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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why Are Americans Religious?

 
One of the major questions in 21st century sociology is why are Americans so much more religious than citizens in other industrialized nations. The answer, if there is one, will help us understand why evolution is rejected by so many Americans.

Gregory S. Paul is a writer who has long been interested in this question. His latest contribution is published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology (Paul, 2009).

Paul examined the correlation between religiosity and the Successful Societies Scale (SSS). SSS measures things like crime rates, divorces, mortality rates etc. The United States (U) seems like an outlier compared to other countries.

Does belief in God cause a society to be dysfunctional or are less successful countries more likely to encourage religiosity? Or is there no obvious cause and effect behind this correlation?

You'll have to read the paper to see how Gregory Paul address these questions and how he rules out many possible explanations. I find his conclusion quite intriguing—I never thought of it this way.
Among the prosperous democracies all but the U.S. have adopted most or all of a set of pragmatic progressive governmental policies that have elevated these nation’s societal efficiency, success and security while reducing personal levels of stress and anxiety. These include reduced socioeconomic disparity and competition via targeted tax and welfare strategies, handgun control, anti-corporal punishment and anti-bullying policies, protection for women in abusive relationships, intensive sex education that emphasizes condom use, rehabilitative incarceration, increased leisure time that can be dedicated to family needs, and perhaps most importantly job security and universal health care that make it difficult for ordinary citizens to suffer catastrophic financial failure. Social ills are correspondingly suppressed. As a member of the 1st world the U.S. is an anomalous outlier not only in its religiosity, but in social, economic and political policies as well. Provided with comparatively low levels of government support and protection in favor of less restrained capitalism, members of the middle class are at serious risk of financial and personal ruin if they lose their job or private health insurance; around a million go bankrupt in a year, about half due in part to often overwhelming medical bills. The need to acquire wealth as a protective buffer encourages an intense competitive race to the top, which contributes to income inequality. The latter leaves a large cohort mired in poverty. Levels of societal pathology are correspondingly high. The evidence indicates that the modulation of capitalism via progressive policies is producing superior overall national circumstances compared to the more laissez-faire capitalism favored in the U.S.
       The relationship of religion to these patterns appears to be both passive and active. Starting with the passive, the middle class majorities of western Europe, Canada, Austro-Zealand and Japan apparently feel sufficiently secure in their lives that increasingly few citizens feel a need to seek the aid and protection of a supernatural creator, resulting in dramatic drops in religious belief and activity (Norris and Inglehart, 2004; Paul and Zuckerman, 2007; Zuckerman, 2008). With the implosion of the general religious belief, few subscribe to a fundamentalist world-view that provides the base for creationist opinion,. That there are no major 1st world exceptions to this pattern, and that a significant religious revival has yet to occur in a secular democracy, indicate that the socioeconomic security process of democratic secularization is highly effective even though it is an accidental side effect of progressive economic policies. The universality of the effect is further supported by Asian Japan experiencing the same basic secularization process as the EuroChristian heritage secular democracies. America’s high-risk circumstances, the strong variation in economic circumstances, and chronic competitiveness help elevate rates of social pathology, and strongly contribute to high levels of personal stress and anxiety. The majority of Americans are left feeling sufficiently insecure that they perceive a need to seek the aid and protection of a supernatural creator, boosting levels of religious opinion and participation. The nation’s good ratings in life satisfaction and happiness is compatible with a large segment of the population using religion to psychologically compensate for high levels of apprehension; America’s apparently high level mental illness (Bijl, 2003) may be in accord with this suggestion. The ultimate expression of this social phenomenon is the large minority who adhere to the evangelical Prosperity Christianity and Rapture cultures whose Bible-based world-view favors belief in the Genesis creation story. The results of this study are therefore compatible with and support the socioeconomic security hypothesis of democratic secularization.
Sue Blackmore is intrigued but skeptical [Are we better off without religion?]. She thinks this may be too simplistic and of course she's right. There's no one reason why America is lagging behind other nations in evolving a better society and there's no single explanation for its religiosity.

But I still think Paul's point is worth considering.


Paul, G.S. (2009) The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions. Evolutionary Psychology 7: 398-441. [PDF]

30 comments :

Devin said...

At least the universities are good here.

Michael said...

You might want to change "Successful Societies Scale" to "Successful Societies Index", seeing as you abbreviated it as SSI.:)

Michael said...

Scratch that; reverse it. The abbreviation should be SSS, because the scale is called the Successful Societies Scale.

Eamon Knight said...

I'd be curious to see similar data broken down by state (and also where Canada fits in, since of all other countries, we are probably the one most influenced by American culture). It seems to me that the USA is larger and/or more diverse than the other countries in the data set, and it would be interesting to see how much spread there is around that single anomalous data point labelled "U", if the individual states were broken out.

