I saw the movie ‘Machine Gun Preacher’ once again and was reminded of our discussion on ‘Why America is so religious’ especially compared to Europe.

The article shows that the difference between America and Europe is not as much as what I thought. The difference seems more than it is partly because of the highly vocal radical right fundamentalist wing which tends to form our image of religion in America. The sources below further reveal that gap in percentage of people practicing religion in America versus Europe is not as large as I might have thought and, further, that if we consider sub-populations—e.g. educated white or Catholic Latino—the differences are quite small. What is more, among those who are religious the attitudes in America (except the radical right) is more liberal in its attitudes to ‘faith’ and more tolerant to other faiths.

The article makes some suggestions why America is more religious than Europe. I’ve combined its suggestions with some further thoughts (for brevity will I state them as facts even when hypothesis is involved). It’s reasonable to think that the reasons for religiosity are the result of more than one factor, especially since neither America nor Europe are homogeneous though America is perhaps more varied with regard to the role of religion in the lives of people.

The factors

  1. Many European nations have a state religion (some have more than one); some receive state funds. This minimizes startup religious groups. America has no official state religion and there is no state funding of religion. There is therefore competition for adherents and money. Therefore more variety. Therefore more likelihood that an individual will find something that suits their orientation. Therefore, generally, less resentment to religion.
  2. America is more mobile. In a new place, a church is a way to society.
  3. There are in fact segments of America (north, white, and city) where the trend matches that of Europe. On the other hand, Blacks and Hispanics are more religious. In the South religion is seen as a way of preserving a way of life.
  4. Even educated attitudes in America to science (and therefore to secularism) are more pragmatic than in Europe. Therefore less tendency to accept secularism as world view / science as basis for world view. Therefore more openness to the idea that science, though powerful and valid in its proper domain, is incomplete as basis of world view (and may, as I have observed, be massively incomplete: for it is only the intuition based on the secular view that suggests that the secular view is near complete). Therefore more openness to something else. Plus greater tendency to accept religion as that something else especially because, though there is dogmatism, much religion in America is non dogmatic, tolerant, acceptable. The site finds Americans to be very tolerant of other peoples religions (generally; attitudes to Islam and Mormonism are not so tolerant). Interestingly, Hindus in America are most tolerant of other religions. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons are least tolerant. But these represent small percentages. Mainline protestant, Catholics, and those of Orthodox and Jewish faith are all around 80% in tolerance (Evangelical protestant, which includes militant right wing political Christianity is less tolerant and tolerance is around 50%; we may characterize this group as intolerant and bigoted and while this is not untrue it is not general—the bigotry is there but it is also what is reported and therefore what we see more). Also, related, though there is—again—dogmatism, American religions and their adherents are generally very open to the idea that there is ‘more than one way of interpreting my faith’. Therefore, religion less oppressive in America (there is very vocal and therefore visible oppressiveness but this is far from universal).
  5. In some parts of America religion is oppressive and people are pressured into church attendance.
  6. Tradition of intellect less strong in America. This possible factor is not distinct from some of the above.
  7. The origin of America. Many came to find religious freedom (New England: hence flourishing of liberal religion in New England). (Others came to find fortune: the plantations of Virginia—one explanation of the roots of the North / South divide).
  8. America not subject to the brutal wars of Europe. These wars may have been one reason for loss of faith.
  9. Europe has far greater social welfare. Therefore less psychological need for God
  10. These are all possible ‘factors’. However, they reveal that the practice and even nature of religion in America is different than that of Europe. So any equation of the meanings of religion to Americans and to Europeans is only approximate. The meaning of ‘America is more religious than Europe’ therefore does not have quite the strength of meaning that the statistics seem to imply.
  11. I am quite glad I undertook this little study. I have been feeling oppressed by the visible vocal minority thinking it to be representative but have now found that this is not at all representative and that ‘my America’ is lovely. Still, the vocal minority is immensely influential and this is a threat to ‘my America’ and needs to be addressed and fought against.