The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

Why Americans are so religious

Religion thrives on misery

The story so far is that religion is more or less universal in poorer countries but declines in wealthy countries. In a previous post that rattled around the Internet, I presented a scholarly explanation for this pattern, namely that people who feel secure in this world have less interest in another one.

The basic idea is that wealth allows people to feel more secure in the sense that they are confident of having their basic needs met and expect to lead a long healthy life. In such environments, there is less of a market for religion, the primary function of which is to help people cope with stress and uncertainty.

Some readers of the previous post pointed out that the U.S. is something of an anomaly because this is a wealthy country in which religion prospers. Perhaps taking the view that one swallow makes a summer, the commentators concluded that the survival of religion here invalidates the security hypothesis. I do not agree and was moved to address this issue in detail.

The first point to make is that the connection between affluence and the decline of religious belief is as well established as any such finding in the social sciences. In research of this kind, the preferred analysis strategy is some sort of line-fitting exercise. No researcher ever expects every case to fit exactly on the line and if they did, something would be seriously wrong.

Researchers do not incur any particular obligation to explain why one point is farther from the line than some others. We generally wash our hands of such minutiae and attribute them simply to "statistical noise." While we strive to explain as much of the variation as we can, we never expect to account for it all.

What matters is the overall pattern. Many different studies have shown that as affluence increases, the religiosity in a country declines (1). The probability that all might be wrong is so small that it can be dismissed as a practical impossibility.

The fact remains that in the U.S. the vast majority of the population claims to be religious in surveys, although far fewer show up in church on Sundays. This is very different from the picture in Europe where the majority do not believe in God (2).

Instead of jumping to the conclusion that the U.S .as a single data point invalidates the relationship between affluence and religion, it is interesting to ask what it is about life in this country that fans the flames of religious belief.

In my own (as yet unpublished) research on this question, I have looked at several other facets of the security hypothesis that go some way towards explaining why Americans remain more religious than their European cousins.

The conclusions are not very flattering so far as the quality of life in this country is concerned. In her recent book, Third World America (3), Arianna Huffington made the case that this country is regressing to the inequitable conditions more typically found in a far poorer country.

Despite having great wealth, the riches are unevenly distributed. Such income inequality is typical of developing countries and it has worsened considerably in recent decades. Moreover, we lack the well-developed welfare state found in Europe that serves to redistribute wealth and provides a safety net for the poor.

Health is nothing to brag about either with a life expectancy similar to that in Costa Rico. Education is also in decline according to international comparisons.

The bottom line, then, is that Americans feel far less secure economically, and in relation to their health and well-being than would be expected given the overall wealth of the country in terms of GDP per capita. This existential insecurity provides a fertile ground for religion. Scholars might appeal to historical factors such as the Puritan founders but most countries have a deeply religious history.

It has often been pointed out that poor people in America tend to vote against their economic interests by voting for Republican politicians who are interested in further concentrating wealth in the hands of the affluent. They do so, in part, because the Republicans appeal to their religious propensity. That propensity is further fed by the increasing insecurity in the lives of the poor.

1, Norris, P., & Inglehart, R. (2004). Sacred and secular: Religion and politics worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2. Zuckerman, P. (2007). Atheism: Contemporary numbers and patterns. In M. Martin (ed.), The Cambridge companion to atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. This book is not held by any U.S. Library.
3. Huffington, A. (2010). Third world America. New York: Crown.

 

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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