CURRENT RESEARCH – November 2018

The large number of “invisible congregations,” often based in denominations not recognized by official religious censuses, makes a difference when looking at religious growth and decline, according to J. Gordon Melton of Baylor University. Melton, who presented a paper at the October meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, said that most denominational membership statistics are based on 250 religious bodies counted in the Religious Congregations Membership Study (RCMS) and exclude the 850 other denominations that he has found throughout the U.S. In 2018 there are close to 1,200 denominations, and many of them are growing or have attained large memberships that are not accounted for in official figures for religious bodies. These denominations include the Anglican Church in North America, a split-off from the Episcopal Church that has a membership of 350,000, and even older excluded groups such as the fundamentalist Baptist Bible Fellowship. Melton tested his thesis by counting congregations in three Texas counties using RCMS data and then adding data from other directories and from his own visits.

He found that 25 percent of congregations had gone unreported, which if reported would have increased the religious membership figures in these counties from 60 to 75 percent. He found the same range of congregation sizes as reported in the RCMS data, ranging from megachurches to house churches. Most of these missing congregations were evangelical and Pentecostal in background, with a number coming from Asian and Hispanic denominations. He also found that many of these groups may have shared building space with several other congregations. Counting these invisible congregations matters since it can make religious affiliation jump from a slight majority (60 percent) to a “super majority” (75 percent). Melton concluded that, considering that 85 percent of the American population was non-affiliated at the founding of the nation, the current “none” rate of about 22 percent does not suggest religious decline. Although some denominations may have reached a saturation point, the creation and growth of these invisible churches and denominations “make up for the declines in the larger bodies.”

Religious belonging and even attendance matter less in the higher fertility rates of conservative Protestants, while religious belief is becoming more important, according to a study by Sam Perry and Cyrus Schleifer of the University of Oklahoma. In a presentation at the late-October meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, the researchers looked at the relationship between fertility rates and religious membership, beliefs, and practices from 1972 to 2016. They found a declining fertility advantage among evangelicals over other Christians—from a six percent difference in 1972 to less than one percent by 2016. Regular and even monthly attendance matters less in its association with higher fertility rates for evangelicals than for other traditions. Monthly attendance matters more for mainline Protestants and Catholics, associated with stable and, in the case of Catholics, even increased birth rates. Perry and Schleifer conclude that religious tradition has declined in its ability to predict higher fertility, with the early 2000s being the last time that evangelical identity mattered for higher birth rates. Today it is beliefs, such as biblical literalism, that tend to be associated with higher fertility for evangelicals.

Popular Google search terms are shifting from institutional religion to spirituality and non-religion, including atheism, according to a paper presented at the meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Las Vegas. George Haywood of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, looked at 70 terms involving religion and spirituality searched for between 2004 and 2018, finding that terms relating to Christianity were the most popular in Google searches up until 2005, after which world religions gained in popularity. Less likely to be searched now are institutional terms, such as “churches,” “houses of worship,” “temples,” and “mosques,” while terms such as “spirit,” “soul,” and “God” remain popular. In keeping with the trend of religious individualism, in the last five years “horoscopes” and “mindfulness” have become popular search terms. Terms such as “atheism” and “agnosticism” have also climbed in popularity.

The number of Christian refugees coming to the United States from the countries where Christians are most persecuted has dropped sharply during the Trump administration, according to an analysis by Matthew Soerens of World Relief, an evangelical Christian organization. The number of Christian refugees admitted to the U.S. from countries noted for their persecution dropped by nearly 79 percent between fiscal years 2016 and 2018. A total of 1,215 Christian refugees were welcomed from those countries in fiscal 2018, down from 5,731 in fiscal 2016, former President Obama’s last full year in office. The total number of Christian refugees from all countries admitted since 2016 declined by about 57 percent, according to the analysis. Soerens based his analysis on numbers from the U.S. State Department’s Refugee Processing Center, focusing on 11 countries where Christians are said to face the most persecution: North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, Eritrea, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Iran, and India, according to Christianity Today magazine (September 18).

