Losing Our Religion(s)
March 1, 2010 2:38 PM   Subscribe

What are the causes of religion's decreasing influence in the modern world? And why has the United States maintained high levels of religiosity compared to other developed countries?

I'm extremely interested in the factors underlying much of the developed world's transition from religiosity to secularism.

I know that the answers will likely be complex and the reasons for religion's decline multi-causal, but that's OK. I'm particularly interested in the community's opinions on the major reasons for the decline, and what factors are considered the most important.

It also seems like the United States is an exception to the present trend - why is this, and what unique factors are present in the US that allow religion to maintain its position?

Thanks in advance to everyone who posts a response - I think this could be a very interesting discussion!
posted by Despondent_Monkey to Society & Culture (39 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Where do you get the idea that 1) the trend exists or 2) that the US is an exception? Or is it a hunch?
posted by craven_morhead at 2:45 PM on March 1, 2010

That's a big question. A Secular Age by Charles Taylor is a huge book that tries to answer it. I haven't read it yet, but it got good reviews.
posted by k. at 2:47 PM on March 1, 2010

There's a whole book devoted to answering this kind of question based on rigorous empirical studies. It covers many countries throughout the world, and offers poll results and graphs and such. The authors agree with you that the world is becoming more secular overall, and that the US is an exception to the rule that this is tending to happen in more industrialized countries.

The book is Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart.

I found some of their arguments questionable -- for instance, they say that people tend to be more religious if they have higher "existential insecurity" -- i.e. more threats to their existence/survival. They say that women are more religious than men. And they conclude that this makes perfect sense, because women have higher existential insecurity than men. That sounds very clever, until you stop to wonder if it's really true that women have more "existential insecurity" than men, and you notice that the authors have provided no evidence to support this assertion. Men die younger, go hunting, work in physically dangerous jobs, get in physical fights with each other in ways they wouldn't do with women and women wouldn't do with each other, are forced to fight in wars, etc.

So, is the book perfect? Not in my opinion. Is it exactly what you're looking for? Yes.
posted by Jaltcoh at 2:49 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, and relating to what to craven_morhead said, Taylor does claim that Western culture has not actually become as secular as it might seem.
posted by k. at 2:49 PM on March 1, 2010

Well, science, education and the availability of information are probably the three key factors. That and an increasingly liberal environment that allows dissent from religion to be more acceptable than it has in the past.

The US is a tricky situation. On the one hand, more people in the US are claiming to be atheists than ever before, though whether this is because people are losing religion or the pre-existing atheist contingent finally has the balls and the opportunity to admit their beliefs is hard to say.

Christianity has enjoyed something of a revival, especially during the Bush years. There are lots of reasons for this. I'm no sociologist or anthropologist, but I would venture to say it's largely reactionary - against Clinton, against the internet, against the so-called degradation of social institutions, culture, etc. I would also venture to say that times of war, fear of terrorism, general feelings of increasing weltschmertz might also be playing a role in the upswing in Christianity we've seen in recent years. That and the increase in stubbornness and illogical defiance in the face of increasing scrutiny of long-held religious beliefs and traditions.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:50 PM on March 1, 2010

"The Passion of the Western Mind" by Richard Tarnas is essentially a history of western religion beginning with ancient Greece. It does spend a lot of time discussing early Christianity and the continued presence of Christianity in our culture. It's dense and informative and might help answer your question.
posted by Lobster Garden at 2:53 PM on March 1, 2010

Science and education.

To some extent, there has always been a god of the gaps, and more and more of the gaps are closing. Zeus is no longer the explanation for lightning, and the Judeo-Christian god is no longer a good explanation for why humans are present on earth in their current form.
posted by chrisamiller at 2:53 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's mainly Europe where secularism has dominated to such an extent. Elsewhere in the world I don't think it's really like that.

I see no evidence that the influence of religion has declined. (If anything, with the rise of extremist Islam, arguably it's gotten stronger.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:57 PM on March 1, 2010

Christianity has enjoyed something of a revival, especially during the Bush years

The thing that is tricky about this is it's always based on simple survey results: "are you religious?" "do you attend Church?" etc.

