My TAM interview, part 2, and a book on secularization

December 19, 2013 • 2:07 pm

Here’s the second of three installments of my interview at TAM with Joel Guttormson of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

In this short clip I raise my favorite thesis, which a while I thought was largely mine, but have discovered that it’s been a going hypothesis in sociology for a long time. I just finished reading this book:


Although it was published in 2004, it’s the most detailed and data-rich analysis of secularization I’ve seen. The authors deal with many aspects of how and why the world is losing its faith, and come to several conclusions I find interesting. The first is their main conclusion, derived from surveys of 76 countries (pp. 4-5):

We believe that the importance of religiosity persists most strongly among vulnerable populations, especially those living in poorer nations, facing personal survival-threatening risks. We argue that feelings of vulnerability to physical, societal, and personal risks are a key factor driving religiosity and we demonstrate that the process of secularization – a systematic erosion of religious practices, values, and beliefs – has occurred most clearly among the most prosperous social sectors living in affluent and secure post-industrial nations.

They also argue, as I have, that the reason the U.S. is so religious—the most religious among “postindustrial” nations—is because our society has high levels of dysfunctionality: high income inequality, poor health care, high teenage pregnancies, high murder rates, and other factors that make people insecure (and, to my mind, turn to God).

It also means that if we want to get Americans to accept evolution, as I say repeatedly, we have to make them less religious.

Norris and Inglehart also consider a popular alternative to the hypothesis I just mentioned: the “religious markets” hypothesis. That one argues that the U.S. is hyper-religious because our “supply” of religions—the number of denominations available and on tap—is high, and religious participation increases with not only more religious pluralism, but also with less state regulation of religious institutions.  Their data militates against that hypothesis, though, because statistical analysis of “religious plurality” indices shows no correlation between plurality and religious participation. Countries that lack religious plurality, like Indonesia, El Salvador, Egypt, Brazil, and so on, in which more than 90% of believers adhere to one socially dominant religion, nevertheless have very high levels of religious participation.

The book contains many other analyses and conclusions, but I’ll give just one more.  Though the religiosity of industrial and postindustrial countries is waning (we saw the data for this in the U.S. this morning), the religiosity of the world as a whole may be increasing. That’s because countries that are more religious—in particular those that embrace Catholicism and Islam—are simply outbreeding more secular nations. In toto, then, at least in 2004, the total percentage of people in the world who are religious is increasing.  Those statistics may have changed in the last 9 years.

Now I’m not arguing that, as atheists, it’s futile for us to criticize religion.  Such criticism has clearly made converts. All I claim is that religion is like pesky dandelions on your lawn.  Snipping them off at ground level may temporarily get rid of their more obvious manifestations, but to permanently remove them you must kill the roots.

27 thoughts on “My TAM interview, part 2, and a book on secularization

  1. “… our society has high levels of dysfuncationality: high income inequality, poor health care, high teenage pregnancies, high murder rates, and other factors that make people insecure (and, to my mind, turn to God).”

    But if we do away with all this, then everybody will be happier and feel more secure! How will McDonalds and Walmart find enough people to work 80 hour weeks for slave wages?

    1. Walmart and McDonalds cap the hours of their slave-wage employees at 29.5 hours to avoid having to contribute to their health insurance…

  2. “All I claim is that religion is like pesky dandelions on your lawn. Snipping them off at ground level may temporarily get rid of their more obvious manifestations, but to permanently remove them you must kill the roots.”

    How long before someone claims, “Militant Darwinist Atheist Fundamentalist, Jerry Coyne, says we should kill all religious people!”


    1. I wouldn’t recommend glyphosate as a treatment for dandelions in your lawn though – unless you want to kill the grass too! 😉

      1. First, killing grass isn’t such a bad idea…but, if you must keep your lawn, glyphosate can be a very effective treatment for dandelions. You just have to target the dandelions themselves, which means painting on the glyphosate rather than spraying it. There’re even commercially-available applicators for it, but a tube / pipe / whatever about the length of your leg with a suitable sponge on the bottom, sealed in a way such that gravity keeps the sponge wet but not dripping, will do the trick very well.


