Religious decline in the 20th century West: Testing alternative explanations

Raphaël Franck*, Laurence R. Iannaccone

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


Retrospective questions from recent surveys let us estimate rates of church attendance among children and their parents in ten Western democracies throughout most of the 20th century. We combine these time series with standard sources to test competing theories of religious change. Although our attendance estimates affirm the prevalence of religious decline, our statistical tests offer no support for traditional theories of secularization (which link decline to changes in income, education, industrialization, urbanization, and family life). Nor can we attribute much of the observed decline to growth in the welfare state. But increased school spending by governments does reduce church attendance, and this effect is not the result of greater educational attainment. In shaping the content of schooling, governments may strongly influence long-run religious trends.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)385-414
Number of pages30
JournalPublic Choice
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Jun 2014
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgements Raphaël Franck gratefully acknowledges financial support from the Adar Foundation of the Economics Department at Bar Ilan University, and Laurence R. Iannaccone gratefully acknowledges financial support from the John Templeton Foundation and the Metanexus Institute. We also thank Leonid Azarnert, Samia Costa, Guillaume Daudin, Dror Goldberg, Jonathan Gruber, Daniel Hungerman, Miriam Krausz, Michael Makowsky, Rachel McCleary, Vai-Lam Mui, Jared Rubin, and Peter Temin as well as participants in seminars and conferences at the University of Haifa, Bar Ilan University, ASREC, and the NBER. Previous drafts of this article were circulated as “Why did Religiosity Decrease in the Western World during the Twentieth Century?”.


  • Crowd-out
  • Economics of religion
  • Modernization
  • Schooling
  • Secularization


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