A news story on “atheist mega-churches” prompted sociologist Peter Berger to argue that the American religious landscape shapes all movements into denominations:
However, there is a more important aspect to the aforementioned phenomenon: Every community of value, religious or otherwise, becomes a denomination in America. Atheists, as they want public recognition, begin to exhibit the characteristics of a religious denomination: They form national organizations, they hold conferences, they establish local branches (“churches”, in common parlance) which hold Sunday morning services—and they want to have atheist chaplains in universities and the military. As good Americans, they litigate to protect their constitutional rights. And they smile while they are doing all these things.
As far as I know, the term “denomination” is an innovation of American English. In classical sociology of religion, in the early 20th-entury writings of Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch, religious institutions were described as coming in two types: the “church”, a large body open to the society into which an individual is born, and the ”sect”, a smaller group set aside from the society which an individual chooses to join. The historian Richard Niebuhr, in 1929, published a book that has become a classic, The Social Sources of Denominationalism. It is a very rich account of religious history, but among many other contributions, Niebuhr argued that America has produced a third type of religious institutions—thedenomination—which has some qualities derived from both the Weber-Troeltsch types: It is a large body not isolated from society, but it is also a voluntary association which individuals chose to join. It can also be described as a church which, in fact if not theologically, accepts the right of other churches to exist. This distinctive institution, I would propose, is the result of a social and a political fact. The denomination is an institutional formation seeking to adapt to pluralism—the largely peaceful coexistence of diverse religious communities in the same society. The denomination is protected in a pluralist situation by the political and legal guarantee of religious freedom. Pluralism is the product of powerful forces of modernity—urbanization, migration, mass literacy and education; it can exist without religious freedom, but the latter clearly enhances it. While Niebuhr was right in seeing the denomination as primarily an American invention, it has now become globalized—because pluralism has become a global fact. The worldwide explosion of Pentecostalism, which I mentioned before, is a prime example of global pluralism—ever splitting off into an exuberant variety of groupings.