Via Ross, I came upon this excellent post by Razib on world trends in religious affiliation — which then led me to the article in Edge about which Razib was commenting. I’d like to focus my comments on the Edge article, written by independent researcher Gregory Paul and Pitzer sociologist Phil Zuckerman.
To save a thousand words or so, here’s the gist of the story Paul and Zuckerman tell:
So despite all the loose talk about a global religious revival, the fact is that the biggest growth over the course of the 20th century was in the nonreligious.
Razib takes pains to add nuance to this picture, noting important countertrends. He also makes the important point that nonreligious and scientifically rational aren’t the same thing:
I also think it is important to note that the decline of organized religion does not imply a concomitant decline in supernaturalistic or non-scientific thinking per se. An equal number of Americans and Europeans believe in reincarnation after all! The extremely secular (defined by a generally positive attitude toward science and an apathy toward organized religion) Chinese are also responsible for the near extinction of tigers (and other animals) because of the popularity of Chinese medicine. Secular American regions, like the Pacific Northwest and San Francisco, are also “New Age” meccas.
Still, though, Razib grants that secularization does create more favorable conditions for the scientifically rational outlook:
I do think the argument that the decline of organized religion is “good for science” is correct in the end because I think these counter-scientific narratives have a more diffuse impact. In short, the problem with organized religion is that it scales supernaturalism into a powerful unified force, like the forcible realignment of iron molecules within ore to generate magnetism. So long as the molecules are randomly oriented then they “cancel out” and don’t result in a net force.
All good and interesting stuff so far. Now let’s move from global trends to what’s going on in America. Here again, Paul and Zuckerman puncture the religious revival conventional wisdom:
The majority that considers religion very important in their lives dropped from over two thirds in the 1960s to a bare majority in 1970s and 1980s, and appeared to edge up in the Clinton era. But instead of rising post 9/11 as many predicted, it is slipping again.
Those who feel the opposite about religion doubled between the 1960s and 1970s, have been fairly stable since then, but have been edging up in recent years. American opinion on the issue of human evolution from animals has been rock steady, about half agreeing, about half disagreeing, for a quarter century. What has changed is how people view the Bible. In the 1970s nearly four in ten took the testaments literally, just a little over one in ten thought it was a mixture of history, fables, and legends, a three to one ratio in favor of the Biblical view. Since then a persistent trend has seen literalism decline to between a quarter and a third of the population, and skeptics have doubled to nearly one in five. If the trend continues the fableists will equal and then surpass the literalists in a couple of decades.
So far, so good. But then Paul and Zuckerman go completely off the rails when they try to explain the continuing strength of religious commitment in the U.S. relative to that in Europe:
Every single 1st world nation that is irreligious shares a set of distinctive attributes. These include handgun control, anti-corporal punishment and anti-bullying policies, rehabilitative rather than punitive incarceration, intensive sex education that emphasizes condom use, reduced socio-economic disparity via tax and welfare systems combined with comprehensive health care, increased leisure time that can be dedicated to family needs and stress reduction, and so forth.
As a result the great majority enjoy long, safe, comfortable, middle class lives that they can be confident will not be lost due to factors beyond their control. It is hard to lose one’s middle class status in Europe, Canada and so forth, and modern medicine is always accessible regardless of income. Nor do these egalitarians culture emphasize the attainment of immense wealth and luxury, so most folks are reasonably satisfied with what they have got. Such circumstances dramatically reduces peoples’ need to believe in supernatural forces that protect them from life’s calamities, help them get what they don’t have, or at least make up for them with the ultimate Club Med of heaven….
The result is plain to see. Not a single advanced democracy that enjoys benign, progressive socio-economic conditions retains a high level of popular religiosity. They all go material.
It is the great anomaly, the United States, that has long perplexed sociologists. America has a large, well educated middle class that lives in comfort—so why do they still believe in a supernatural creator? Because they are afraid and insecure. Arbitrary dismissal from a long held job, loss of health insurance followed by an extended illness, excessive debt due to the struggle to live like the wealthy; before you know it a typical American family can find itself financially ruined. Overwhelming medical bills are a leading cause of bankruptcy.
In part to try to accumulate the wealth needed to try to prevent financial catastrophe, in part to compete in a culture of growing economic disparity with the super rich, the typical American is engaged in a Darwinian, keeping up with the Jones competition in which failure to perform to expectations further raises levels of psychological stress. It is not, therefore, surprising that most look to friendly forces from the beyond to protect them from the pitfalls of a risky American life, and if that fails compensate with a blissful eternal existence.
I certainly buy the general connection between material comfort and security, on the one hand, and secularization on the other. But the cartoon image of America as a Social Darwinist dystopia where uncertainty about the future drives people to the comforts of religion — well, no sale there.
The decisive objection to Paul and Zuckerman’s thesis: the supposedly fear-ravaged Americans are actually much more optimistic about the future than Europeans are. Check out this Harris Poll report (thanks to Will Wilkinson for the link):
Fully 58 percent of Americans are very satisfied with their lives compared to the 15-country European average of 31 percent. Fifty-six percent of Americans think that their lives have improved in the last five years compared to 45 percent of Europeans. Furthermore, 65 percent of Americans expect their personal situation will improve in the next five years compared to only 44 percent of Europeans.
Contrary to Paul and Zuckerman’s left-wing delusions, most Americans aren’t cowering under the Damoclean sword of economic insecurity. Quite the opposite: America’s more open, competitive, and dynamic economic system produces energetic and hopeful people.
So what’s the explanation for America’s persistently higher (if steadily ebbing) levels of religious affiliation and belief? Paul and Zuckerman use the advanced secularization of Australia and New Zealand to pour cold water on the theory that America’s separation of church and state produces a livelier, more competitive religious marketplace better able to attract and hold adherents. According to Paul and Zuckerman, separation of church and state also obtains in the Antipodes, yet with rather different results.
Fair enough — I’ve been fairly skeptical of that theory myself. American evangelicals have had great success spreading their faith in Catholic Latin America; why can’t they get off the ground in western Europe with no competition to speak of?
So what is the solution to this riddle? I have nothing more than speculation to offer, but I suspect that two distinctive features of American society may play some role: our ethnic heterogeneity, and our pronounced geographic mobility. Surely one factor that has dampened the aggregate numbers on secularization here is the big influx of poor Hispanic Catholic immigrants. My assumption is that African Americans are less secular than whites as well. Among white ethnics, continued affiliation with the Catholic Church offers a way to maintain your family heritage. And for Americans of all backgrounds, church affiliation offers an easy path to membership in a community after pulling up stakes and moving away from your hometown — which, I take it, is much more common here than in Europe.