O pray can you see? – part 1

One of the more striking statistics that keeps coming up in my reading is the high position of the United States on the list of the most religious countries in the world.

The books and articles I’ve read cite difference surveys and sources, but the upshot of all of them is that, in general, the more religious countries are the poorest and least socially developed; and the less religious countries are the richest and most socially developed. This holds true for most nations — except for the United States, which seems to be at the wrong end of the religion list.

The United States is the only country that is high on both the list of most developed nations and the list of most religious nations. Canada and most of Western Europe are typical of highly developed societies, with relatively low levels of professed belief in a supernatural god. Many African and Latin American countries are typical of less well developed nations, with relatively high levels of religious belief.

Using measures of social advancement like per capita income, education levels, longevity and the status of women, investigators all arrive at similar conclusions. (These surveys and studies were adjusted to account for those countries with a history of state-mandated atheism, typically in former communist countries, and those countries with a state-mandated religion, typically in the Islamic Middle East.)

What can account for this anomaly? It’s an interesting question, one that is drawing more attention lately due to the growing culture clash between American fundamentalism and extreme Islam. A number of answers have been proposed, some of them more convincing than others.

This post outlines some of the explanations that have been suggested. The next post will consider the two propositions that I think are most on the mark.

One of the simplest answers is that the United States has always been a highly religious country since it was founded by the descendants of religious dissenters, like the Puritans, who brought their Bibles with them as they fled European persecution. I doubt that it’s as simple as that.

A rather self-contradictory argument is that levels of American religious belief are simply over-reported. In this view, public life in America has long been openly associated with religion, and as a result many people are reluctant to appear non- or even weakly religious in order to avoid the perceived economic and social consequences of being outside the mainstream. I don’t find this explanation very convincing, since it argues that Americans over-report religious belief because of the large impact of religious belief on American society.

A rather clever explanation focuses on the pressures and potentials of open competition. Since the United States had no established state religion (a fact that we will return to in more detail in Part 2) some scholars suggest that entrepreneurial forces led different religions to strive for “market share” through aggressive self-promotion. In a country with no penalties for apostasy and dissent, different churches could offer many competing “products,” leading to an attractive selection of easily adopted denominations, a “something for everybody” marketplace in which religious participation flourished and grew. To this day, in this view, effective spiritual retailing is evident in the proliferation not only of churches and sub-churches but also of new age, psychic, and other alternate spiritualities.

Always popular is to blame the perceived anti-intellectual bias in American culture. It’s a fairly easy target in a country where as recently as the 2004 election John Kerry was attacked for being “not really one of us” because he could speak pretty good French, and where the “debate” over Intelligent Design leaves many states with enfeebled science curricula. In this view, religious belief is associated firmly with superstition and ignorance, a debatable, if attractive, assumption. (Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason and Chris Hedges’s Empire of Illusion are good current reads taking different focuses on the subject of American anti-intellectualism.)

A more political slant credits the periodic resurgence of American religious fundamentalism to just such perceptions of military and cultural threat as are rising now in the face of Islamic terrorism. Fundamentalism was strong following WWI, when the rise of the Soviet Union forebode possible socialist uprisings elsewhere. This first “Red Scare” was a factor in such diverse spheres as the repression of labour unions in the 1920’s and the rules of the Production Code in Hollywood in the 1930’s, which prohibited movies with “anti-American,” including anti-religious, stories and themes. In the 1950’s, the nuclear arms race and the Cold War brought on a second “Red Scare,” in the form of McCarthyism. (It’s no coincidence that “In God We Trust” was placed on American money and “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance during the 1950’s.) External threats to the American way of life, this argument proposes, have led to a strong identification with the opposite of “godless communism.” (On a personal note, I remember as a teenager in the early 1960’s encountering copies of Gerald L. K. Smith’s extreme right-wing magazine The Cross and the Flag, a rag that in its title explicitly linked fundamental Christianity with patriotism. I particularly remember an article by Ronald Reagan, in which he justified his anti-communist witch hunt during his term as President of the Screen Actors’ Guild.)

One perceptive argument  is made from a mix of political culture and geography. In this view, the United States has never developed government social services to the extent common in many other advanced societies. One of the primary reasons given is that the United States is a country so physically vast that efficient social and political control was difficult in the early days of the nation. As a young country on a huge continent, the United States stayed rural for a long time, and its more isolated communities were forced to rely on other agencies than government to provide needed social support. Much of this support was supplied by churches, giving Americans a long and positive relationship with religion. The church was often the primary civilizing factor in frontier America, this argument goes, and that association of community with religion has remained strong into present times. The central role of the church for black slaves as a source of comfort and hope for a better future only reinforced this trend. This explanation seems to me to support both of the most likely arguments, which are found in detail in Part 2.

While some of these explanations have merit, the two arguments which appeal to me most will be the subjects of Part 2. I like the first because I think it’s probably true. The second, if true, nicely fits my political bias.