Are Public Schools the Cause of Secularization?

Lyman Stone has just published a massive new article on secularization in the United States and much of Western Europe that’s worth a read. But I’ll summarize some of his key points since you may not want to read the whole sixty page piece. First, some choice quotes about where we stand.

I. Religiosity in the United States Over Time

Stone begins:

By any measure, religiosity in America is declining. As this report will show, since peaking in 1960s, the share of American adults attending any religious service in a typical week has fallen from 50% to 35%, while the share claimed as members by any religious body has fallen from over 75% to about 62%. Finally, the share of Americans who self-identify or report being affiliated with any religion has fallen from over 95% to around 75%.

However, 1960 really was a peak in American history:

At the dawn of the American republic in the 1780s, probably just a third of Americans were a member in any religious body, and just a fifth could be found at church on a given Sunday. [In some ways, the US is more religious today] than it was two centuries ago — and indeed at any point between 1750 and 1930.

So we are less religious than we once were, but we’re far from a historical low. And we haven’t always been a stand-out, internationally. Between 1800 and 1950, the US was not especially religious relative to other countries, but it didn’t secularize as fast, which has made it exceptionally religious today.

Interestingly, our church attendance rates between 1930 and 1990 were really stable; the US fell from 62% to 59%. So in that sense, we didn’t grow much more secular over that period. A lot of our religiosity patterns are long-standing. I was also surprised to find this is true in other countries as well. In 1930, only 14% of Swedes went to church regularly, a figure that fell to just 11% by 1990.

We people of faith are down, but not out.

II. The Causes of Secularization

Stone doesn’t just present interesting data on religiosity. He also discusses the literature on the determinants of religiosity:

Research on determinants of religiosity has found two contrasting results. First, explicitly sectarian governance, such as having a state religion, tends to reduce religiosity, because it reduces the competitiveness and diversity of the religious marketplace. Second, expansions in government service provision and especially increasingly secularized control of education significantly drive secularization and can account for virtually the entire increase in secularization around the developed world. The decline in religiosity in American in America is not the product of a natural change in preferences, but an engineered outcome of clearly identifiable policy choices in the past.

Religiosity is determined early in life; Stone says that kids “raised without religion tend to become nonreligious adults, and vice versa.” And, fascinatingly, “[c]hildhood religiosity was heavily affected by government spending on education and, to a lesser degree, government spending on old-age pensions.” [I don’t know why the latter would decrease religiosity, but my guess is that less government spending on pensions means more religious grandparents living with their grandkids.] Similarly, “societies that spent more public money on education were less religious.”

It also seems to be true that having a religion monopolist reduces religiosity, which I think isn’t terribly surprising. Monopolies can be sluggish, and state monopolies most sluggish still.

Relatedly, here’s what didn’t matter.

Across many countries and a long time span, they found that higher educational attainment did not predict lower religiosity: More and less educated people were similarly religious. Nor did they find that industrialized, urban life reduces religiosity: A more urban and industrialized population was associated with greater religiosity. Theories that religion has declined because urbanization is hostile to religiosity–or because modern, educated people are inherently skeptical of religion–get no support in the actual historical record.

Worship styles don’t seem related to religiosity either. It’s unclear whether religious competition increases religiosity. In the US, more religious diversity means more religious volunteering, and more religiously diverse states have higher average rages of church attendance but the association is not that strong. On the other hand, sometimes religious competition leads to political changes, such as the Reformation generating the large secular states that played a role in secularization.

Also of interest is that attempts to discriminate in favor of certain branches of Christianity probably didn’t help, and arguably hurt. For instance, the tools that some religious people used against others (Protestants against Catholics) like Blaine Amendments are being used by secular legal elites against all religious schools.

III. Religion as a Club Good

Stone argues that religious affiliation occurs when a religious group offers club goods – services to members that can only be provided to members by the group as a whole. You can exclude people from a club good, so it’s not a public good, but the club has to work together to produce the relevant good. Historically, religious groups have provided all kinds of critical social services on the condition that members follow their rules, goods that are limited to members but can only be provided by a large group whose individual contributions may not matter much on their own.

An extensive social democratic state can compete with religious service provision, often successfully because the government can force people to purchase its services, and provide it to others without requiring anything of them. As a result, the social democratic state can generate a crowding out effect. As the elderly rely on state pensions, they rely less on their churches, and so play less of a role, contribute less time, don’t set examples of piety and devotion, etc. And as the government takes over more and more of education, children are less and less exposed to religious education and religious people.

Another connection is that marriage increases religiosity, but since education is delaying marriage, the effect is delayed.

Stone follows many others in arguing that churches that water down their requirements tend to perform worse than those that are more demanding. Churches grow, he argues, “when their members are deeply committed to them” but if there’s nothing to deeply commit to, there’s not much point.

IV. Increasing American Religiosity

If you think that, generally speaking, religiosity is good for persons as I do, these are lamentable trends. But if Stone is right, there are policy solutions to some of the problems. The main thing to do is to weaken the government’s role in education, expand voucher programs, support home schooling, and (Stone argues) make it easier to build churches and schools closer together.

Religious progressives, people of faith who favor an extensive welfare state, should be concerned. If the social democratic state functions as a kind of huge, unfair competitor to your religious group (because the state can provide services with force, whereas churches typically cannot, and on a massive scale), you may have to choose between your faith and your politics. Religious integralists should also not be especially pleased, since they favor religious monopoly.

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