Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not

A naturalist examines the cognitive and cultural foundations of religion, science, and more

Secularization, Religiosity, and Misery in America

Misery levels may help to explain levels of religiosity in the U.S.A.

Shrimp Sale?

Andrew Jacobs reports on a budding philanthropy for the Kilung Monastery in Sichuan Province in China that has Buddhist believers from foreign lands sending money – the amounts depend upon the animal in question -- to purchase meat-producing animals in order to have them saved from slaughter and freed. The program is an attempt to remind believers of the sanctity of life, no matter how humble. The non-human beneficiaries of this program are often adorned with colorful yarn. Rewards for the humans involved are reputed to include longer life and improved crops. The monks take credit cards.

A related practice, according to Jacobs, has sprung up in the city of Yushu (known as Jiegu in Tibetan) in China. There scores of believers spend hours extracting tiny river shrimp that have been marooned in the mudflats of the Batang River. The shrimps’ rescuers return them to what remains of the river in the summer, which recedes as the snows that feed it melt away. The number of people undertaking such “life liberations” has surged over the past few years as have contributions to local monasteries. Crucially, like the recent upturn in religiosity in Christchurch, New Zealand, this outpouring of generosity to the humble shrimp has arisen in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake. The quake struck this area of China in 2010 and took the lives of more than 3,000 of the city’s 120,000 residents.  It seems that in the face of natural disasters people’s minds turn to the gods.                

Reversing the Effects of Secularization

Some theorists maintain that the process of secularization in societies has the effect of stifling religiosity. Secularization involves at least two dynamics. The first concerns citizens’ overall material welfare. Secularized societies tend to have low income inequality and sufficient wealth to insure that their citizens can meet the basic needs of life. The second concerns domestic tranquility and dependable government institutions that insure it. Secularized societies have what are perceived to be fair laws, effective law enforcement and judiciaries, and low levels of corruption. The suggestion, in part, is that when credible government institutions take over the role of monitoring and policing citizens’ conduct in a politically palatable fashion, people have less need to rely on the gods to secure social cooperation.

As I noted in my previous blog, grave natural disasters, such as the earthquakes that wracked Yushu and Christchurch, may halt and even reverse the negative impact of secularization on religiosity in a population. That it requires just such extraordinary events upending so many people’s lives all at once to produce such an outcome is, perhaps, the striking exception that is often said to prove the rule. Might there, however, be other forms of evidence for this hypothesis about the influence of secularization on religiosity that arises from less tumultuous circumstances?

 An Index of American Suffering

Kurt Gray and Daniel Wegner formulated a misery index for the fifty American states.  They arrived at this measure by inverting an index of the United Health Foundation. That index ranks the comparative overall health of the citizens of each state by looking at such variables as infant mortality, frequencies of infectious diseases and cancers, crime rates, pollution levels, etc.  Then Gray and Wegner examined the correlation between the states’ scores on their misery index with measurements of religiosity for the populations of the various states, which they extracted from a report for the same year (2008) from the Pew Foundation. Looking specifically at the percentage of people in each state who “strongly believe in God,” they found a significant positive correlation between professed religiosity and the relative amount of suffering in a state, and that correlation remained even after Gray and Wegner introduced statistical controls for income and education. 

Their findings, of course, are consistent with the secularization hypothesis. Across the fifty states religiosity correlates with citizens’ relative levels of misery, both of which are highest in the states of the American southeast and lowest in the states that make up New England. People may thank God for their blessings, but they appear to be even more likely to turn to God when they are suffering. 

 

Robert N. McCauley, Ph.D., is the author of Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not. He is William Rand Kenan Jr. University Professor of Philosophy at Emory University.

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