Friday, February 22, 2008

Secularism, wealth and religiosity

Is there a connection between religiosity and poverty? There is an excellent article in this month's Atlantic Monthly, pretty much focusing on the above graph. With a few notable exceptions, there definitely is a correlation between low religiosity and high GDP (based on the data from the Pew Global Attitudes Project). Does that translate into causation? Alan Wolfe certainly thinks so and he also believes that overall, secular values are going to be the dominant force. He is careful in not saying that religion itself is going to go away - but that certain secular values will become dominant:
Yet breathless warnings about rising religious fervor and conflicts to come ignore two basic facts. First, many areas of the world are experiencing a decline in religious belief and practice. Second, where religions are flourishing, they are also generally evolving—very often in ways that allow them to fit more easily into secular societies, and that weaken them as politically disruptive forces. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal once famously showed that it would be irrational to bet against the existence of God. It would be equally foolish, in the long run, to bet against the power of the Enlightenment. The answer to the question of which religion will dominate the future, at least politically, may well be: None of the above.
In this article he analyzes all of the different regions and finds that Africa is the only place where the predictions of religious conflict may turn out to be true:
We are left, finally, with Africa. Religiosity there is widely regarded as high, perhaps higher than in the Middle East, but it differs in character. It is in Africa where the predictions of an old-fashioned, broad-based religious revival, with all its attendant conflicts, may come closest to the mark. Much of the commentary on religion’s muscle in Africa, and the consequent potential for clashing civilizations, centers on Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country and one in which, Pew found, most of those who perceive a struggle between modernizers and fundamentalists put themselves in the latter camp. In recent years, 12 states in northern Nigeria have adopted sharia, or Islamic law, and created special morality police to enforce its tenets. Eliza Griswold explores Africa’s religious revival, and in particular the subtleties of the contest between Christianity and Islam in Nigeria, elsewhere in this issue. Here, suffice it to say that Africa is indeed in the throes of a great awakening.
But his most interesting comments are about the obvious outlier in the graph - the US (yes, fine, Kuwait is also an outlier...):
Americans are not only more religious than Europeans; they are more religious than the citizens of some Latin American countries. If proof is needed that religion will remain a dominant force in history for a long time to come, the fact that the world’s most affluent society is also well up among the faithful would seem to provide it. When the president says that his decision to invade another country was influenced by a call from God, or when school boards decide to include creationism in their curriculum, it appears safe to conclude that Americans are not living in the world envisioned by Marx or Freud.

But one shouldn’t go overboard in describing American religiosity. For one thing, it is as shallow as it is broad: Americans know relatively little about the histories, the theological controversies, or even the sacred texts of their chosen faiths. Recent decades have seen the rise of the Christian right in the United States, but they have also witnessed the seemingly inexorable advance of secular ideals, such as personal choice and pluralism, that blossomed in the 1960s. Some signs indicate that the Christian right may be losing steam, or at least moderating, as a political force. Nonbelief, meanwhile, is increasing: not only are atheist manifestos selling in large numbers, but the percentage of those who express no religious preference to pollsters doubled between 1990 and 2001, to 15 percent.

Yes, Dawkins is smiling somewhere. But Wolfe's interesting claim is that the US has created a free religious marketplace and that is impacting religions worldwide. Basically, when religions have to compete with others, they have to modify to make themselves modern and appealing. While this may still lead to an increased devotion, it may also have a moderating influence on religions. Thus, it is religious pluralism that is making religions adapt to modern times:

Religious monopolies or near-monopolies, such as state-sponsored churches, generally throttle religious practice over time, especially as a country becomes wealthier; the European experience amply demonstrates this. Lacking any incentive to innovate, churches atrophy, and their congregations dwindle. But places with a free religious marketplace witness something very different: entrepreneurs of the spirit compete to save souls, honing their messages and modulating many of their beliefs so as to appeal to the consumer. With more options to choose from, more consumers find something they like, and the ranks of the religious grow.

And that is where the First Amendment comes into place, but more for the protection of religion from the government:

But secularism is not the opposite of belief; nonbelief is. Indeed, secularism has religious, specifically Christian, roots; it renders unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, while leaving to God what properly belongs in his realm. John Locke argued as much in A Letter Concerning Toleration, first published in 1689: genuine salvation, he wrote, can never be achieved through governmental coercion. In contemporary societies influenced by Lockean ideals, then, religion’s priority of belief and secularism’s commitment to individual rights are not in opposition; rather, they complement each other. It was once thought that the First Amendment was written to protect public life from the depredations of religious orthodoxy. It is now commonly accepted that the Founders also separated church and state in order to protect religion from government.