The US, and the world, are full of people who go to Church mostly for the social aspect, or who pay lip-service to being Christian because it's a family tradition, or who use the Bible as a philosophical guidepost. I think what's really decreased is the intensity of people's literal belief, and how it affects the way they live.

Even two or three hundred years ago, many many people lived their lives with the belief that they would end up in a literal Heaven or Hell, or that demons and angels were playing active roles in their life on Earth. People still talk about these concepts a lot, but you have to go pretty far to find someone actually living their life according to them.

To say that Americans are "as religious" as at the time of the Salem Witch trials is ridiculous to me, even if a similar number of people report having religious beliefs of some kind.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:59 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, and relating to what to craven_morhead said, Taylor does claim that Western culture has not actually become as secular as it might seem.

If you're considering reading Taylor's extremely long book, I recommend first reading this negative TNR review, which says: "This is not just a book written by a Christian for Christians. It is a book written by a Catholic for Catholics." I have no opinion on the book since I haven't read it, but he apparently has a strong bias.
posted by Jaltcoh at 3:03 PM on March 1, 2010

Disclaimer: I'm getting a BA in religion this term, I had to read Peter Berger and José Casanova to graduate, and I hated both of them.

I would like to propose that what we call religion and the modern world is actually a codeword for Christianity and the West, and "secular" in terms of religious choice is a word that only applies to those groups. Other cultures simply don't categorize God beliefs in the same way we do. I don't think it is possible that we will ever see a "secular" Muslim world in the way we like to think about it, for example. Assuming we continue to pressure those countries without actually annexing them, they will probably come up with their own definition of secularity that will suit them fine but upset us cultural Christians. This is how Japan resolved their conflict with Christianity before 1945 (permitting missionaries and minorities while teaching their own cultural vocabulary in schools), and it worked very well before we invaded their country and imposed our own idea of secularity.

Now, given those definitions above, why has church attendance dropped in Europe while the U.S. remains "religious"? I think this is not a new trend, and it doesn't work the way you think. Actually this is entirely dependent on how we have defined ourselves as nations. In the U.S. we begin with assuming that other people believe different things from us, and that's okay. We can have seven different churches in one town, as well as a synagogue, and everyone will get along as one big happy family. Because of that, there has been no reason to move away as a society from individual professions of faith; in fact, asserting your ties to your culture can provide some identity that the town lacks. In Europe, faith was much more monolithic and tied to participation in the nation itself, and the separation of church and state also meant the end of that link between citizenship and "religiousness".

But the meaning of this is very limited. Actually, in Europe the pressure to be culturally Christian is much stronger than it is here. We've seen in France that the hijab is banned in schools, since it is un-French, while wearing a Christian cross--arguably a stronger profession of faith--is permitted due to its familiarity. In Britain, there is a big freak out over people who don't eat "British" food or wear "British" clothes. Even though church attendance has dropped because it is no longer a required part of Europeanness, their society is arguably less secular in an American sense, because of the requirements they have to be considered a good citizen.

We can also use this model to place Richard Dawkins squarely as a conservative, because he is arguing against Those People (un-British) who want to maintain Their Religion out there.
posted by shii at 3:10 PM on March 1, 2010 [14 favorites]

There are parts of the United States that are as secular as Western Europe. I live in one (New England). I think that's possibly the most important factor as to why the extreme fundamentalism seen in parts of the South and the West is getting so much ink spilled over it.
posted by oinopaponton at 3:11 PM on March 1, 2010

(as to the reasons for that fundamentalism-- I expect they're too complex to fully grasp as these social trends are playing out, but it seems to be tied very closely to income bracket and education in a broad sense)
posted by oinopaponton at 3:13 PM on March 1, 2010

Response by poster: craven_morhead poses a couple of interesting questions, so I will gladly respond and hopefully contribute some more to the discussion:

Where do you get the idea that 1) the trend exists

From a couple of places, actually. I will readily concede that in the developing world, this trend does not appear to be evident. But based on polls of church attendance and the movement of many religious believers in the developed world away from literal interpretations of their creeds, I do believe that that one can infer a plausible trend away from religious intensity.

