Monday, January 28, 2013

Why is the USA so religious? A suggestion

Why is the US such a religious place?

This is really a hard--and important--question, and it's one that I think about frequently. I don't suggest to have the answer to this question, nor the answer as to what to do about it, but I would like to suggest a piece of the puzzle that I don't think I've read elsewhere so far. As a disclaimer, this is an armchair analysis.

For my purposes, the primary question I ask is actually a comparison: why is the US so much more religious than Europe?

European culture and American culture are not identical, of course, and so there could be fundamental cultural differences at the bottom of the matter, but of course, the correlation could be the other way. Indeed, a recent post I put on this blog has gotten me thinking about this problem in a new way, and I believe I'm prepared to offer a suggestion that may account for a significant part of the answer.

For the too-long;-didn't-read crowd, I think a huge part of the answer is that Europe has been exposed to a lot more religious diversity than the United States has--something I haven't always thought is so significant. Musings upon my recent post will help illustrate why I think this.

A quick aside about the Problem of Evil

First, I've thought for a while that the answer might have a lot to do with World War II--and I still do. Europe pretty well got devastated by it, along with its predecessor, and at some point, the illusion of a watchful, loving God is pretty hard to sustain against the Problem of Evil, which is pretty up-close and personal when your town and your nation, along with all of the neighboring ones, are getting blown up and your family, along with many of the neighboring ones, are losing fathers, sons, and sometimes others to getting blown up so terribly regularly.

In the end, I still think the up-close and personal faceoff with the Problem of Evil presented to Europeans in the 20th century plays a significant role in explaining why Europe is so much less religious than the United States.

My newer reasoning

That mentioned, the other aspect that I've thought probably plays a considerable role is that Europe is more multicultural than the United States. This is very largely a product of geography, as the US is bordered to north and south by huge Christian-based cultures and to the east and west by thousands of miles of ocean. The reasoning I did for my recent post about the question "which is more likely, that your religion is true or that all of them are false?" has strengthened my suspicion that this is the main mover, not the great wars, in the rapid secularization of Europe through the 20th century.

In that post, I gave a cursory answer to that question by combining a bit of Bayesian style reasoning with the central premise of John Loftus's powerful Outsider Test for Faith. Admittedly, the analysis I did there is very cursory, and I openly indicate that.

Well, because the answer I gave comes from such a cursory analysis, I literally lost a lot of sleep the night I posted it because I was thinking about strengthening it. I've already jotted down most of what I was thinking of in a comment on that post (Link), and to very briefly summarize, it comes down to the fact that in that oversimplified construction, if we face the situation where there is only one extant religion, it appears (but is not) reasonable to conclude that the prior probability for the validity of that religion is 100% (or very near it). It bears remembering that a 100% prior probability is unassailable by evidence in a Bayesian analysis.

As I've considered this situation more, it occurred to me that that is nearly exactly what the situation has been in the United States that is so starkly different from the situation in Europe, particularly through the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries when so much of the secularization of European society has taken place. Americans have been able to effectively ignore the existence of other religions until quite recently.

So, to summarize a bit, If John Loftus is right in suggesting that the diversity of religious faiths is the proper grounds to require an Outsider Test for Faith, and Richard Carrier is more or less right that even though we're bad at it in some cases, humans essentially reason using Bayesian reasoning even if we don't know it, then I think my thinking here is quite suggestive at a cause for this mystery--Europeans have been more face-to-face with other religions than Americans have and have thus been pulled into this kind of Outsider-Test-style Bayesian-flavored reasoning that undermines specific religious faith.

Whatever contention people have with Loftus and Carrier, I don't think these two hypotheses are particularly controversial. My claim is essentially that being generally ignorant of the world far outside of their everyday experiences, and being generally superficial in their analyses, many American people will have faced the situation where, for all intents and purposes, there was really only one religious faith that amounted to anything in the world, a situation which has carried enough momentum on American culture and thinking to have maintained anomalously high (by rich democracy standards) religious adherence.

Thus, for the same reason that the United States was hit vastly differently by the great wars of the 20th century, it also was culturally an island. The presentation of an over-simplified Outsider Test was given in such a way

The pieces seem to fit even better

The easiest objection to this line of thought is that no American could possibly have been raised thinking there is only one religion, particularly because of the wide diversity of Christian denominations that sit rather at the center of the establishment of the American experiment. That, though, in a cursory analysis is very easy to rationalize away since all of these denominations, however crazy they are viewed from different churches and however hell-bound the heretical followers of others might be, are still all Christianity. By removing only one phylomemetic level, this problem can be and has been rationalized for American culture. The other denominations are different and wrong but simply not wrong enough to warrant the kind of challenge that a fully outsider religion like Hinduism or Islam presents.

The next easiest objection is "what about the Jews?" Yes, what about them? Observe what language provides for us in this regard: Judeo-Christian is something that not only do we recognize as a concept, it's something most religious Americans identify themselves with. They accept and adhere to "Judeo-Christian" values. On the other hand, we never hear Judeo-Christian-Islamic values in the United States, and I don't think anyone identifies by this term. Further, the term that we do have for that idea, Abrahamic, is still one that is not readily adhered to. Here, our language provides a clue that the American culture (perhaps not uniquely) has usurped the existence of Judaism into the same phylomemetic structure as Christianity. This isn't terribly surprising since the Bible talks copiously about "the Jews" and identifies Jesus as one.