Even in non-secular societies, globalization and broad internet access is providing exposure to other religions and cultures. While it produces a reactionary elements also, Wolfe believes that overall it will have a moderating influence, and I think he is right. Towards the end of the article he makes an important distinction between religious intensity and fanaticism:
The world will never be rid of fanaticism; globalization is just as capable of disseminating extreme ideas as it is of advancing moderation. But fanaticism should not be confused with religious intensity. One can pray passionately to God and lead an otherwise balanced life, just as one can be monomaniacal about things having nothing to do with the divine.
And hopefully he is right about the increasing influence of secularism:
We have seen how rapidly religion has spread in the past, claiming adherents from competing faiths before the competition knew what hit them. Both secularism and secularly inspired ways of being religious are spreading just as rapidly—maybe even more so. Historians may one day look back on the next few decades, not as yet another era when religious conflicts enveloped countries and blew apart established societies, but as the era when secularization took over the world.
While one can nitpick over details, overall though, this is an excellent article with some bold and interesting claims. Read the full article here.


Matthew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew said...

There is an interesting anticorrelation between religiosity and GDP, but what about other social indicators like religiosity versus life satisfaction and mental health and wellbeing? I suspect things like life span and physical health correlate with GDP, but happiness doesn't necessarily. GDP is a good indicator of the relative health of a nation's net economic output, but I think a poor indicator of happiness.

I thought it was interesting that the article suggested religiosity was higher in America because we are essentially a "free market" for religious thought, moreso than other parts of the world.

Edited from my previous post:

Last point: the article mentions briefly Eastern Europe, but they really do not follow the same trend, nor would I expect them to. The lack of religiosity there is more likely a consequence of state-mandated suppression of religion for more than one generation, and their comparatively low GDPs are also due to poor past economic policies and lack of competitiveness in world trade. Unfortunately, in those countries, religious fervor is being replaced with nationalism and/or racism which do not seem to be moderating.

Salman Hameed said...

Oh yes, happiness makes it more complicated. Here is a short piece by Michael Nelson that talks about the religion-happiness correlation and its possible reasons. But then Wolfe's article is more about the moderating influences on religion.

Which makes your comment about Eastern Europe really interesting. Wolfe doesn't really address nationalism as an equal replacement for religion. But, won't globalization and dependence on world market also moderate nationalism? So for example, it is getting exceedingly difficult for countries to go on their on (even if they are unhappy about the major economic players). At least, they have to form on alliance with some major player (for example how Iran, Russia, China have been operating). Does this sufficiently moderate nationalism? Don't know.

Matthew said...

There was a story on the BBC's Reporting Religion this morning about the return of the Russian Orthodox Church following the fall of Communism, and they made the interesting point (which contradicts my post) that over the past ten years membership in the Church has gone from something people belonged to either out of post-communist political expediency or just out of a reaction to being free of Soviet ideology, to something more deep seated and genuine. Those who belong to the Orthodox church are increasingly there because they believe in it and want to be there.

But I still think nationalism has always been part of the Russian identity, and there's an "Us versus Them" mentality in their culture that was there before, during, and after communism. (And given their history, some of it is justified.)

I don't know if economic globalization necessarily moderates political nationalism, particularly for countries where the economies are controlled by relatively few people, and where the press is subject to state control (official or not). Both China and Russia are hugely important to the global economy now, but nationalist sentiment in both is very high.

I expect Russia to become much more involved in the world political stage in the coming years, though whether it wants to become a global, Soviet-style military power again remains to be seen. China may or may not, though I don't think they have as much desire for global political influence as they do for economic gain.

Anonymous said...

European religions will restructure and make a comeback, at least among this chunk. Unlike in times past, I doubt if this segment will have the social status to pressure many others to go along, but it would still represent a fundamental shift in the European intellectual climate. This development would probably happen immediately, if not for the European fear of becoming too much like the United States. In any case the identity of reasonableness is not a sustainable time for so many people in the long run; it doesn't demand enough from its adherents. Hume wrote of cycles between monotheism and polytheism, had he lived later he could have tossed secularism into that mix.
john edwin

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