Or is it a hunch?

I definitely don't think it's merely a hunch, and while it's possible that the empirical evidence won't substantiate my observations, I think they are plausible and probably accurate. The United States does seem to have followed a different religious path than Europe, as church attendence and the proportion of people who say religion is important in their lives is higher here.
posted by Despondent_Monkey at 3:19 PM on March 1, 2010

A lot really depends on your definitions. Organized religion, or "religiosity", whatever that is? Is "secularism" another word for simple non-belief, or would a person with religious beliefs who prefers separation of church and state be a "secularist"?

Is religion something you believe, or is it something that's stamped on your identity card, like in Indonesia? Is it membership in a tribe, like in Northern Ireland? Does it depend on who your parents were?
posted by gimonca at 3:21 PM on March 1, 2010

One possible search term to consider: laïcité
posted by gimonca at 3:24 PM on March 1, 2010

The US is an "exception" in that religiousity is declining slower; the US is more secular than it was in the past and more secular than most of the non-Western world.

My pet theory to explain why it's taking longer in the US than Europe is their different fates in the world wars. Much of Europe was in ruins, leading to a disaffection with a lot of traditional values. The leaders of German and Italy were murderous thugs who lead their nation to ruins, while French leadership failed the soldier and civilian alike. Everything was open to questioning. America truly "won" World War II; it ended up stronger, richer and more powerful. American society and leadership was vindicated in the eyes of most Americans. (I think this can also partially explain the influence of socialism in Europe and its near total rejection in America, even among the Left.)

With America a superpower, and uncontested hegemon this side of the Iron Curtain, Americans had even less reason to look to Paris, Berlin and even London for anything-- the big decisions were made in Washington and New York.

When you combine this with geographic isolation, Americans were inward looking even as they expanded their interventions throughout the world. American society felt less incentive to change, and certainly didn't look to Europe for ideas about what to do next.

Again, this is my pet theory, not a serious historical examination.
posted by spaltavian at 3:26 PM on March 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

My personal theory is that difference in religious belief between Europe and the US might have to do with the fact that the US doesn't have a monarchy.

In Europe, conservatives can defend traditional values by defending state institutions that embody those values. Someone like Burke almost concedes that traditional values are irrational, but defends them on the basis that they stabilize society. The US state was traditionally organized along secular, rational, objective lines--no state-supported religion, for example--so the Burkean move isn't really possible for a US conservative, they have no choice but to argue that traditional values are objective facts, and this lends itself to a literalist reading of the Bible where religion competes with science on factual questions.

It is possible to be a secular conservative in Europe because, in a sense, the state believes for you. In the US, a conservative must fully adopt their belief.
posted by AlsoMike at 3:33 PM on March 1, 2010 [5 favorites]

If you look at the extreme long run, there's an interesting consequence to the rise of agnosticism and atheism. In places where religious belief has collapsed, so has the birth rate. In Japan and most of western Europe, it's now well below the 2.1/woman rate needed to sustain the population.

Meanwhile, in nations where religion remains stronge, the birth rate is nearly always at or above the replacement rate. It is in the US -- but again, if you look regionally, you find that places where religion is weak, the birth rate has collapsed.

I won't speculate as to why this happens (though I have my opinions) but what it means in the long run is that religious cultures will outlive non-religious ones, the non-religious are dying out from lack of children. Think of it as a form of Darwinian selection at the level of nations and cultures.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:42 PM on March 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

I once took an Irish history class that discussed briefly how Ireland and the US are more religious than other western countries, by a pretty large margin. I believe what it came down to is how religion and government are/are not connected. Most European countries (France, England, for example) had religious establishment that were historically inseparable from the monarchy/government. When governments became unpopular, people could shun state-mandated religion as an easy way to rebel against the government and the corrupt powers that be. In the US, of course, we have separation of church and state (or so I hear), so without anyone imposing an unpopular religion on us from above, we haven't had any real reason to loose our religion, other than personal reasons. Then of course Ireland has a centuries-long history of religious discrimination and bloodshed at the hands of the Protestant English government, which resulted in such strong ties to Catholicism today.
posted by gueneverey at 3:43 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Jaltcoh: It is a book written by a Catholic for Catholics.

