Religiosity in the US

In a previous post, I mentioned that most of the developed countries have seen religion as a thing of the past.  Most aren’t even religious.  The exception is the United States.  Out of all developed countries, we still have deep religious attitudes.  I’ve been thinking why this is and I have three possible hypotheses:

  1. We’ve never Experienced an Atrocity of Evil.  In places like Europe and Asia, they have witnessed evils firsthand: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, the Holocaust, the Atom Bomb, and the most gruesome wars in the 20th century.  Many Jews have given up their faith in God because of the Holocaust.  It was the idea of how could God allow this much evil?  This evil seems to be “overdoing” it.  The idea of the problem of evil was no longer abstract, but a real thing in their lives.  The United States, however, is isolated in the world.  We’re not physically connected to Europe or Asia and so we don’t witness these evils firsthand, but only hear about them.  Yes, we are at war, but the war is “over there” and so we don’t experience it directly.  Now, I could imagine you saying, “but Shaun, we did witness an evil firsthand.  What about 9/11?”  True, that was an evil.  But that was still isolated.  It was something that still happened “over there” in a sense.  We’ve never had a sense of someone invading our country and the war lasts for years.  Imagine a tank going in front of your house on the streets as they try to defend themselves from a battalion in your own neighborhood.  We’ve never experienced that whereas most of the world has.  The hard presence of evil does shake up your faith and if you still believe, there’s always a sense of doubt that mainly takes over.  This is probably why Europe (which has gone through many wars in the past century, and the battlefield was on their turf) doesn’t have much of a religious affinity as we do.  Indeed, they never let religion come into politics.  It would be seen as atrocious or ridiculous.  However, there are exceptions.  What about Canada?  They are isolated as us, perhaps even more isolated.  Yet their religiosity is about the same as Europe.  What makes them the exception?  Good question.
  2. The Marxist Explanation. Our country has something that most countries don’t have: capitalism at its finest and a true free market.  Now in this day and age, a true free market seems impossible, but we spout out that our goal is to have the freest market in the world.  Let’s go back to what Marx had to say about ideologies.  For Marx, the substructure gives birth to the superstructure.  The substructure consists of the economy and the superstructure consists of ideas, morality and religion.  Thus, the reason why we have these certain beliefs is because of the economy.  An example: 200 years ago, our economy was based on slavery.  Now was slavery a good thing?  Damn straight.  Marx would say that our morality is not based on reason or happiness, but on the economy.  As soon as slavery became an economic burden, there was no need for slavery and our morality changed because of it.  But that new moral standing came about because of the economy.  Now as I said before, our economy seems to be different (or at least we spout them to be different) than any other nation.  So maybe our economy is structuring our beliefs into a more religious sense than most other nations.  So we lean more towards a freer market which makes us more religious.  Other nations don’t have a much freer market as we do and that economy gives birth to having a less religious affinity.  But here’s a question: how does a freer market give birth to higher religiosity?  How does a less freer market make people less religious?  We can’t just simply say that if there’s no free market, then we’ll be a nation of atheists.  In Feudal times, there was no free market, yet they were much more religious than we are today.  So if this hypothesis is correct, we have to explain how a free markets gives birth to a degree of religiosity.
  3. We’re a Pragmatic Nation. For better or for worse, America has a deep pragmatic tradition that we can see from people like William James and John Dewey.  It’s the notion that we’ll believe whatever works for us.  There are many pluralistic things we can hold.  For example, we believe in a free market and being highly religious because it works for us.  It’s an independent thought process that emboldens us to act based on what we believe.  Now, we don’t necessarily have to follow the evidence, the belief brings about the evidence as we take that risk in that belief.  For example, people don’t realize the inconsistency there is in the abortion debate.  I think this is because most people don’t like the consequences of that belief, so they hold on to the inconsistency because there is a greater pragmatic consequence (or what James calls “cash value”) on holding onto the traditional beliefs about abortion, in this example.  Now the same could be said about religiosity and a free market.  I’m guessing most Americans can’t face the “death of God” whereas Europe can.  Most Americans don’t want the market to become less free.  There isn’t much benefit with that belief.  So they hold onto the belief that a free market is better because that truth gives more meaning to American’s lives.  Of course, they don’t ignore evidence (at least I hope they don’t), but with pragmatism, you start with a belief (after all, where else can you start?) and the evidence comes in.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
This entry was posted in Capitalism, Culture, Marx, Paper Topic, Pragmatism, Religion, Socialism. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Religiosity in the US

  1. Kevin says:

    Americans don’t treat their religion with the severity as other countries. Even the most devout members of any religion in America still pick and choose their beliefs and practices. Tons of Mormons drink green tea. Catholics only go to church on easter and christmas. Muslims are too busy to stop for prayer. We’re a nation based in hypocrisy. We preach peace while invading countries. We complain about high costs of health care while shoving 5,000 calories a bite in our face. Why wouldn’t we call ourselves religious while never truly practicing it? It’s what we do best. If most people in the country actually took the time to meditate on their beliefs we’d see a shift in our countries opinion toward religion.

    • shaunmiller says:

      I agree that many Americans don’t take their religion seriously. The question is why though. It seems that other countries look at religion and see if it’s compatible with the rest of their Weltanschauung. Americans can have it both ways. Based on your answer, I’m thinking that you’re leaning towards number three?

      • Kevin says:

        I don’t think most Americans even know what pragmatic means. What I’m saying is just because people say that they’re religious doesn’t mean that they are. It’s not fair to call somebody pragmatic just because they do one thing and say another. There’s no consideration of pros and cons, there’s just blatant ignorance and a blind devotion to something most members don’t even believe if you really drill them on. Hypocrisy is not pragmatism.

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