The persistence of Americans’ beliefs in God has long been a puzzle to social scientists. Why have beliefs dwindled in most European nations, while belief in God has remained strong here?
In other words, why has America bucked the secularization trend?
Social scientists don’t like anomalies and have worked hard to come up with a good explanation. Trouble is, most of these explanations work well in theory but aren’t supported by the data.
Today, let’s consider 3 theories …
Theory 1: Religious Marketplace Theory.
The basic idea is that there is a constant demand for religion, but it’s the supply that determines strength and prevalence of religious beliefs. Churches compete for members, and vigorous competition tailors the “product” for religious “consumers.” Any theory that has “markets” in it sounds good for the American context. But evidence for the supply-side theory of religion is, as we euphemistically put it, mixed.
Theory 2: Existential Insecurity Theory. Others have proposed that existential insecurity explains religious beliefs, in other words: When one’s day-to-day existence is uncertain, beliefs in God and a better afterlife look pretty good. Indeed, religious beliefs tend to be stronger and more prevalent in poor and insecure nations. But America isn’t one of them, right? Well, political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris point out that many Americans actually do suffer existential insecurity. Economic inequality is high in America, and even those with good jobs can’t be certain they’ll keep them. Does the evidence support their theory? It does, to a degree. Poorer Americans are more likely to pray and to believe in God, compared to richer Americans. But this doesn’t explain why so many well-off Americans believe in God.
Theory 3: My Theory of Reinforcing Traditional Values. My explanation of America’s continuing intensity of religious belief differs from the first two. I’ve described this in detail in my book America’s Crisis of Values—and at the risk of oversimplification here—the gist of my explanation is this: Belief in God is one of a constellation of mutually reinforcing traditional values that are central to American culture. These traditional values include beliefs in God, country, and family and have remained stable over time. Other nations are “birthright nations” where cultural membership is a matter of common ancestry, language, customs, and so forth. Here, cultural membership is an ideological commitment to a set of American values and ideals.
Does any of these theories ring true to you?
Why do you think Americans have retained their beliefs in God?
Will beliefs remain strong or fade in the future?
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Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an experiment in civil dialogue about American values.