Thanks for that review; I rarely read TNR. If you've actually read the book, I'd like to know whether you thought the review was right.

My impression of Taylor from what little I've read is that he's the kind of religious believer who actually deserves the attention of non-believers (like me). If the book were written by an atheist—say, one of Dawkins, Dennett, et al.—it could be expected to treat secularization as simple and wholly positive. But from Taylor I expect something more complex, and more interesting. There are some good things about religion, and besides, I might actually learn more from someone whose bias differs from my own. This line of reasoning could be totally wrong though.
posted by k. at 3:48 PM on March 1, 2010

Chocolate Pickle, can you recommend any sources for statistics or further reading about religion vs. birth rate? It wouldn't surprise me but I want to know if history has borne that out so far.
posted by tantivy at 3:53 PM on March 1, 2010

I once took an Irish history class that discussed briefly how Ireland and the US are more religious than other western countries, by a pretty large margin. I believe what it came down to is how religion and government are/are not connected.
When did you take that class? Irish people have become radically less religious in the past fifteen years or so.
posted by craichead at 3:55 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oops, I missed the part where you said you haven't read it.
posted by k. at 3:57 PM on March 1, 2010

I've also heard that A Secular Age is a go to work on this sort of thing, but since it's some thing of a tome, could I recommend an interview with CT to see if it's really the kind of thing you're interested in?
posted by nangua at 4:27 PM on March 1, 2010

Building off of Shii's comment I think the fact that Europe's churches were state supported is why religion declined there and not in the US, but for slightly different reasons.
Firstly, it meant that the Church was associated with the old regime, so being a revolutionary often made you anti-religious. For instance, the French Revolution was very anti-Catholic.
Secondly, thanks to the wonders of competition American church's were constantly able to adapt to appeal to society. See the "Great Awakenings." Or, consider how much less religious the United States would be if fundamentalist church's hadn't appeared as mainline Protestantism declined.
posted by earlsofsandwich at 4:43 PM on March 1, 2010

One notion to consider about the idea that developed nations are less religious while developing nations are more so. When you live in a place where you have a great deal of control over your day-to-day circumstances, it's easy to conclude that one doesn't need God. When, however, one's day-to-day circumstances are largely out of your own control (hunger, poverty, war, etc. ) then it becomes more difficult to sustain the notion that you can do
it all by yourself.
posted by DWRoelands at 4:43 PM on March 1, 2010

You might want to check out Rodney Stark, as this is one of the questions he likes to wrestle with. I took a class from him (well, one of his grad students) a few years ago. His assertion is basically this:

Religious activity works kinda like economic activity. A "religious free market," where the state has no involvement in religious matters, produces vigorous, competitive religious activity, as free-market economics produces vigorous business activity. The US is such a nation, where the state is very hands-off (at least officially) about religion, and so there are lots of religious "start-ups" (Mormonism being one obvious example) that the state (mostly) tolerates, all competing for the same set of believers. So religious activity here tends to be more intense and higher-commitment.

Compare this to Europe, where many nations have an official state religion, with its clergy's salaries paid by the state. Having a guaranteed income makes the clergy complacent, and encourages "low-commitment" religious institutions, because the clergy have no incentive to compete. So church attendance becomes merely a social activity. This led him to comment, 'if you want to kill religion, nationalize it.'

