Faith Today: In The Meaning of Sunday, you don’t
get far without reading about secularization
theory. What is that exactly?
Joel Thiessen: In short, it means that my
generation is less religious than my parents’, which is less than my grandparents’
generation. Each generation seems to be
less religious than the previous. The challenge is, how do you measure religiosity?
Is it church attendance, praying, belief
It plays itself out in three different
ways. Religion used to have a fairly prominent and central role in social institutions. It helped to guide the legal system
and health care. Over the course of time,
religion is less and less of a central player.
It also plays itself out in religious groups
themselves. Religious groups modernize
and some would say secularize from with-
in. Their beliefs become progressively
liberal and relaxed over time. Some might
cite examples of gender and sexuality and
say that’s evidence of secularization.
Many religious groups are less conserva-
tive and orthodox than they used to be.
The individual level is the next one
where you see secularization play out.
Across all three of those levels there seem
to be indicators that my generation is less
religious than my parents’, and than my
If religion is not reinforced at society
level, it makes it more difficult to believe
and behave at the individual level.
F T: That makes it seem like your children’s generation will be even less religious than yours. Is
there good news to be had?
JT: It doesn’t mean these processes are
irreversible. It doesn’t mean my children’s
generation will be less religious, although
the evidence does point in that direction.
JOEL THIESSEN is associate professor of sociology at
Ambrose University in Calgary, and a keen observer of the
Canadian Church. His book The Meaning of Sunday: The
Practice of Belief in a Secular Age (McGill-Queen’s University
Press, 2015) examines attendance trends, and explores why
levels of religiosity in Canada rise and fall. Thiessen, along
with some of his colleagues, has launched the Flourishing
Congregations Institute at Ambrose to study churches doing
well in Canada – and share the wisdom with others. He spoke
with Faith Today about grandchildren being less religious than
grandparents, and what Canadian churches are doing well.