Mark CHAVES.  American Religion: Contemporary Trends, 2/e.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017, pp. 160. $14.95 paperback ISBN 978-0-6911-7756-4; $11.99 eBook ISBN 978-1-4008-8837-5. Reviewed by Meg Wilkes KARRAKER, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN 55105.


In his Preface to the second edition, Mark Chaves tells us that the marketers at Princeton University Press suggested The Decline of American Religion as the title for the first edition of this book. Then and in this second edition, Chaves sticks with his preferred “noncommittal” title, even though he presents the case that, toward the end of the second decade of the 21st century, “American religiosity has declined in recent decades” and “The trend is toward less religion” (p. xiv). He notes that, while some changes (e.g., people who say they have no religion) are dramatic over even just a decade, other changes (e.g., belief in God) have been more gradual. Still, in this second edition, he concludes that “we now have enough data over a long enough time span to discern the decline that has been there all along” (p. xv).

Americans remain highly religious (pious) in comparison to other societies (except Ireland). In nine concise chapters, Chaves presents the core changes around religion in American society, emphasizing that his approach is “descriptive,” “aggregate” and “best documented” (p. 4) by data from the General Social Survey (GSS) and the National Congregations Study (NCS). His findings include:

  • Religious diversity has increased.
  • A growing minority report being “spiritual but not religious.”
  • Religious involvement is declining.
  • People are moving into larger congregations.
  • Public confidence in religious leaders is eroding.
  • Liberal Protestant denominations are declining, while evangelicals and conservatives have been doing better.
  • Attitudinal distance is increasing between the least and the most religiously active.

Such a synopsis in this brief review does not do justice to Chaves careful sociological analysis. For example, in chapter 4, when discussing the decline in religious involvement:

Religious involvement is declining because one of the most religiously involved demographic groups – married couples with children – is shrinking as a proportion of American society. Another demographic trend – more elderly people – may be a countervailing force, since older people are among the most religiously involved segment of American society, but one of the reasons older people are more religious is because more of them lived in traditional families when they were younger. (p. 54)

I also appreciate Chaves’ provocative discussion in the Conclusion regarding the impacts of these changes in religion for civil society. He sees some of these as positive, as in the tolerance for diversity. But he also addresses the negative, as in the loss of social capital of religious organizations investing in the common good.
Each chapter is accompanied by useful Notes, which provide annotations and cited sources, and a useful Index. I would also like to have a ready list of references included in the book. However, such a clearly composed and critically accurate work meets the needs of scholars, practitioners, and public alike. I could see using this book with undergraduate students in a sociology of religion course. For now, I will be passing this along to my pastor.

Mark Chaves is professor of sociology, religious studies, and divinity at Duke University, where he is director of the National Congregations Study, now in its third wave. He is a member of the General Social Survey’s Board of Overseers and past President of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. He is also the author of Congregations in America (2004) and Ordaining Women: Culture and Conflict in Religious Organizations (1997), both from Harvard University Press.