Posts tagged: Religion

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.

Will the Virus Make Us More or Less Religious?

Some are starting to speculate about whether the virus will affect American religiosity, which as we know, is abnormally high for a developed democratic country. Religious affiliation and practice in the US has been slowly declining for a few decades now. So we might think that pattern will intensify. In this post, I want to see if this is likely to be true.

Before I begin, let’s understand religiosity as adherence to some kind of religious belief, combined with a modest degree of religious observance corresponding to those beliefs. There are lots of ways to make these ideas more precise, but they won’t matter much for the purposes of this post.

The main way to predict the effects of the virus on religiosity is to ask how the virus affects the relative costs and benefits of religious belief and practice. I’ll assume that most churches have or will have services online, and that most of their adherents will be able to attend if they wish.

Factors Favoring Increased Religiosity:

  1. Increased Uncertainty and Poverty: according to a common secularization thesis, people become less religious as they become more secure in their possession of worldly goods. To the extent that the virus deprives people of security and prosperity, they are most likely to form religious beliefs and engage in religious practices that they feel provide them with a balm for their suffering.
  2. Decreased Costs of Attendance: it is much easier to “attend” church from home than to get up, get dressed, and drive to services.
  3. Decreased Opportunity Costs of Religious Practice: people are working less, if they’re working at all, and so they have more time to devote themselves to religious practices like worship, prayer, and study.

Factors Favoring Decreased Religiosity:

  1. Fewer Social Benefits: one of the advantages of religious observance is the ability to form close social bonds with members of one’s faith, and that is easier to sustain with personal contact in church and in church activities, like worship and charity work.
  2. Less Social Punishment: a lot of religious observance is driven by the fear that others will disapprove of us if we are not sufficiently observant. But without social contact, it is harder to monitor whether people are observant or not, and this leads to slacking off. I admit I’m more distracted when I worship from home than when I worship in church, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
  3. Less Religious Instruction: a lot of religious belief and practice comes from religious instruction, like Bible studies, that are much more easily carried out in person than over the internet, so the dissemination of religious knowledge and inspiration might be decreased.

These factors apply to existing religious belief and practice. But we should also not discount innovations in religiosity, both in the delivery of religious services (like drive-in worship) and in the nature of religion itself (a sufficiently bad global pandemic could lead to the creation of new religions or new variants on old religions).

My suspicion is that, on balance, a prolonged viral infection will favor a modest increase in religiosity among those who feel most negatively affected by the virus, and that religious observance will be partly facilitated by innovation in service delivery.

Mitt Romney Mixed Faith and Politics. Good for Him.

In a remarkable interview, Mitt Romney explains his reasons for voting to convict Trump, probably to his grave political detriment. I can’t see any advantage to his vote, so I believe what he says about his reasoning.

What I find especially fascinating about Romney’s decision is how he came to it. First, Romney tried to make sure he was weighing the evidence properly through constant prayer. He used an expressly religious practice in order to ensure he was more rational. Through prayer, Romney was able to debias, depolarize, and detribalize. And he had the humility to claim that he did not believe he knew God’s mind.

Interestingly, Romney did not vote for especially religious reasons. He voted based on what he regarded as the evidence. But he had religious reasons to take his vow to God seriously. And he had religious reasons to believe in providence: that in the end, if you do what is right, God will ensure that it works to the good. He trusted God that things would work out in the end. So Romney used religious reasons to drive him to make a more virtuous decision.

The typical secular progressive attitude towards religious motives in politics is one of reservation. That is partly because religious reasoning is often oversimplified to the case of voting for a policy because that’s what the Bible (supposedly) says. But note the complexity of Romney’s deliberations, how religious and secular considerations are interwoven and how they strengthen one another. This suggests that religious reasoning in political matters can be quite cognitively and emotionally subtle, and attempts to drive this kind of reasoning out of politics may come with real costs.

The big cost is that religious commitment can serve as a cross-cutting commitment that can be used to reduce political polarization. If people have sincere faith, then that may make them less likely to follow what is politically fashionable and pay more attention to the moral truth.

So sometimes allowing religion in politics is a good thing. And this is one case.

UPDATE: Amazingly, Trump said, “I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong.” That’s a progressive refrain.

My Review of Bob Talisse’s Overdoing Democracy

I recently reviewed Bob Talisse’s important new book, Overdoing Democracy, in an online journal, Erraticus, which is open access. Do take a look. The book is good, and it is both inexpensive and well-written. So if you’re interested in the subject, I recommend the book strongly.

Bob’s basic thesis is that American democracy is hurt by the fact that many people are extending democratic debates into too many parts of social life, creating unhealthy and destructive “political saturation.” I agree with his diagnosis, which is well-defended, but Bob tries to avoid giving concrete solutions to avoid taking a side in our democratic disputes, as well as foregoing explaining some of the mechanisms that have led to political saturation, both of which have some benefits, but also some costs.