DK said...

US is an outlier because of its radically different demographics. Take US away and there are no correlations worth discussing left.

TRESAMEHT said...

But we are going to heaven to be with jebus when we pass on.

The Other Jim said...

increased leisure time that can be dedicated to family needs

As a father of 2, I fundamentally object to confusing "family needs" with "leisure time".

;-)

heleen said...

Figure 25 in the pdf (healthy society vs absolute belief in god) has a high negative correlation.

aluchko said...

I didn't look through the whole paper but did they look at levels of separation of church and state?

One hypothesis I've heard is that many other Western Democracies have state religions (even Canada has the Catholic school system), and just like normal economics the monopoly of a state religion means it's less competitive.

Thus the success of religion in the states is due to the fact that the churches competing for parishioners have created a much healthier market for religion.

shonny said...

alucho:
Thus the success of religion in the states is due to the fact that the churches competing for parishioners have created a much healthier market for religion.


'. . . a much MORE CALLOUS market for religion.' strikes me as more accurate. There is NOTHING healthy about US religiousness, very much to the contrary, and maybe a prime reason why the US American are so godamn self-righteous.
We just had one of them over here in Norway, and he is one of the better (as in 'less horrible').

Larry Moran said...

DK says,

US is an outlier because of its radically different demographics.

What do you mean? The USA is not more diverse than Canada or Australia. Are you referring to the fact that there are more people of African ancestry in the USA compared to the other countries?

If so, why does that make such a difference?
 

aluchko said...

shonny:

Saying there is a healthy market for something does not mean that the particular something is healthy, it means that the market for that something is healthy.

For instance if I say that lack poor judgement creates a healthy market for con-artists I'm not endorsing con-artists, I'm saying the conditions are favourable to creating more con-artists.

DK said...

If so, why does that make such a difference?

Larry, I don't have time digging numbers on the Internet today at all (but almost all of the relevant statistics is freely accessible) so only few numbers by memory:

Because Blacks in the USA commit homicide at a rate something like 7X higher of Whites and among young Black males in Minnesota, the rate of gonorrhea is around 150X higher than in comparable White group. When differences are counted in many folds, it makes a big difference overall.

In contrast, Canada and Australia's largest non-White population is Asians - who, according to statistics, commit violent crimes at a rate lower than Whites.

Don't get me wrong - I do believe that there is a very weak correlation between how smart and how religious a person is. And smart people tend to build more prosperous societies. But claiming r~0.5 it is absurd, total absurd!
(Plus, it all depends very strongly on definition and evaluation of "religiousity").

Lara Rostov said...

Very interesting post!!
"All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. Before God we are all equally wise - and equally foolish. I want to know God's thoughts; the rest are details...."
It's my pleasure to read your blog

Scott said...

aluchko said...
...
One hypothesis I've heard is that many other Western Democracies have state religions (even Canada has the Catholic school system), ...
==========================

Careful. Canada has no Catholic school system.

Ontario does, Quebec does not, and the situation varies throughout the other provinces.

Scott said...

aluchko said...
I didn't look through the whole paper but did they look at levels of separation of church and state?

One hypothesis I've heard is that many other Western Democracies have state religions (even Canada has the Catholic school system), and just like normal economics the monopoly of a state religion means it's less competitive.

Thus the success of religion in the states is due to the fact that the churches competing for parishioners have created a much healthier market for religion.
===============================

I find this unconvincing. As I said in my previous append, Canada does not have a Catholic school system, or anything approaching a state religion.

In fact, I would suggest that in practical terms, the US is very much closer to having a "state religion" than is Canada, and closer than some countries which do formally have a state religion, such as the United Kingdom.

Look at the near-absolute requirement for candidates in the US to profess religious belief, often in terms that seem fervent and overblown to at least some of us outside the US. Small example - could the President or other visible political figure get away with a high-profile speech which did not end with "God bless America" or a similar sentiment?

DM said...

First of all: Nostradamus demolishes "atheism"


____________________________________________________
wait, wait...


I forgot something...


you little shits even talk about me....


GOATS ON FIRE....

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ssFaIhJkLsk



LIBERATION!


Sing from the rooftops:

"Atheism is dead!"

http://www.conspiracycafe.net/forum/index.php?/topic/25104-atheist-apocalypse/page__pid__117856_

t said...

New zealand is the most peacful country in the world and maybe in the universe.Just read this about putting atheist adverts on busses and the comments after the article.
http://tvnz.co.nz/national-news/donations-pour-in-atheist-campaign-3284878

DiscoveredJoys said...

I read Sue Blackmore's article and the pdf of the original article in Evolutionary Psychology.

It is clear that the title of Sue's article "Are we better off without religion?" is at odds with the content of her article. I wonder if some sub-editor "sexed up" the title.

