Follow by Email

Monday, April 30, 2012

Why are Americans So Religious? (Part One)


            This article begins, like so many others before it, with an impressive set of statistics about Americans and their self-reported belief in God. This section is then followed with some typical philosophical navel-gazing about the nature of religion, and what makes an individual or a group “religious”. The decided difference between this article and many of those that have gone before it is that while I am fascinated by American religious history- I am neither a historian, nor a sociologist. I am, however, a student of the Bible, Christian ministry, and above all Protestant theology.
The answer I provide to the question “Why are Americans so religious?” is primarily a theological answer that draws on sociological, historical, and Biblical sources. My answer, like all good theological answers, begins with a question: “Are Americans so religious?”

Part One: Are Americans so religious?
So, “Are Americans so religious?” One of the difficulties I have had with the way this question is usually addressed has been the decidedly Euro-centric position we have taken. It seems that we have repeatedly attempted to compare religious behavior and belief in the United States to that in Western Europe, even though, according to the 2000 census only about nineteen percent of Americans are of Western European ancestry, with a total of only about sixty-one percent of the population claiming any European ancestry at all.[1] What happens if we ask this question and draw comparisons from Africa, Asia and Latin America? How does American religious behavior look in comparison?
Religion as belief
Most of these articles begin by taking some statistical data to compare rates of belief in God between America and Europe, taking self-professed belief in God to be a marker of whether or not someone is “religious”. In order to get a clearer picture of the “religious-ness” of Americans in this sense, belief in God among Americans will be compared with belief in God among all Europeans, and rates of belief in God among African Americans in particular (who account for almost ten percent of the population of the U.S.[2])- these will be compared to rates of belief among native Africans in order to determine if rates of belief in God are radically higher among Americans than among the peoples from whom they are descended. I perform this exercise using a May, 2007 poll performed by Gallup Inc., research data regarding belief in God among various populations compiled by Michael Martin, and a 2005 poll conducted by the European Commission on Public Opinion (Eurobarometer 225, “Social Values, Science & Technology) as points of comparison.
 According to a May, 2007 Gallup survey of over 1,000 people, ninety-two percent of Americans believe in God or some sort of higher power. Of those ninety-two percent, seventy-eight percent profess a belief in a God, and fourteen percent profess belief in a universal spirit.[3] At first blush this represents a staggeringly high degree of “religious-ness” in the United States[4]; working under the premise that “religious-ness” can be measured by an individual’s proclivity to self-report that they believe in a higher power of some kind.
The statistics for Europe as a whole are slightly lower than those in the United States, where belief in God is concerned. In Europe fifty-two percent of the population professes belief in God[5], twenty-six percent lower than belief in God in the U.S.  However, belief in a spirit is held by twenty-seven percent of the general population of Europe, compared with only fourteen percent of Americans. Taking both statistics into consideration, Americans are only about thirteen percent more religious than their European counterparts as a whole. Examined more closely, the people of Malta, Cyprus, Greece, Portugal, Poland, Italy, Ireland, Turkey, Romania, and Croatia have similar or higher rates of belief in God and/or a spirit than the citizenry of the U.S. In comparison to their European counterparts, and using belief in God or a spirit as the standard, approximately one third of Europe is just as if not more religious than America.
When comparing African American religiosity, (done here because belief rates among African Americans are higher than any other ethnic group in the United States) with rates of belief in God among native Africans; one sees that the rates of belief in God are surprisingly similar. Over ninety-five percent of native Africans surveyed claim to believe in a God[6]. In the United States, according to a recent study by the University of California, ninety-five percent of African Americans profess a belief in God as well.[7]
But, I have to say, there is a sort of ambiguity in using self reported belief as a measure of “religious-ness”. When the Harris poll group conducted a study of Americans religious beliefs they found a similar percentage reported belief in God when compared to the earlier Gallup survey. They also found, however, than when pushed for their relative certitude of the existence of God or a higher power that, “42 percent of all U.S. adults say they are not ‘absolutely certain’ there is a God”, and of that forty-two percent, over half believe there may not be or probably isn’t a God.[8] This leads one to wonder whether or not Americans are reporting that they find the notion of the existence of God to be plausible, or whether they are reporting about their heartfelt convictions.
Taking all of the aforementioned factors into consideration, and using self-reported belief in God as an indicator of “religious-ness”, Americans as a whole are only slightly more religious than their European counterparts (based on the Gallup data), with ten notable exceptions, and African Americans are no more or less religious than their native African counterparts. This means that if we accept the definition of religion forwarded by scholars like Jon Butler, who wish to speak about religiosity in terms of a belief in the supernatural, and if belief in God and the supernatural were the only factor taken into consideration it would be a bit of a stretch to claim that Americans are “so religious.”
Religion as Church Membership
            Belief in God or a higher power is only one way to define religion, however. Some scholars like Peter Eisenstadt and Patricia Bonomi speak about religious adherence in terms of those who attend church (who they have creatively called “the churched”).[9] So, let’s compare the percentage of America’s population that claims to attend a religious service at least once a week with attendance rates across Europe as a whole, and with certain European countries in particular in order to determine whether or not Americans are more religious than their European counterparts when religious service attendance is used as the determining factor in “religious-ness”.[10] As is the case before, the 2006 Harris Poll, 2007 Gallup Survey will be used to gather information about American religious belief and practice. The 2008 Eurobarometer and 2006 EurLIFE religious attendance survey will be used to provide data to contrast with the U.S. material.
            According to the 2006 Harris Poll, twenty-six percent of Americans claim to attend religious services once a week or more, with the majority of born-again Christians attending weekly, and nearly half of the nations Catholics and main-line Protestants claiming to be planted in their pews on a weekly basis[11].  Is it fair to call a nation where only one quarter of its population regularly attends religious services “so religious”? Well, perhaps… I suppose it would largely depend one’s basis for comparison, and with that in mind let us turn to Europe.
            According to EurLIFE, seventeen percent of all Europeans are in their places of worship once a week or more, about nine percent lower than statistics for America as a whole. Looking at attendance on a nation by nation basis, one finds that eleven nations belonging to the European Union have similar or higher rates of weekly participation. In Cyprus, twenty-two percent of the population attends weekly religious services. In Romania, twenty-three percent of the population attends weekly services. In Hungary and Italy about twenty-nine percent of the population attends weekly religious services. In Portugal that number is around thirty percent. In Turkey, thirty-two percent of the population attends weekly religious services.  In Slovakia, thirty-three percent of the population attends weekly services. In Ireland, fifty-six percent of the population can be found in their pews on a Sunday morning. In Poland that number is closer to sixty-three percent, and in Malta an astonishing seventy-one percent of the population attends church on at least a weekly basis.[12] Additionally, according to the Eurobarometer, as reported by Gallup, twenty-seven percent of the population of Greece attends worship at least once a week. This means that while the United States has a higher rate of attendance as a whole, there are eleven countries within the European Union that have similar or higher rates of participation (see Fig. 1). This would mean the United States would come in tenth out of twenty-six nations where church attendance is considered if compared to the nations that comprise the European Union on a nation by nation basis. While such a showing is admirable, it hardly makes Americans seem “so religious.”

