Thick and Thin Religions

When thinking about religion it is often helpful to bear in mind a distinction between “thick” religions and “thin” religions. This distinction can help us understand why American Catholicism went into decline about 40 years ago.
By a “thick” religion I mean one that requires its adherents to do and to believe many things. And by a “thin” religion I mean the opposite: a religion relatively undemanding when it comes to belief and behavior. Picture a spectrum: very thick religions at one end, very thin religions at the other end, and religions with intermediate degrees of thickness/thinness in between.
Christian religions of a sect-like nature (e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses) are very thick. Not only do they have an extensive list of doctrines that you, a member, are expected to believe, but many of these dogmas an ordinary person will find difficult to swallow. When it comes to behavior, you’ll face not only the usual taboos (no murder, no theft, no adultery, etc.) but a set of further prohibitions that make little sense to ordinary persons (e.g., no coffee, no alcohol, no dancing, no saluting the flag, no voting, no blood transfusions). You’ll be expected to devote large amounts of time, work, and money to your religion. For instance, you may have to tithe in the literal sense of that word (i.e., contribute 10 percent of your income); attend church twice on Sundays and two or three times during the balance of the week; donate your occupational skills (as a carpenter, electrician, plumber, etc.) to the building or improvement or maintenance of church buildings.
By contrast, Christian religions of a liberal or “modernistic” nature are doctrinally very thin. When it comes to belief, these religions are nothing if not tolerant and permissive. If you’d like to believe in the traditional list of Christian doctrines (e.g., the articles of the Nicene Creed), that’s okay; but if you don’t want to believe in them, that’s okay too. Naturally they’d like you to believe in God, but if you don’t . . . well, agnosticism, while a bit unfortunate, isn’t all that bad a thing. It would be helpful too if you believed that Jesus of Nazareth was a fine fellow, but of course we wouldn’t dream of insisting that you go so far as to hold that he was divine. After all, how can a person of modern mentality — somebody who took science courses in high school –believe an ancient metaphysical paradox like that? On the other hand, if you are sufficiently quaint in your Christianity as to believe in the Incarnation, well, that’s fine; and the rest of us, above all the minister, will be courteous enough to spare you pain by not expressly denouncing that hopelessly antiquated doctrine.
On the behavioral side of things, liberal religions have always had a tendency toward thinness. They believed in the second table of the Ten Commandments, but they were tolerant on alcohol, coffee, and tobacco, not to mention dancing. They tolerated divorce, even though they didn’t like it. And beginning about a third of the way through the 20th century, they gave their stamp of approval to contraception: Not only was it a human right, in many cases it was a human duty. However, in more recent times (ever since the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s) they have become more morally permissive. They don’t see that there’s anything essentially wrong with fornication, unmarried cohabitation, abortion, and homosexuality.
Of course, they don’t approve of doing these things in a merely casual way. If you mean to fornicate, shack up, abort, sodomize, etc., you should do these things only in certain morally correct circumstances. For instance, you should commit homosexual sodomy only if you have genuine feelings of respect and even affection for your homosexual partner. And when you have an abortion, you should be motivated not by mere egoistic concerns but by a concern for the ultimate well-being of the aborted fetus (in plain English, you should talk yourself into believing that the unborn baby is better off dead than alive); and it is to be preferred that you have the abortion only after consulting with your clergyperson. As for fornication, you mustn’t do it from merely hedonistic motives; nor may you either coerce or exploit your partner. Do it thoughtfully; and if you can’t do it with commitment or even affection, at least do it with respect.
American Catholicism, until about 40 years ago, used to be a relatively thick religion. It wasn’t as thick as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but it lay somewhere toward the thick end of the spectrum. It demanded belief in all the articles of the Nicene Creed, and, somewhat less demandingly, it encouraged belief in a number of other things too (e.g., the Marian apparitions of Lourdes and Fatima). It tolerated alcohol, coffee, tobacco, gambling, etc., but insisted on strict compliance with the Ten Commandments. It was especially strict when it came to sexual taboos: no fornication, no adultery, no contraception, no divorce-and-remarriage; and for the unmarried, not even any impure touches or thoughts. It insisted on attendance at Mass every Sunday, and it expected frequent confession. It had a host of other devotions: the rosary, 40 hours, first Fridays, first Saturdays, Lenten stations of the cross, and parish missions, not to mention lighting candles in church. Further, you were strongly discouraged from marrying a non-Catholic, and you were urged to send your children to a Catholic school.
Now everything is changed. American Catholicism has become a relatively thin religion — not as thin, to be sure, as today’s exceedingly thin liberal Protestant denominations; but Catholicism has shifted toward the thin end of the spectrum. I don’t mean that it has become officially thin; in theory it is still a demanding religion. But in practice it has become far, far thinner than it used to be. Average Catholics today feel themselves far less bound than were their parents or grandparents to conform to Catholic orthodoxy and Catholic sexual morality, let alone to involve themselves in a dozen Catholic devotions.
Small wonder that the Catholic Church in America, like all liberal Protestant churches, is in decline. A revival of American Catholicism (if such a revival should ever take place) will require that Catholicism get “re-thickened.”


