Economy, Anxiety, and God

In this installment of The Browser’s “Five Books” series, Anthony Gottlieb recommends several good books on God in particular and religion in general. If you don’t have the time or energy to read these books, Gottlieb’s sage glosses on them should suffice. The part I found most interesting was his discussion of the secularization thesis and comparison of Scandinavia (not religious) to America (religious). According to Gottlieb and others, Scandinavians don’t have any need for religion (and aren’t even interested in it as a theoretical issue) because they enjoy such a robust social safety-net enabled by government and prosperity. Americans, by contrast, have great need of religion because its wealth is so unevenly distributed and weirdly deployed that it doesn’t bring existential security:

America is a very modern, economically developed country, yet its level of religiosity is much more like an undeveloped country. All the other rich countries in the world—not just the European ones, but all of them—are significantly less religious than America. The extreme contrast is with Scandinavia, the others tend to be somewhere between the two, but the difficulty for the secularisation thesis has always been America.

What [these authors] propose is that religion declines not simply because of economic development, but when that economic development brings with it the security that you would expect it to bring, which they call “existential security.” Now what they argue is that America is much more like a poor country than a rich one in that many of its citizens do not enjoy this security. Take life expectancy, which is the most basic measure of social welfare. Now, if you were to rank the countries of the world by life expectancy, with the longest lived at the top, where roughly would you expect America to be?

[I]t is not in the top ten. It’s not in the top 20 or 30 or 40. It’s number 43. And the biggest single reason for that is that tens of millions of Americans cannot afford health care, though there are other factors too.

Now amongst the other relevant differences between America and the rest of the developed world is the fact that you’re much more likely to die through violence in America or to die in a natural disaster. And if you lose your job—and there’s a higher turn-over or “churn” in jobs than in many other places—then much worse things are going to happen to you, because there’s much less of a supporting welfare state than exists in Western Europe and elsewhere.

So to cut a long story short, life here in America is, for an awful lot of people, very much more worrying than it is for people in other rich countries— intractable fate seems to play a bigger role—and that affects the culture and climate of opinion.

In America, you need God [and the social safety net provided by churches], because nobody else is going to help you. 

[I]f you take this research into account, the relative lack of existential security here, you begin to understand how the secularisation thesis in general is correct: that countries do tend to become less religious as they become more economically successful and developed. And America is an exception because a lot of what usually comes with economic development hasn’t come in America.

This is a provocative thesis backed up by several different lines of data and analysis. While Gottlieb notes that this is not the sole explanation for American religiosity (history plays a role, along with expansionist “exceptionalism”), it’s surely an important factor.

The fear levels in this country are substantial and aren’t limited to economic insecurities. I never cease to be amazed by the mostly imaginary things that are used to stoke fear and ratchet up anxiety levels. If it isn’t crisis in the home, it’s crisis in the community. If it’s not crisis in the community, it’s crisis in the country. If it’s not crisis in the country, it’s crisis coming from abroad. All these layers are permeated with and paralleled by supernatural crises ranging from moral decay to the coming apocalypse.

This imaginary hell on earth makes America the nation of overactive amygdalas. It’s a perfect environment not only for religion but also for politics. I find the theologies of both equally distasteful.

Though I can’t share Gottlieb’s naive belief that economic development will deliver security to ever increasing numbers of people who consequently will become secular, I can recommend that you read his piece. He’s a keen observer and good teacher.


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9 thoughts on “Economy, Anxiety, and God

  1. Troy

    I get how the secularization thesis would help explain the dynamics of religious belief in the coastal urban areas in the US, but how exactly does it attempt to account for the strong religious presence, even and especially among the financially secure in the south? It seems to me to be much more about power and white privilege than personal security, but perhaps there’s a theoretical synthesis.

  2. Cris Post author

    It is indeed also about power and privilege, which I alluded to by mentioning “expansionist exceptionalism” (i.e., the enormous sums of money devoted to “defense” or empire and “security,” which disproportionately benefit certain segments of society.

    It’s ironic that those same segments are also the most vehement and vocal opponents of “socialism,” yet they are more often than not the beneficiaries of the national defense and security complex, which is socialism (for the few) at its finest.