  3. I am a bit more hopeful about the speed with which we may liberate ourselves from religion. A lot of our thinking is very linear, but we know that anything that proceeds at a finite rate can produce huge results in a short time due to compounding. I am thinking about Steve Pinker’s thesis that violence is on the decline. This is an independent source of hope for a more rationalistic society. So combining that, and similar trends, with a strong and objective defense of science may produce more than a simple summation of effects.

    1. As process improvement geek, my first instinct would be to attack that which is going to give you the biggest bang for your buck. It seems to me that taking the care of your population out of the hands of churches (as social welfare) and into the hands of government would be a good first step and would probably give you a big improvement. However, doing that in America isn’t easy since “socialism” has a bad name. I think the trend of getting closer to universal healthcare will make a big difference and if the government can pull this off and it sticks, this will be the big turning point. Seeing as this has started, I’m hoping the momentum continues.

      This whole income disparity seems to be taking hold in Canada as well and I suspect in other Western countries….that one is going to cause a lot of problems.

      I tend to think the buffet of religious choice theory is really a symptom of the true root cause – a large disenfranchised population. After all, this is who Christianity appealed to when it was just another mystery cult.

  4. Consider the tactics of the extreme Christians and Jews of the U.S. — excessive procreation and obsessive isolation from other religions. The Christians have that repulsive “Quiverfull” movement and the Jews are poking their finger in Hitler’s eye

  5. I’ve always thought of those two hypotheses as complementary.

    It indeed seems highly likely that increasing security etc is the main driver of secularisation, hence the huge difference between first and third world countries.

    However, conditioning on that, it still seems quite possible that there is a second order effect that the presence of multiple competing religions tends to increase religiosity.

  6. I am not sure if it is cause or effect but it seems to me that there is also a tendency for high levels of social conformity in more religious countries. Countries that are tolerant of different life styles and behaviours seem to also be the less religious countries. As a non American I have the impression that there is an awful lot of social pressure in the US to demonstrate religious faith in a public way. This is clearly so for politicians but I think also for people in general. I remember being with a group of foresters in SE Texas some years ago and when we stopped at a diner for lunch I was astonished that the boss asked one of his colleagues to say grace before we started to eat. It would be unthinkable in the UK that anyone would assume that everyone in a group at work would be believer or wish to engage in public prayer.

  7. I hear a lot of people who talk about the religious out breeding the non-religious. But things may not be as alarming as you might expect. I saw an interesting BBC documentary recently that stated the childbirth rate is actually dropping dramatically. Believe it or not, the global birthrate is now only 2.5 per couple. It’s astounding, but it’s true. The actual doc isn’t available anymore. But here’s an article about it (from the Torygraph):

    BTW Dr Hans Rosling is a legend. I recommend watching anything you can find from him on Youtube

  8. Remind me if I ever do an interview, to use paper notes, rather than a smart-phone or tablet. It looked like Joel was checking his messages during the interview.

  9. Have you seen Robert Leiter’s “Why Tolerate Religion?” I am quoting from the Amazon website: “This provocative book addresses one of the most enduring puzzles in political philosophy and constitutional theory–why is religion singled out for preferential treatment in both law and public discourse? Why, for example, can a religious soup kitchen get an exemption from zoning laws in order to expand its facilities to better serve the needy, while a secular soup kitchen with the same goal cannot? Why is a Sikh boy permitted to wear his ceremonial dagger to school while any other boy could be expelled for packing a knife? Why are religious obligations that conflict with the law accorded special toleration while other obligations of conscience are not?

    In Why Tolerate Religion?, Brian Leiter argues that the reasons have nothing to do with religion, and that Western democracies are wrong to single out religious liberty for special legal protections.”

  10. Perhaps the reason the Catholic Church bans contraception has less to do with Biblical teaching and more to do with making more Catholics.

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