Religion in present-day America is fading into irrelevance - or so the theory goes. With modernization and the advances of science, research suggests Americans are gradually moving away from religion and becoming increasingly secularized.
The reality is not so simple.
While it is clear that on average Americans are becoming less religious, a new study has found the intensity of American religion is actually becoming more exceptional over time.
The new research suggests intense religion - such as evangelicalism, literalism and frequent practice - continues to persist in the U.S. And, in actuality, it is only moderate religion that is in real decline.
For instance, the study found more intense forms of religion, like Christian evangelicalism, have maintained their popularity for nearly 30 years.
At the same time, moderate forms of religions, such as Protestantism, have consistently lost followers.
"More moderate forms of organized religion could become increasingly irrelevant in the United States," said co-author Landon Schnabel of Indiana University Bloomington.
This means as moderates trickle away from religion in America, those who remain religious are far more exceptional in their beliefs. The authors describe this as the polarization of religion in America.
The study is unusual because in almost all other wealthy nations with access to science, religion is fading. In fact, the researchers found national surveys in over a dozen other Western - and historically Christian - nations show a general weakening of religious beliefs.
But the new study suggests the U.S. is an exception where intense and extreme religious beliefs continue to persist.
The rise of religious intensity
The persistence of extreme religious beliefs along with a drop in moderate religious beliefs has produced a huge cultural gap between religious and non-religious Americans.
Since 1972, Protestantism in the U.S. has gone from 35 percent of the population to just 12 percent in 2016, according to the study.
On the other hand, evangelicals in the U.S. have gone from 18 percent of the population in 1972 to about 28 percent from 1989 all the way to 2016.
Some of this can be explained by population trends. For instance, low fertility rates among Protestants and low rates of conversion from outside the Protestant community.
However, the mass exodus of religious moderates is believed in large part to arise from the blossoming relationship between religion and conservative politics, which first began with the rise of the religious right in the 1980s.
Ever since, the politically and socially conservative nature of religion has led many moderates and liberals to feel increasingly distanced from their parents' religion.
The findings of the study suggest religion has become too intense, strict and politicized in our current day and age, leading many moderates and liberals to depart from organized religion altogether - although it must be noted that many Americans continue to report a belief in God and prayer.
The authors argue if religion wants to remain relevant, it has to adapt with the times, or else risk losing these moderates in even greater numbers.
The study was published in Sociological Science.