    For those who have defense-security related jobs (both military and civilian), they are comfortably in the womb of the “homeland” and don’t suffer from existential anxiety. Their religiosity is probably best explained as a combination of history, power, and privilege. So long as we are in a constant state of crisis, fear, and war, they have secure jobs, incredible benefits, life-time health care that costs almost nothing, and secure pensions that the majority can only dream about. Ideological-religious zeal sustains the never-ending “mission.”

    There is also a powerful historical legacy of religiosity in the US (and especially the south), which is something that these authors mention.

  3. Cris Post author

    I’ve never heard anyone make this argument, which doesn’t mean it isn’t possible but it seems unlikely. Canadians aren’t particularly well known for their religiosity are they? I’ve always thought our northern neighbors were more sensible.

    In thinking out loud, I’m not sure how immigration would have this effect, especially given that immigration occurs over such long periods of time and involves so many different groups of people, with all kinds of different ideas and forms or worship.

    The US has, however, built up a powerful national founding myth that is distinctly religious, sacred, and theological. This myth has always played well with more traditional religiosity in the US. Thus, the continuing influence of “history.”

  4. Juggernaut Nihilism

    The thesis fits the stereotype, but not the data, of religious participation in the United States. As Charles Murray’s recent book Coming Apart makes very clear, despite the cliche of the poor rural redneck or inner city black grandmother clinging to their faith as the rest of the world moves on, church attendance and self-reported levels of religious belief and participation have collapsed among the lower classes, while they have stabilized at a much higher level among the upper middle class.

    The economic theory smacks of simplistic reductionism, although the underlying idea of religion as response and defense against anxiety in general is probably sound.

    Great blog, btw. I just found it and I’ve been reading old posts for the last few days. Keep up the great work.

  5. Cris Post author

    I haven’t read Murray’s book — are you aware of any good reviews that might suffice as a substitute for reading it?

    Glad you found the blog. There are over 700 posts here done over the past 3 years, so make liberal use of the “search” box. I’m often surprised by what people are finding and reading here — I forget I’ve even posted on various things and when I read the old posts, I ask: “Did I write that?”

  6. Juggernaut Nihilism

    I’m not bothering to use the search function. I spent an hour last night starting from the beginning and copy/pasting every post into one long Word document and printing it out. I started working my way through it over coffee this morning.

    I always feel guilty when I come across something this spectacular. You have spent years wrenching these insights out of the world, and I get to just come along and benefit from them in one day. It doesn’t seem fair, but it motivates me to do my best to add to the dialogue and give something back.

    As far as Murray’s book, I’m not aware of any in depth reviews, but the premise and material pretty simple (and gets repetitive and predictable by the second half, since the data fits the patterns laid down at the beginning). He profiles trends in sociological trends “white America” from 1960-2010, using white America specifically to control for variables such as a legacy of discrimination or recent immigration when he documents declines or increases in certain behaviors. It draws a lot on work like Putnam’s Bowling Alone.

    Anyway, without getting into details or theories of how or why, one of the trends he shows quite clearly is that, while religiosity and church attendance have declined among all social classes since 1960, it has completely cratered among the lower-middle and lower classes, while it stabilized among the upper-middle class around the 80’s and has remained relatively stable since (continuing a downward trend, but a crawl compared to the nosedive among the lower classes). Religiosity and attendance among the upper-middle class is not only declining at a much slower rate, but is much higher in absolute terms as well.

    Most of the book is not shocking; it merely documents what anyone who looks out the window knows about declining social capital and increasing malaise among America’s lower classes. The surprise, perhaps, was the consistency and scale of the divergence between upper and lower classes defined by controlling for only a very few factors. Of course, it’s not surprising when you consider things like the more efficient ability of the university system, relative to half a century ago, to fish out high-potential members of the lower classes and provide them a path to a higher state, and the resulting dessication this affects on the neighborhoods whose best children are no longer stuck in place.

  7. Juggernaut nihilism

    Why is it that every time I hit “Send” on a post without going back and reading over it first, it comes out like English is my fourth language?

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