Sunday, November 21, 2004

Eduardo Porter on wealth, religion, and America

Today's Times Week in Review has an article by Eduardo Porter on the relative prevalence of religion in America, vs. other wealthy industrial democracies. Porter questions the standard assumption that religiosity decreases as prosperity increases:

In economic terms, demand for religion drops as its perceived benefits diminish compared with the cost of participating. Or, as stated by the famed anthropologist Anthony Wallace in the 1960's: "The evolutionary future of religion is extinction."

The industrial democracies in Asia and Europe seem to bear this out. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project two years ago, only 20 percent of Germans, 12 percent of Japanese and 11 percent of the French say religion plays a very important role in their lives. In a 1991 multinational survey, a quarter of all Dutch said they were atheists.

"If you take the United Nations' Human Development Index and look at the top 20 countries, 19 of those are very secular," said David Voas, a demographer and sociologist of religion at the University of Manchester in England.

But this line of analysis cannot account for the most modern and rich country of them all. According to the Pew survey, 60 percent of Americans said religion had a very important role in their lives; 48 percent believed that the United States has a special protection from God; 54 percent said they had an "unfavorable" view of atheists.

The article goes on to quote some sociologists who are concocting "supply-side" theories of religious devotion:

That is, Americans are more churchgoing and pious than Germans or Canadians because the United States has the most open religious market, with dozens of religious denominations competing vigorously to offer their flavor of salvation, becoming extremely responsive to the needs of their parishes.

"There's a lack of regulation restricting churches, so in this freer market there is a larger supply," said Mr. Finke.

The suppliers of religion then try to stoke demand. "The potential demand for religion has to be activated," said Rodney Stark, a sociologist at Baylor University. "The more members of the clergy that are out there working to expand their congregations the more people will go to church."

Mr. Finke notes that this free-market theory also fits well with the explosion of religion across Latin America, where the weakening of the longstanding Catholic monopoly has led to all sorts of evangelical Christian churches and to an overall increase of religious expression.

The supply-siders say their model even explains secular Europe. Europeans, they argue, are fundamentally just as religious as Americans, with similar metaphysical concerns, but they suffer from a uncompetitive market - lazy, quasi-monopolistic churches that have been protected from competition by the state. "Wherever you've got a state church, you have empty churches," Mr. Stark said.

The free-market argument is not absolutely watertight, however. Islamic states, for instance, have very strong quasi-state churches and high religious participation. And some European sociologists argue that there is much more religious competition in Europe than the supply-siders acknowledge.

And in the United States, the most religious states and counties are those most dominated by a single denomination -Mormon, Baptist or Pentecostal- not those where there is most competition, Mr. Voas said.

But Porter never asks the obvious question. Forget all these fancy-ass hypotheses about "supply-side religion" and "competition among denominations". The alleged anomaly of America's combination of religiosity and prosperity can easily be explained by something much simpler. Unlike the other prosperous industrialized democracies, America is both a wealthy nation in aggregate and home to massive income inequality, widespread poverty, economic insecurity, and a relatively weakly state-subsidized higher education system. The bottom quintile of the American population lacks adequate housing, health care, and access to education. America's religiosity parallels that of Latin American nations and Islamic theocracies because, as with those nations, there are lots of poor people. Conservative Christianity may be strongest in America in regions dominated by single church denominations, but it probably correlates even more strongly with regions where there are lots of poor people.

This alternative explanation seems blindingly obvious to me. It's parsimonious, and it explains available data points well, including data points that are anomalous under the "supply-side" model. That doesn't mean it's right, of course. Perhaps the "supply-side" model advocates have a good rebuttal, but we never find out from the article. It seems to me that a reporter writing about the effect of economics on religion ought to (1) be familiar with basic economic facts (like, say, that American poor live qualitatively worse lives than the poor in other developed nations), (2) think critically, and (3) ask the obvious probing questions. But for Porter, America is "the most modern and rich country of them all", and that's enough.

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