The original EP article was titled "The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions."

The thrust of the original research was that the US was particularly religious because the US society is so broken.

Unfortunately many people have chosen to argue that the case has been made for religiosity being the cause of the dysfunctional society, rather than an effect.

You could certainly assert that but this research does not support that argument.

karmaiko said...

Heleen said:
Figure 25 in the pdf (healthy society vs absolute belief in god) has a high negative correlation.

Yes it does, and if you look at the numbers it shows that a more dysfunctional society has a higher percentage of theists.

Larry, I've been silently following your blog for a few months now, checking it once a week or so, and I learn more every time I do.

Kudos sir

Robert Kruchio

Jeff Sherry said...

Interesting thoughts Dr. Moran and worth considering. But I wonder, does it have to do more with how WWII and post war society affected the U.S.?

Anonymous said...

It’s really not a good idea to try and tie evolutionary psychology (“Erbpsychologie”) to behaviors of others that can be seen in a negative light. Someone might take your “science” seriously, and suggest that changes should be made (all in the name of “national efficiency” of course).

shonny said...

Notice the author of the paper talks about 'supernatural gods'.
Are there any other?

bad Jim said...

It probably has something to do with the frontier and the shortage of trained ministers, such that both parsons and parishioners were accustomed to taking the Bible more seriously than its authors intended. The eradication of the original inhabitants and the presence of a considerable population imported from yet another continent under conditions of extreme privation are most likely not irrelevant.

Having a permanent black underclass undermines social solidarity. Nearly any reform is unacceptable because it might benefit someone undeserving, one of "them".

Inequality drives religiosity, and modesty follows apace; women only go topless on beaches in atheist countries.

Sean Garratt said...

the assessment on the linked page could not agree more with my own opinions. I have lived in UK, Africa and various parts of the USA and now live in the USA and i feel that the religious/conservative vs liberal/less religious/agnostic spins on social issues has polarized this country into its opposed left/right wings and we have ended up with a dysfunctional schizophrenic government. even with a democratic president and a democratic majority in congress, the government is still completely dysfunctional. witness the recent 780 page reading of an amendment in the senate used purely as a filibuster time wasting tactic. this is so absurd and childish that the American people should fire the LOT of them for gross negligence, and do away with the two party system completely. America once decided to put a man on the moon, and did it in less time than was anticipated because we were as a people UNITED against a perceived common foe. now we are two camps united against each other, and the world outside our borders is passing us by.

Steve J. said...

shonny said...

Notice the author of the paper talks about 'supernatural gods'.
Are there any other?


Yes, the Free Market Fairy that libertarians worship. :-)

Pausanias said...

>Does belief in God cause a society to be dysfunctional or are less successful countries more likely to encourage religiosity?

Here is a data point from an news article: "She has learned to live without the prescription medications she is supposed to take for high blood pressure and cholesterol. She has become effusively religious -- an unexpected turn for this onetime standup comic with X-rated material -- finding in Christianity her only form of health insurance."

http://finance.yahoo.com/career-work/article/108886/the-new-poor

Pausanias said...

>Does belief in God cause a society to be dysfunctional or are less successful countries more likely to encourage religiosity?

Here is a data point from an news article: "She has learned to live without the prescription medications she is supposed to take for high blood pressure and cholesterol. She has become effusively religious -- an unexpected turn for this onetime standup comic with X-rated material -- finding in Christianity her only form of health insurance."

http://finance.yahoo.com/career-work/article/108886/the-new-poor

Keith said...

@bad jim

I'm sorry to say this, but African Americans are at every level of American society. YOu say this as if a large majority of blacks are just poor. Let me remind you there are still more poor whites than any other race in the US. How you ask? Simple. They're the majority... I mean my God your president is black. Fuck you. I'm trying to become a diplomat. I have relatives that are doctors and lawyers. MY sister is an accountant. My mom is an IT specialist. MY father is an exec. Fuck you. a permanment black underclass. My ass. My God only whites can be ignorant and poor without them as a whole being judged. remember that's white privilege.

Anonymous said...

I'm very interested in your ideas on this and this is the first time I have seen America's religiosity explained in this way. Fascinating.

I think there's a little more to it than this. I think that because of hypercompetitive, laissez-faire capitalism, Americans aren't just drawn to religion for its positive aspects. Unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism forces Americans to make many small moral and ethical compromises in their daily lives, in order to surivive economically. This gives may people the underlying sensation that they're "bad people". Americans may be drawn to religion in order to mitigate the resulting "cognitive dissonance". In my experience in other countries (Italy, Germany, France, Switzerland, Denmark, etc.) there isn't this vague sensation that you have to make constant moral compromises just to survive, and so there may be much less cognitive dissonance for most people, causing religion to exert less of a magnetic force.

Would be intersted to hear your comments on this...