An excerpt from my review:

I also thought the prescriptive part of the book would have profited from a discussion of why we’re seeing so much political saturation. I see two reasons Talisse doesn’t discuss: (1) that governments have power over a huge range of activities that they did not always have, and (2) that secularization is destroying the main source of cross-cutting identities—religious faith. It might be that societies will be tempted to overdo democracy when they want government to engage in a wide range of activities. Government is force, and so some will invariably wield it against others. Expanded states may mean expanded conflicts, even if one of our conflicts is over how extensive the state ought to be. And it might be that, with the decline of religious faith, we simply have fewer things that we place ultimate value on.

You don’t have to be a religious conservative to think these two phenomena will lead us to overdo democracy. It is not an especially partisan thought that the temptation to overdo democracy will continue unless we limit government’s power over our lives more than we do at present, since that will lower the stakes of politics. Nor is it expressly factional to think that we’re going to be tempted to overdo democracy if we lack compelling comprehensive doctrines that prioritize non-political values. This is true in particular because a relatively less religious society will tend to have more people with ideological commitments because—I think, plausibly—political ideology is the religion of modernity.

I recognize my recommendations will invite people to see the red tribe. Religion and limited government are unfortunately seen as red rather than blue values. But this is a mistake. Decentralizing and limiting the federal government will enable some parts of the country to better pursue a social democratic agenda. And allowing for more religious activity doesn’t necessarily mean more conservative Christians. There are liberal Christians, especially in marginalized communities.

So I think when we try to explore what it would take to stop overdoing democracy, we must look at solutions that may risk tempting our interlocutors to think that we’re in the red tribe or the blue tribe. But such an inquiry is necessary anyway. And without this inquiry, Overdoing Democracy struck me as incomplete. But that does not detract from the overall value of this excellent book, and is something that Talisse can explore in other work.

Why are so many artists inclined towards (non-traditional) supernatural belief?

I have an experience I wonder if you share. I know a number of artists. Almost none of them are Christians, but none of them are naturalists. That is, none of them think that the world is exhaustively described by the natural sciences. The artists I know usually believe in some kind of cosmic order, that morally bad deeds somehow get punished supernaturally, that the universe can smile on someone who does good, that the fundamental nature of the universe is good and one of compassion and care, that there’s life after death (usually reincarnation), and that art partakes in at least something divine, understood very broadly. And they often love astrology, crystals, “metaphysics” and the like. This is surely true of many famous actors and actresses. Sure, there are exceptions, but don’t we often stereotype many artists as, well, odd in that they tend to have wacky, seemingly superstitious beliefs about the world? There’s a certain loveliness to these beliefs, as they indicate the artist is a person of goodwill and kindness. But whatever the case, they seldom think the world is a mere combination of particles and fields. There’s just more to the world than that.

Now, I grant that very few humans think the world is a mere combination of particles and fields, but the artists I know seem especially adamant about this fact.

OK, so perhaps I’m wrong to generalize, but suppose I’m right (and I’m sure some of you are inclined to agree). What explains the seemingly greater non-traditional religiosity of artists of various sorts? Here’s a hypothesis: there’s just something about aesthetic experience that inclines one towards thinking that beauty is something out in the world, that aesthetic judgments are in some way objective and that the sublime is somehow real. And perhaps the fact that beauty is implicitly understood as a kind of perception lends itself to metaphysical beliefs that would undergird those judgments, such as that beauty is a perception of the ordered goodness of the world. But perhaps that’s an overly intellectual explanation.

Here’s another possibility. Artists often seem inclined towards intense moods, both positive and negative. And we associate the supernaturalism of artists with those in good moods. But the depressed artist may be much less inclined towards plucky supernaturalism, and so more inclined to embrace meaninglessness, or some kind of (perhaps) overwrought reaction towards a “dead” universe. So maybe when people feel happy, they project that onto the universe, and when they feel sad, they project that onto the universe too. (Just to note: I know plucky naturalists, jovial Hume-types in the mold of Daniel Dennett, but for whatever reason, most people tend to think of naturalism as a “sad” belief system.)

A third possibility is that artists associate having these beliefs with being a good, open-minded person for purely cultural reasons. Good people have “good” belief systems, which means avoiding sad views like naturalism and traditional beliefs like conservative Christianity, which are seen as close-minded.

I also wonder whether there’s some connection between religiosity of the individualized, eclectic, happy variety is associated with openness to experience. Many, if not most, religious people tend to be lower on openness to experience, but that’s associated more with traditional religious belief.

In any case, I think there’s a real phenomenon that artists are inclined towards a certain kind of supernaturalism, at least moreso than the average person. And I’m curious as to what’s going on.