education) causes a loss of religion.

But Strawn finds that by the 2010s, higher education had no such effect. It may be that the once-large gap between religious affiliates and non-affiliates on education has substantially narrowed since the 1990s.

While being male is still strongly associated with non-affiliation, this effect has declined significantly, most likely due to the “rise of women as a fraction of the nones,” Strawn writes.

The same is the case with residence in the Far West region of the U.S., where in the 1970s and 1980s, such a geographical location was the epicenter of the nones. While the Far West states still have the highest proportion of nones, there has been greater redistribution of such individuals throughout the country. Only residence in the South and age have been consistent in predicting for non-affiliation over these decades.

Strawn concludes that the shifts in the factors predicting the trajectory of the nones “leaves one to speculate that the sociodemographic profiles of none-ness is increasingly heterogeneous and, therefore, becoming even more difficult to predict than it already is as time moves forward.”

While the steady and consistent growth of the nones has yet to level off, Strawn ventures that the trend could be even larger if shifts toward non-affiliation were not offset by the steady flow of immigrants into the country. But that is another time-driven challenge that could be a next step in understanding the puzzle of the nones.


Richard Cimino is founding editor of Religion Watch, a monthly publication reporting on trends and research in contemporary religion. He is the author of several books on religion.

Image by Obama White House, via Flickr [PD United States Government Work]


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