LDS Growth Encyclopedia on Missionary Work and Church Growth (Missiology)

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Nominalism

Author: Matt Martinich

Posted: January 30th, 2014

Affiliation to a particular religious group without actively following the beliefs and practices prescribed by the faith is called nominalism.  Individuals who nominally identify with a particular religious group do so regardless of their knowledge of the beliefs and practices of the faith, personal devotion to living its tenets, and self-perceived importance and practicality of religious behaviors in everyday life.  In other words, nominal members are the total number of individuals who self-affiliate with a religion group.  Nominalism occurs as a result individuals willfully affiliating with a religious group, government stipulating that all citizens affiliate with the traditional religious group by default unless they specifically state otherwise, or governments maintaining special relationships with the traditional religious faith that promote its acceptance in mainstream society.

Nominalism frequently occurs in countries that have undergone the secular transition, or when a certain level of economic development is reached.[1]  In Europe, most countries experience high rates of nominalism incurred by high living standards, social welfare programs, cultural secularism, and government ties with the traditional religious group.  The Norwegian government, for example, assumes that all citizens are members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Norway unless they specifically report otherwise.[2]  In Denmark, less than three percent of citizens regularly attend the Evangelical Lutheran Church but as many as 65% of citizens attend religious services at least once a year for religious holidays and special ceremonies like marriages and funerals.  In Finland, many value membership in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland despite most rarely attending religious services.[3]  In Italy, only 20% of Catholics regularly attend religious services although most the population nominally affiliates as Catholic.[4]  Several countries continue to have state-sponsored churches such as Denmark,[5] Finland,[6] and Norway[7] where the traditional church has a special relationship with the government.  Several European countries have governments that maintain special relations with the Catholic Church or a traditional Christian denomination, including the governments of Andorra, Denmark, Iceland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco, and Norway and regional governments in Switzerland and the United Kingdom.  The United States is an outlier among economically-developed countries as the United States experiences some of the lowest incidences of nominalism.  Most estimates indicate that approximately 40% of the population regularly attends a religious service[8] and over 80% of Americans affiliate with a religious group. 

Many predominantly Catholic countries experience a high degree of nominalism regardless of the level of economic development.  Most countries in Latin America are predominantly Catholic but only a small percentage attend religious services.  In Peru, for example, 85% of the population identifies as Catholic although as few as five percent of Catholics regularly attend religious services.[9]  Most Latin American countries report that 20% or fewer of Catholics attend religious services on a weekly basis.  Nominalism in the Catholic Church has influenced activity rates in various nontraditional Christian denominations that operate in Latin America as indicated by pervasive societal attitudes that place little importance on regular church attendance and personal religious habits.  Nontraditional proselytizing Christian faiths have experienced challenges overcoming the high degree of nominalism among Catholics in many Catholic-majority countries as many individuals exhibit a strong ethnoreligious tie to identifying as Catholic despite few, if any, indicators of regularly attendance in religious services and following the faith's tenets. 

The influence of government and political ideologies on local culture has increased nominalism in many countries in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and East Asia due to past or current communist governments that promote atheism and restrict religious freedom.  In Russia, 72% of the population is nominally Russian Orthodox, although only 7% of Orthodox Christians are observant.[10]  In Azerbaijan, 93% of the population is nominally Muslim although few Muslims attend religious services.  Many Muslims in Central Asia do not practice their faith although religious observance has increased in recent years as part of a revival of cultural identity continuing after independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.  In Vietnam, approximately half of the population is nominally Buddhist although most do not practice their faith.  In China, nearly one-third of Chinese citizens are believers of a particular faith[11] but most of those who affiliate with a religious group do not appear to actively practice their faith.

LDS missionary efforts struggle to efficiently correct the prevailing attitudes and practices associated with nominalism.  Nominalism often corresponds with ethnoreligious ties to traditional religious faiths with little, if any, expression of personal religious commitment and belief.  At times ethnoreligious ties are nearly insurmountable as culture, society, tradition, family, and friends all oppose conversion to nontraditional faiths and often ostracize, persecute, and harass converts to the LDS Church.  Consequently LDS missionaries experience little success in overcoming ethnoreligious ties as many individuals interested in joining the LDS Church are hesitant to break what is often a long family tradition of identifying with the dominant religious faith in their area and incur any negative response from their families and communities.  LDS missionary efforts also struggle to instill personal religious habits such as daily personal scripture study, meaningful prayer, and weekly church attendance in investigators, new converts, and seasoned members in many areas where most nominally affiliate with a traditional faith. 

The LDS Church experiences a low degree of nominalism worldwide due to few inactive members continuing to identify as a Latter-day Saint.  The Church experiences worldwide member activity rates at approximately 30% indicating that two-thirds of members are inactive.  However, the vast majority of inactive members on LDS Church membership rolls do not self-affiliate as Latter-day Saints and generally adhere to the traditional religious faith in the area, another nontraditional Christian group, or are unaffiliated with a religious group.  The disconnect between church-reported membership figures and reality is particularly apparent in double affiliation, or when an individual is claimed as a member by two or more religious groups.  Double affiliation arises when two or more religious groups claim the same individuals as a result of retaining disaffiliated members on membership roles.  Double affiliation creates challenges for religion and sociology researchers in determining the true religious makeup of a country[12] and inflates LDS membership totals to make the Church appear larger than in actuality. 

Nominalism will likely continue to become an increasingly more difficult challenge and irritant for the LDS Church to address in its proselytism efforts as additional countries undergo the secular transition through economic development.  Countries with the highest rates of nominalism do not appear likely to experience any noticeable changes in recent religiosity trends although ethnoreligious ties may weaken if the societal value on identifying as a member of the traditional religious faith of the country or area becomes less important.  However, the lack of personal religious habits and few individuals who grasp the practicality of organized religion and daily expression and application of religious beliefs and tenets will continue to pose significant challenges for missionary work.  There remains a tremendous need for teaching and proselytism approaches tailored to countries where the majority of the population nominally affiliates with the traditional religious faith.  Effective resources will require finding methods that efficiently locate receptive individuals, teaching methods that present church doctrines and teachings within the context of the religious background of individual investigators, and retention methods that foster socialization and mitigate social integration challenges.  Public affair programs that engender interest and positive discourse on the LDS Church can facilitate these efforts on a macro-level through raising awareness of the Church, combating false and negative stereotypes, and helping establish the Church as a Christ-centered denomination compatible with local culture.


[1]  Cragun, Ryan T., and Ronald Lawson. 2010. “The Secular Transition: The Worldwide Growth of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists.” Sociology of Religion 71(3):349-373.

[2]  "Norway," International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127329.htm

[3]  "Finland," International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127309.htm

[4]  “Italy,” International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127317.htm

[5]  "Denmark," International Religious Freedom Report 2010, 17 November 2010.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2010/148929.htm

[6]  "Finland," International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127309.htm

[7]  "Norway," International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127329.htm

[8]  http://www.religioustolerance.org/rel_rate.htm

[9]  "Peru," International Religious Freedom Report 2007, retrieved 26 November 2012.  http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/2007/90264.htm

[10]  "Russia," International Religious Freedom Report 2010, 17 November 2010.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2010/148977.htm

[11]  “China (includes Tibet, Hong Kong, Macau), International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127268.htm

[12]  Zoll, Rachel, "The Numbers Game: Accuracy Elusive When Counting Followers of Religion," Shawnee News Star Online, November 10, 2001.