The Dynamics of Religious Change


To understand society we need to understand social change. The challenge is to offer theories that can be tested across a range of societies, not simply to provide a plausible account of change case by case. The search for regularities distinguishes social science from history.

The secularization thesis – the idea that modernization causes problems for religion – was one of the earliest theories in sociology and remains a central organizing principle. It has come under intense critical scrutiny in recent decades, however, and particularly in the United States is now often viewed as discredited.

The issues are not likely to be settled until the basic causes of religious change are understood. To focus on these processes, religious change in a population must reflect some combination of period, cohort (generation) and age effects, with migration and differential fertility being possible additional contributors.

Clarifying the relative impact of these effects is important because it provides important clues about what matters. For example, cohort effects often imply that upbringing is crucial; age effects may relate to lifecourse events; period effects are produced by specific cultural shifts (of limited duration). Once we know this much we can investigate more closely, especially using longitudinal data. If, for example, cohort effects are important, one can use longitudinal evidence to examine why inter-generational transmission is sometimes successful and sometimes not: is it mostly to do with the family or the social environment? If age effects are important, one can examine whether age serves as a proxy for the occurrence of lifecourse events.

This project is international in scope and comparative in method, looking in detail at several highly developed societies. The first step will be to determine the pattern of change or stability in standard measures of religiosity (typically affiliation, attendance and core beliefs) over recent decades for the selected countries. The results will suggest whether one should talk of American exceptionalism, European exceptionalism, or a diversity of experience among modern nations that defies generalisation.

Key outputs

Voas, David & Chaves, Mark (2016) Is the United States a counterexample to the secularization thesis? American Journal of Sociology 121(5): 1517-56.

For a summary, see blog post on LSE website.

Voas, David (2015) Sociology of religion, International Encyclopedia of Social & Behavioral Sciences 2nd Edition, Elsevier.

Voas, David (2015) Religious involvement over the life course: Problems of measurement and classification. Longitudinal and Life Course Studies 6(2): 212-27.

Team member

David Voas, MiSoC co-investigator, Professor and Head of Department of Social Science, UCL