US Passes 'Critical Landmark' on Way to Becoming as Secularized as Europe, Warns Philip Jenkins

Young people
Young people in Miami in this photo published on July 30, 2017. |

A leading U.S. historian and religion analyst has warned that America's record-low fertility rates could mean that the United States is following in the footsteps of Europe when it comes to people leaving organized religion and becoming secularized.

Philip Jenkins, a professor of history at Baylor University, and Co-Director for Baylor's Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion, warned in a blog post last week that the U.S. is now "looking at the opening stages of a large scale process of secularization."

"The United States just passed a critical statistical landmark, one that I think – I fear – has immense implications for the nation's religious life," he said.

He suggested that fertility rates can be an "effective gauge of trends towards secularization," given the decline in religion in the West, while high fertility societies, such as most of Africa, tend to be "fervent and devout."

The historian noted that for decades, the United States has had strong fertility rates, but in 2010 it began to drop to alarming levels, below 2.0.

"At first, I suggested this was a statistical blip, but it has never since returned above 2.0, and last month, the 2016 rate was announced: just 1.74, a very European rate," he added, linking to numbers by the National Center for Health Statistics released in May.

"We can debate these figures a bit, and some different interpretations are possible. But the trend line is unmistakable, and it is pointing steeply downward. What we appear to be seeing is what secularization theorists have long argued," he offered.

"The U.S. is not essentially different from Europe, in religion or anything else. It is following the same path, albeit with a delay of some decades. The U.S. is a laggard, not an exception."

Still, he noted that in Europe secularization might mean moving away from organized religion, yet many people continue to "show a potent interest in religious and spiritual affairs."

"This is demonstrated especially by the vast and even growing popularity of pilgrimage across the continent, commonly to very traditional-seeming shrines associated with the Virgin Mary, and offering healing through faith. Supposedly secular Europe actually demonstrates a startling paradox of piety," Jenkins wrote.

"But what we do undoubtedly see is the sharp decline of institutionalized religious practice, of traditional ideas of institutional and hierarchical religion, expressed for instance in respect for clerical power and regular religious practice."

There have been surveys and polls carried out on the religious identifications of Americans in the past several years, with some finding that the youngest generation, or Generation Z, is the most non-Christian one in American history.

The Barna Group reported in January that only four out of 100 U.S. teens hold a true biblical worldview, with 35 percent of teenagers identifying as atheist, agnostic or not affiliated with any religion. The statistics revealed that almost twice as many teens in Generation Z (13 percent) claimed to be atheist than millenials (7 percent).

"Gen Z is different because they have grown up in a post-Christian, post-modern environment where many of them have not even been exposed to Christianity or to church. So that is a really unique shift," said at the time Brooke Hempell, Barna's senior vice president of research.

"There are a lot of churches that are empty in this country. Gen Z is the one who is really showing the fruit of that. There are many of them [who] are a spiritual blank slate. For the first time in our nation's history, that is more and more common," Hempell added.


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