A recent study based on data from 45 countries finds that active members of faith groups are more likely to participate in public protests than non-members and non-attenders. In his blog Ahead of the Trend (October 15), David Briggs reports that the likelihood of engaging in public protests by religious individuals is strongest in countries that are the least democratic. Religious members living in countries where religious freedoms are fully respected were nine percent more likely to engage in protests than nonmembers. But it was found that religious participants were more than 140 percent more likely to protest than nonmembers and people who never attend services in countries with the highest levels of restrictions. The study was conducted by sociologists Yun Lu, of Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, and Fenggang Yang, of Purdue University, and was based on data from the sixth wave of the World Values Surveys conducted between 2010 and 2014, the 2011 Freedom Index created by Freedom House, and the Religion and State Project, Round 2 data, comprising nearly 60,000 respondents.

(Ahead of the Trend,

The second generation of Muslim immigrants in Europe shows a low rate of attendance at mosques and an expressive faith that lays claim to a Muslim identity while being unschooled in many Islamic teachings, according to a study presented at the late-October meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. At the conference attended by RW, Roberta Ricucci of the University of Torino reported on the findings of the study, which was based on an online survey conducted in London, Berlin, Torino, Valencia, and Lisbon among second- and 1.5-generation Muslims (those who were born in largely Islamic countries and moved to Europe when they were young). Ricucci found that this younger generation identifies with Islam and claims to follow the religion even while being unfamiliar with many Islamic concepts and teachings, such as Sharia and Islamic finance, holding a “strategic” faith that stresses compromise and fitting in with society.

In Italy, Ricucci was surprised to find that a growing number of these young Muslims say they are atheist—a trend that includes younger generations in other faith groups. On the local level these younger Muslims are developing partnerships with other religious groups and minorities, although there is less activity on the national level because they are so regionally concentrated. In public they also tend to promote an active “lay citizenship” that stresses their shared social rights with others rather than their Muslim identity.

A cross-national study of “fundamentalism” in eight Muslim-majority nations finds that this diffuse movement is strongest in countries where religious diversity is restricted and where there is greater state regulation of religion. The study, conducted by Mansoor Moaddel and Stuart Karabenick and published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (September), is based on a survey of a random sample of 23,000 respondents from Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Turkey conducted from 2011 to 2016. Moaddel and Karabenick constructed a scale of fundamentalism based on literal interpretation of the Koran or Bible (depending on the faith of respondents), strong disciplinarian images of God, and the perceived comprehensiveness of respondents’ faith. They found that the key factors behind the growth of fundamentalism on the national level revolve around religious unfreedom and monopoly of religious institutions, while on the individual level this tendency “doesn’t appear to be a reaction against modernity per se,” and may even be related to conceptions of modernity where religion is seen to foster development. Fundamentalists were also marked by “fatalism,” outgroup hostility (as shown in the belief in conspiracies), and less reliance on diverse sources of information.

(Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion,

One of the first studies of its kind among Muslims finds that there is a positive relationship between religiosity and marital fertility. The study, conducted by Jona Schellekens and A’as Atrash and appearing in the journal Demographic Research (October 24), notes that the mounting evidence that religious couples tend to have an above-average preference for children has come from research among Christian and Jewish populations. Schellekens and Atrash add that the few studies of Muslim fertility have not controlled for marital duration, making it unclear to what extent the relationship is a result of early marriage or opposition to family planning among more religious women. The researchers used survey data from Palestinian Muslims in Israel, based on an objective measure of religiosity, adherence to all the Five Pillars of Islam. Schellekens and Atrash found that the completed fertility of women born in the 1950s and adhering to all Five Pillars of Islam was 5.9 births compared to 5.0 births among less religious women, and that when controlling for age at marriage the differences remained.

(Demographic Research,