David R. Carlin Jr. is a politician and sociologist who served as a Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate. His books include "Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?: How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion" and "The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America." Carlin is a current professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport.

  • Todd

    Rather than the thick=conservative=good and thin=liberal=bad line, let me suggest something different: intentionality.

    Intentional communities can be either liberal or conservative. In our own tradition, we see them lived out in religious life. It’s a better example than JW’s, because religious life is generally free of negative aspects like coercion. We also see them in various groups like the Knights of Columbus, or even the parish choir or soup kitchen volunteers. Super-committed Catholics, people who make sacrifices to serve the needy or help make good liturgy.

    Your dating the supposed decline of American Catholicism is interesting. 1968 and not 1947? It was the latter date, not the former, that was the high water mark for religious vocations. It was also the beginning of suburbia and the television age, and the end of ethnic parishes. I suspect the ebb and flow of Catholicism (I’m far from conceding Catholicism is in decline) is affected by more complex factors than sex or an ecumenical council.

    Prior to 1947, American Catholicism lived as intentional enclaves within a WASP society. It would be my contention the fruitfulness of American Catholicism was based on a rather fuzzy liberal concept: a sense of community.

    Catholicism will regain its verve wherever leadership can inspire a certain intentionality. I would agree with you that the bar should be set high for Catholics. I think you’re mistaken to suggest it has something to do with a person being liberal or conservative. Insisting on it being so is a recipe for failure.

  • Grazie

    My son recently did his First Communion with his parochial second grade class. The following Sunday we were getting ready for Mass and I saw him sitting down with a bowl of cereal. “How do you expect to take Communion if you eat now?” I asked him. He looked at me blankly. No one had explained to him, apparently, during a whole year of religious instruction, that he couldn’t eat for an hour before Communion.
    I think they want to teach them our religion is all sweetness and light so they like it, but they don’t want to teach them the responsibilities that come with our religion. My son was happy to give up his cornflakes when I explained how reverence for the sacrament necessitates at least that much.
    By the way, he also wasn’t too clear on the need to have a clear conscience (no mortal sins) before Communion. I’m writing a letter to the director of religious education at our school.

  • David W.

    …Or dare I say it, Triumphalism. This can of course, be taken to Feeney style extremes, but the idea that being Catholic was NECESSARY and that you were the keepers of the flame so to speak of God’s true Church was emphasized much more in the past. The current “I’m Ok, You’re Ok” Atmosphere was corrosive and detrimental to the idea of Catholic Culture…and false ideas of what Ecumenism is gave birth to the idea that it didn’t matter whether one was Catholic, Protestant whatever. “Whatever”…the death word.

  • Amy

    Wow! I completely agree with you.

  • Donna

    While I understand your disappointment with the education your child had for his First Communion, I believe it is the parents responsibility to educate their child.
    I read where a parish is having classes for the children and the parents at the same time, seems like the perfect balance for families.
    God Bless,

  • Andy K.