Countries
2002
2003
2004
2006
AT
19
12
15

BE
11
8
9

BG

4


HR



24
CY

22


CZ
8
5
7

DK
3
4
5

EE

3
4

FI
5
5
5

FR

6
6

DE
9
8
10

EL
26
19
23

HU
11
8
12

IE
54
46
56

IT
32
29


LV

5


LT

11


LU
13
15
12

MT

71


NL
12
9
14

PL
57
53
63

PT
30
23
30

RO

23


SK

32
33

SI
20
17
17

ES
20
17
19

SE
5
4
4

TR

41
32

UK
13
13
14

CC-13

32


EU-15

14


EU-25

17


Abbreviations
  • Countries
AT : Austria
BE : Belgium
BG : Bulgaria
HR : Croatia
CY : Cyprus
CZ : Czech Republic
DK : Denmark
EE : Estonia
FI : Finland
FR : France
      
DE : Germany
EL : Greece
HU : Hungary
IE : Ireland
IT : Italy
LV : Latvia
LT : Lithuania
LU : Luxembourg
MT : Malta
NL : Netherlands
      
PL : Poland
PT : Portugal
RO : Romania
SK : Slovakia
SI : Slovenia
ES : Spain
SE : Sweden
TR : Turkey
UK : United Kingdom
CC-13 : 13 acceding/candidate countries (before May 2004)
EU-15 : 15 EU Member States (before May 2004)
EU-25 : 25 EU Member States (after May 2004)

(Figure 1: Weekly participation rates in religious services in the European Union by nation)[13]
            It would seem, then, that it is difficult to make the case that the people of the United States are dramatically more religious than their European counterparts when one takes into consideration either self-reported belief in God, or self-reported church attendance, rather the United States would seem to fit in well at the bottom of the top third of nations in the European Union in terms of “religious-ness”.
            As I noted before, I would suggest a different approach to our question “Why are Americans so religious?” One that draws upon a biblical definition of religion and looks for solid points of comparison with other nations that do not rely on self-reported behavior, and I hope to bring that piece to you tomorrow.


[4] Compare to the Harris Poll conducted in October of 2005 with a 2,000 person sample that found, ”that 42 percent of all U.S. adults say they are not ‘absolutely certain’ there is a God, including 15 percent who are ‘somewhat certain,’ 11 percent who think there is probably no God and 16 percent who are not sure.” http://www.harrisi.net/harris_poll/index.asp?PID=707, accessed 12/04/08.
[6] Martin, Michael ed. “The Cambridge Companion to Atheism” (New York, Cambridge University Press; 2007), 53-54.
[8] http://www.harrisinteractive.com/harris_poll/index.asp?PID=707, accessed 12/07/08. This is the October 2006 Harris Poll, as opposed to the October 2005 information referenced earlier.
[9] Bonomi, Patricia and Eisenstadt, Peter “Church Adherence in the Eighteenth Century British American Colonies,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser. 39/2 (April 1982):246-86.
[10] Unfortunately, the only data I have available is self-reported. This is troublesome as self-reported data tends to skew towards what the individual perceives to be the better behavior (for more on this topic see Stephen K. Moroney’s The Noetic Effects of Sin). This being the case, it is difficult to determine whether Americans and Europeans are over or under estimating their weekly attendance, as this could provide wildly varying data.

No comments:

Post a Comment