Then there's the next big piece. The "rise of the Nones," particularly meaning the rapid secularization of the American culture, especially among young Americans. It's tempting to award science the medal here, but it seems suggestive that a particular piece of technology is the winner: the Internet.

The rise of the "Nones" follows pretty closely with the rise of the Internet. The Internet, better than almost anything else it does for people, effectively removes many of the natural barriers to the exchange of ideas. The Outsider Test, informally, was handed to Americans, particularly young Americans, on a silver platter, and the effect has been dramatic. Though it's worth noting that it greatly helped matters (in this regard) that a faction of the Islamic religion decided to announce the reality of its existence to a still-sleepy (again, in this regard) American public an unambiguous and undeniably obvious way in September of 2001--something the Internet did not miss.

Summing up

To sum up, then, I suggest that the primary part of the answer to the hard question of "why is the US so religious?" is essentially because it has been culturally monotone enough and isolated enough to have perpetuated the Christian meme. It's worthwhile to note that the memes that are religions have as kryptonite other similar memes that cannot co-occupy the same mind and whose very existence suggests fundamental flaws in each other.

This lends credence to the power of Loftus's Outsider Test as a means to break through the barriers that maintain religion so effectively, at least for many people (though certainly not all--religious belief is a bit like cancer in that it is many, many diseases referred to by a common name). For some time, I've thought the great power in the OTF lies in being able to re-evaluate the evidence without the cognitive bias that is faith, but the real strength is exactly what Loftus notes when he first introduces the idea: there are a lot of religions, none with better evidence than any other.

It also suggests a very hopeful situation: that the Internet really is a tool incompatible with the existence of religions as we have come to know them (though it could be the tool upon which new religions are devised as well).


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  1. Many american sociologists of religion (Stark and Finke as examples, The Supply-Side Model of Religion) suggest that the free market of religious ideas is the key to American religious vitality (especially in a country largely founded to avoid persecution by other religions).

    Europe on the other hand has largely state run churches and people do not need to be involved with religion to be a part of... it they can have religion vicariously (see sociologist Grace Davie - Europe: the Exceptional Case.)

    These are two of the most popular ideas on how America is so religious compared to other western countries.

    Phil Zuckerman (sociologist of irreligion, Faith No More is one book) suggests that it is also the lack of welfare and social supports in the US that allow for a greater role for religion as a welfare provider. The church is not as involved with this role in other cases (Europe, Australia, NZ and UK), because they have good welfare systems (including universal health care).

    A few ideas to add to your thought pool, enjoy :)

    1. Many thanks, Alan, particularly for mentioning references. I have run across those ideas in the past too, but for some reason, they haven't sunk in quite so neatly as these other ones.

      I really kept it brief up above, but my mention of the wars in Europe is actually a ginormous oversimplification of a more complex picture that boils down to "Europe has been utterly manhandled over religion over and over and over again for centuries." So, the state-run church, along with the abuses that came with that, are certainly on my radar, though I'm lately inclined to put more weight on the explanation I just gave above. I'm no sociologist, though, so I don't contend that I'm necessarily right.

      I think had I written this in October, leading up to the election, I might have actually mentioned the social support hypothesis as well. I'm not sure which way the correlation goes there and suspect it's a self-sustaining loop of sorts (which might tie us back to the two great wars then, as Europe essentially depended upon a social safety net after it essentially destroyed itself twice in a few decades).

      Fun to think about, for sure....

    2. No problem James, I'm glad I could provide some useful refs, this is a big question and I'm not surprised we've come out with different parts of the 'solution'.

      The WWII theory is also quite solid, many social theorists, philosophers and theologians struggled with the problem of evil after the holocaust, 'Death of God' theology was a big part of that analysis, and has had many repercussions for Christianity.

      I think you are right that the U.S. has only had to contend with one type of religion until recently, however there are many varieties of that one religion (Including odd offshoots like Mormonism and The Amish). There may have only been one religion per se, but it has taken on so many forms that it is in constant competition with itself, people change denominations frequently in the US, and it is hypothesised that this is a reflection of the large number of options on the table (despite being of one overall brand).

      I'm with you on the internet, there has never been a greater source of counter-culture. However, we must be careful to recognise that the internet also allows people to pick and choose what they are exposed to, there are many isolated pockets in the internet, because search engines allow people to ignore that with which they do not agree. Hence, creationism and 'intelligent design' have also seen wins through the internet.

    3. Yes, particularly about the ability to get caught in a bubble on the Internet. Indeed, it's so prevalent with rightwing politics here in the US, that I've coined a term regarding it. I call it a "Google swamp" when the quantity (and SEO quality) of parroted misinformation available on the Internet makes fact-checking something nearly impossible as nearly all searches lead only to websites that either repeat the same information or that use a very small number of the same (very biased) sources (or each other). If you'd like to experience this phenomenon for yourself firsthand, all you need to do is go to Google and type in essentially anything that sounds like an American political right talking point or (to lesser degree) conspiracy theory.