    I do think a “sense of community” has something to do with the success of Catholicism in America, but the “community” existed BECAUSE of what David calls “triumphalism” – better defined, as I see it, by an unrelenting commitment and belief that one possesses the Truth. You see it today in the parishes with TLMs, where often a “persecution complex” exists among many of the parishioners. They believe that they DO possess the truth, and they’re certainly better off because of it.
    Often times the idea of truth itself seems non-existent among other “mainstream” parishes. I remember hearing some statistic recently…something like 63 percent of Americans don’t believe in truth. Clearly many Catholics are in that number!

  • Steve P

    I agree with Todd in that the “thick” = conservative or traditional = good is a little too simplistic. There are a lot of other factors contributing to changing mores and a lax culture than just the relative “thickness” of Catholic commitment.

    Has anyone read Paul Wilkes work on “Excellent Catholic Parishes”? I’ve not gotten in depth on it, and I’m sure their “excellence” is debatable in this forum. But his and other researchers’ findings of parishes that are growing, vibrant and active do not necessarily coincide with the traditional approach that Mr. Carlin outlines. To be sure, there are other factors here as well– demographics, local leadership, resources, etc.

    But I’m much more inclined to agree with Todd’s opinion that an intentional approach to living the faith, as individuals and a community, goes a long way toward exerting Catholic influence on the larger society. Traditionalism is not necessarily a silver bullet for every declining parish or diocese.

    And an Amen to parental involvement as well. Most programming, whether through Catholic day school or religious education (CCD) programming, is far too limited in time alone to “teach” all the important aspects of Eucharist if the parents aren’t playing an active role. The catechist is not the one at home with the child on Sunday morning at the breakfast table. The parent is, setting the example and explaining why they refrain from eating for an hour prior to Mass. And it’s quite possible that fasting was mentioned somewhere, but that a child simply missed it among all the other content, “thin” as it may be.

  • Dave Carlin

    Todd writes: “Rather than the thick=conservative=good and thin=liberal=bad line, let me suggest something different: intentionality.”

    I don’t think I said that “thick” religions are necessarily good. If I did say this, I misspoke, since I dont believe it. I think I can give many instances of thick religions that are objectionable.

    And while Todd can point me to liberal Catholic parishes that are flourishing, I think this is taking a limited view of things. The historical record, it seems to me, is perfectly clear: Christian denominations that become “liberal” (and I mean this in the theological sense, not the political sense) invariably go into decline. This has happened, and is still happening today, with many Protestant denominations; and since the late 1960s it has happened with American Catholicism.

    And it is not just American Cathoicism. Even more dramatic declines in quality and quantity have occurred in two places that used to be the most Catholic places in the world — I mean Ireland and Quebec.

    Dave Carlin

  • Michael Hebert


    I appreciate your distinction between political and theological liberalism. I think too often the two are conflated in religious discussion, and this is unfortunate.

    While I think your thick vs. thin thesis is valid, I would ask that we not look too far down our noses at the so-called thin faiths. Thin faith is usually preferable to no faith, and moreover, not everyone in the thin churches will remain there.

    Thin religions are often a portal between belief and unbelief, though sadly, they are two way streets. From the point of view of the unbeliever the thin faith is sometimes the beginning, not the end. A person who discovers God has to start somewhere, and usually it is with thin beliefs rather than thick. After all, I wouldn’t answer a question like, “Is there a God?” with “You need to pray the rosary at least once a week.”

    I’d like to think that many lite churches are filled with people who would, if shown the light, move towards a more substantial faith. The problem is that they don’t know any thick believers who are accepting of their thinness. I suspect some people of unsubstantial faith look at their local Catholic Church with wondering, but are put off by the complexity of Catholicism.

    We have to be kind to these people. Some of them are just lost.

    The bigger problem is the thick religions that are misguided. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and Mormons run very complex societies and once in, it is hard to see with clarity. That’s why it is so important that the Church look upon the thinner religions with openness. Once a thin believer chooses a different thick faith, it is very hard to win them over.

  • Todd

    “The historical record, it seems to me, is perfectly clear: Christian denominations that become “liberal” (and I mean this in the theological sense, not the political sense) invariably go into decline.”