So that's how he explains the high level of religious commitment in the US vs. Europe. I'm no scholar of this topic, so I can't defend it. But it's an interesting way of thinking about it.
posted by molybdenum at 5:53 PM on March 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

In this lecture on the evolution of religion, Jared Diamond puts forward four different roles that religion has played, and continues to play, in various human societies. The whole thing is worth watching, but briefly they are:

1) Explaining natural phenomenon
2) Establishing moral precepts
3) Maintaining peace within a society
4) Justifying war

If you would like to make the case that religion is on the wane, you can say that modern institutions like science and law supersede these functions for an increasing amount of people in developed nations.
posted by eggplantplacebo at 7:37 PM on March 1, 2010

Respected pollster Michael Adams wrote a book at least five years ago called Fire and Ice, which compared and contrasted Canada and the United States - especially with regards to religion. It was based on some pretty in-depth polls (included in the appendix I believe) but is a very readable and enjoyable book. He felt that difference between Americans and Canada was the deference to authority in the US, including authority to "Father figures" and God. Canada has some pretty strong language in the Charter of Rights of Freedoms protecting religious rights including full funding for Catholic schools and protecting the rights of religious workers to not work on their "day of rest".

An interesting place to examine how religion has changed in a modern society is Quebec. It went from a VERY fundamental religious society to a quiet revolution that led to damn near hedonism today - yet I believe most children are baptised by their agnostistic parents (sorry that last link is from a right wing blog that at least accurately reports the numbers in the poll).
posted by saucysault at 8:25 PM on March 1, 2010

What Chocolate Pickle said -- the ascent of secularism may be short-lived. Having one or two kids in your thirties, versus three or four kids in your twenties, and passing on those proclivities down, is a recipe for your great-grandchildren to be outnumbered 40 to 1. Call it 20 to 1 with greater exposure to war and childhood perils, and you're still not doing too well, demographically.

Data point: Mohammed is the most popular name for baby boys in London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Oslo.

Some people think this is a bad thing, I tend to see it as nature in motion. It wasn't the Muslims' idea for white Britons to stop going to the CoE or having babies...
posted by MattD at 9:03 PM on March 1, 2010

I think it's impossible to study "religion" in a very disincarned and abstract way. You'll have to look at concrete examples. Quebec is an example of a recent (~1950-1960) secularisation. The history of religion in Quebec is very much impossible to separate from the history of French Catholics as a religious and linguistic minority within Canada and North America.

The same goes for France: the relation of the monarchy to the Church was unique in Europe, and the events that led to the religious conflicts of the revolution and ultimately the 1905 law is fascinating.

And so it goes elsewhere in Europe: the Italian army captured Rome in 1870. In Germany, Bismarck initiated the Kulturkampf.

You might be best served by books on the history of Christianism in Western Europe and North America (what we usually refer to as "the West") since Luther. Alas, I haven't read any of them.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 11:03 PM on March 1, 2010

Chocolate Pickle, can you recommend any sources for statistics or further reading about religion vs. birth rate? It wouldn't surprise me but I want to know if history has borne that out so far.

I don't, and I'm sorry. However, there really isn't all that much history. Wide-spread atheism and/or agnosticism is a fairly recent phenomenon, historically speaking. (The word "agnostic" was invented by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1870.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:10 PM on March 1, 2010

One notion to consider about the idea that developed nations are less religious while developing nations are more so.

This. Here in the developing world (Africa, many parts of Asia and Latin America), religion (primarily Christianity and Islam) are gaining converts at simply mind- boggling rates. Take Ghana, for instance. There's more Presbyterians in Ghana than in the entire US - or so my Presbyterian minister told me the last time I was back in the US.

You can add my name to the list of those who think the ascent of secularism might not last as long as many think. These things come in cycles, and when you back up and take a more macro view of history over the last 2-3000 years, you can see more of how that works and how it interacts with societies and development.

The thing about development is that its ongoing, and necessarily points us towards the future, which is unknown. 25 years ago, who could have really given you the kind of picture that we all have today about the internet and what global connectivity would do to change the very fundamentals of the ways we as humans interact with each other? Can we even see the impacts of that now, or are we still so close to the wave's edge that we don't really know where its going to take humanity, religion, the developed world, and the developing?

