26 June 2007

Why Americans are More Religious than Europeans

Ross Douthat writes in the latest issue of The Atlantic
Nothing divides the United States from Europe like religion. America has its public piety and its multitude of thriving sects, Europe has its official secularism and its empty, museum-piece churches. Ninety percent of Americans say they believe in God, while only about 60 percent of Britons, French, and Germans say the same. American politics is riven by faith-based disputes that barely exist across the Atlantic, while European debates take place under a canopy of unbelief that’s unimaginable in the United States, where polls show that a Muslim or a homosexual has a better chance of being elected president than an acknowledged atheist.

Americans don't just say that religion is important. We head off to church with greater regularity than our peers in other developed nations, as reported here:

Fully 44 percent of Americans attend church once a week, not counting funerals, christenings and baptisms, compared with 27 percent of people in Great Britain, 21 percent of the French, 4 percent of Swedes and 3 percent of Japanese.
Moreover, 53 percent of Americans say that religion is very important in their lives, compared with 16 percent, 14 percent, and 13 percent, respectively, of the British, French and Germans.

Among the variety of reasons for this, I would put entrepreneurship at the top of the list. I've previously argued that an entrepreneur is someone who establishes a new organization in order to institutionalize a solution to a need or want, and / or to realize a personal vision. By this definition, Martin Luther was an entrepreneur, as was Joseph Smith and John Wesley.

Beliefs, like taste in shoes, come in a variety of shapes and sizes. In Europe, if your particular beliefs don't fit, you're unlikely to translate your belief into religious practice. Within a generation or two, your children and grandchildren are unlikely even to express a spiritual belief. In America, by contrast, a religious entrepreneur is more likely to create a religion that matches your own belief. Supported by a religious practice, your spiritual belief is more likely to be passed on to later generations.

At Adherents.com, they have listed "distinct religious movements and their countries of origin." India and England are near the top of the list, each with six (e.g., Anglicanism, Quakers, Hinduism, and Buddhism). At the top of the list? The U.S., with 11! (e.g., Latter Day Saints, Southern Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Black Muslims, and Scientologists).

If pop music selections were limited to just 50 Cent and George Strait, many people might conclude that they don't really like music. But with today's wealth of musical choices, it is the rare person who can't find something to enjoy. The more diversity we have in music, the higher the percentage of music lovers. I'd argue that the same holds in religion.

In the United States, we've done more to translate our religious dissatisfaction into new religions. I would argue that this, as much as anything, contributes to a higher percentage of the population practicing religion and expressing a belief in God.


Anonymous said...

I heard church bells ringing on Sunday Morning for the first time in so long, Ron, and I tell you my heart felt at peace. Because of the associations I have with that sound. All the difference and deference are separate from that feeling of peace in my heart for the bell's toll in the quiet of morning.

Life Hiker said...

Yes, Americans have been very creative in their religious activities. I live only a few miles from where Joseph Smith got his tablets and was visited by the angel Moroni, for example.

But European religions have, for two millenia, been tightly tied to government. German princes, for example, got to choose whether their little kingdoms were to be exclusively Roman Catholic or protestant, and Henry VIII invented the Anglican church.

When government and religion get too intertwined, the assumed religious connection to God is politicized and soon distrusted.

So, American individualists were creative and European governments were intrusive. We went up, they went down.

tom sheepandgoats said...

I agree with Life Hiker and would extend his argument a little.

Two World Wars have ravaged the continent, both fought almost entirely among nations which claimed to be Christian. The U.S. paid a heavy toll in WWI & II, but nothing like that the Europeans paid.

No wonder they're sick of it.