    Dave, I think you’re going to need to come up with something better than this. You conveniently bypass the complexity of modern culture and underestimate the phenomenon of passive living room entertainment in suburbia. Anyone serious about making connections like this would have to delve far back into the historical record rather than cherry-pick a decade that saw the pill, social upheaval, color tv, and the advent of a media-driven culture.

    Fewer Catholics and mainline Protestants are going to church, and you blame liberalism? Are you sure evangelicals seem to do better because they adopt and imitate the media, rather than any set of demands they make of their people?

    Maybe you could make an argument that more theological conservatives populate or found intentional communities.

    But what would be more helpful would be to address actual liberal religionists instead of presenting caricatures of their ideology.

    I think you’ve uncovered a point worth talking about–the thinness of religious commitment–but I think we need to thicken up the discussion a bit to take this somewhere productive.

  • Todd M. Aglialoro

    Todd wrote: Anyone serious about making connections like this would have to delve far back into the historical record

    I’m sure he could do that for you, but I suggest you do the work yourself and read either or both of Carlin’s books, which undertake no small amount of the “delving” you request. As you yourself once said, “Teach a man to fish…”

  • JC

    For an article based upon C. S. Lewis’s terminology, I’m surprised his name hasn’t been mentioned. Lewis’s original intention in talking about “thick” and “thin” or “clear” religion was about ritualism versus what is now called “spiritualism.” And it has nothing to do, in principle, with liberalism or conservatism (modern day liberals are practitioners of some of the weirdest “thick” religious practices, with their mother goddess worship and all that)

    Some religions are all morality, philosophy, and/or spirituality with little or no ritual. Other reilgions are all ritual and sacrifice with no higher thought. Lewis’s original point was that (sacramental) Christianity, is the only religion that demands both elements (some religions, like Hinduism, have both, but don’t demand them of all adherents). Pre-Christian Judaism had both elements but lost the “thick” element after the loss of the Temple. In Lewis’s context, it was part of his argument for the Anglican Via Media.

    That said, the point still remains. Liberals have tried to strip religion of all its substance and reduce it to vague “spirituality” and “values”.

  • david r. carlin

    Todd quotes me: “The historical record, it seems to me, is perfectly clear: Christian denominations that become “liberal” (and I mean this in the theological sense, not the political sense) invariably go into decline.”

    And then he goes on to say: “Dave, I think you’re going to need to come up with something better than this. . . . Anyone serious about making connections like this would have to delve far back into the historical record rather than cherry-pick a decade that saw the pill, social upheaval, color tv, and the advent of a media-driven culture.”

    I’m sorry if I gave Todd the impression that I was “cherry-picking” the 1960s when I spoke about the decline of “liberal” churches. In the US liberalism in religion goes back to the Boston Unitarians of the early decades of the 19th century. That’s 200 years, and it’s that 200 years of American religious history I have in mind when I speak about the decline of liberal churches.

    The American results can be corroborated by an examination of the history of liberal Protestantism in England and Germany. In Germany the vacuity of Christianity became so great that it helped open the way (I would contend) for Nazism, a “thick” form of secularism.

    Dave Carlin

  • david r. carlin

    Until I read JC’s comment, I had not been away that C. S. Lewis made a distinction between “thick” and “thin” religion. Even though his distinction between the two terms may not have had exactly the same meaning as my distinction, I hereby offer my apologies to the ghost of Lewis.

    Dave Carlin

  • JC


    Great minds think alike!!

  • Gary Keith Chesteron

    Before I reverted to Catholicism, I was a Freemason. We had endless discussions in the lodge about how to increase attendance. I was part of a study group sponsored by one of the grand lodges and we found that all of the old civic and social organizations — the Elks, Moose, Odd Fellows, Lions, Kiwanis, all of them — were suffering the same decline in membership and attendance.

    Care to guess when everyone’s membership peaked? Right after the end of the Second World War, roughly 1950. Everyone has been in a steady decline since.

    I think Todd is on to something when he suggests that the intense power of television has really sapped our ability or desire to act intentionally, as he puts it…and that may be overstating his case a bit, but I think it’s true. If my wife didn’t watch the damned thing occasionally, I’d get rid of it, myself.