One interesting example: many of the countries where I work here in Africa will never have significant "land line" telephone infrastructure. They're going to (or already have) completely skipped that stage, straight to building the mobile phone infrastructure.

Also, to build on the correlation that Chocolate Pickle pointed out, I think you could best frame it in the light of what I'd generically call "need." If you're living in Paris in a tiny little apartment with your significant other and a job in fashion or web development or something - you don't really have any intrinsic need for a kid. In fact, its a luxury - something you may have an emotional desire to have, but something that you need to be able to afford.

Now, without even leaving the developed world, move 100 miles outside of Paris, and rewind say 200 years. You have a small farm that you use to grow basic foods and farm cattle. You use the milk to trade for necessities like sugar or a midwife's services. It costs you nothing but a little more food and clothing to have another kid - but that next kid is another set of hands to get up at 4am and milk the cows, plow the field, etc.. This is how most of the world has operated for much of humanity's history - having a large number of children was a security measure - something akin to investing in our 401k's in today's world. Its also how much of the developed world still works (which is why birth rates continue to be high there).

These people (both our great-ancestors who lived in less developed times, and our co-humans still in the less-developed parts of the world), are/were much closer to raw "need" than those in the developed world ever will be. Many (most?) in the developed world will never even slow down enough to realize that their existence and consumption is built necessarily upon the rest of the world NOT being as developed as they are. They can live far from actual "need" because so many others live much closer to it. Its simple math - we can't all be "haves." The world's major religions have a very strong appeal to those closest to their "need." It makes perfect sense in my head that the developed world would eventually secularize.

I don't, however, think for a second, that it will last.
posted by allkindsoftime at 2:07 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

It costs you nothing but a little more food and clothing to have another kid - but that next kid is another set of hands to get up at 4am and milk the cows, plow the field, etc.. This is how most of the world has operated for much of humanity's history - having a large number of children was a security measure

That's not how it was in France 200 years ago; the population's growth rate was already falling. One more kid was one more set of hands, but it's also one more mouth you had to feed with your small parcel of land, and one more way that parcel was going to be divided when you die.

Religion is a complex human phenomenon that's subject to political influence: look at its repression under communist regimes in the 20th century.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 4:00 AM on March 2, 2010

I wish I could remember where I read this, but I once saw the birth rates in 1st v 3rd world countries compared thusly:
There are 2 ways of ensuring your evolutionary survival. One is to "spam" your progeny. Like a fish laying hunderds-thousands of eggs. You put a lot of them out there, and rely on averages that some (few) of them survive. The other method is more familiar. Have offspring, care for it, feed it, protect it.

Now humans obviously don't lay hundreds of eggs - but the argument went that human reproduction can be described as a U shaped curve. On the one hand, you have a large number of children knowing that chance will kill several of them. But as your resources and control increases, you shift towards a more individual nurturing approach. You have as many children as you think you can successfully support and nurture. Eventually your resources increase enough that you can support 2 children or 3 or 4 in the nurturing, high-investment manner.
There were as I recall, some concrete examples given...

If I had to guess, I'd say it was probably something in Jared Diamond's 'Collapse: How societies fail or survive.'
posted by handle_unknown at 4:06 AM on March 2, 2010

As a random data point, that I don't think has been mentioned (at work, haven't read through the entire thread) I've been doing some work in Switzerland recently, and there is a "Church Tax" there. Where they basically collect a tax for going to church, which is then given to the church ... as opposed to here in the US where you can contribute however much you want to support your own church.
posted by theRussian at 7:31 AM on March 2, 2010

Not just Switzerland, all over Western Europe -- it's how their great cathedrals are maintained.
posted by Rash at 10:42 AM on March 2, 2010

Chocolate Pickle, can you recommend any sources for statistics or further reading about religion vs. birth rate? It wouldn't surprise me but I want to know if history has borne that out so far.

I don't, and I'm sorry.

Here are some academic papers on the matter.
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:09 AM on March 2, 2010

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