Linking secularization and wealth

Political scientist Ryan Burge summarizes part of the sociological conversation about secularization and wealth at a national level:

If you take a course in the sociology of religion at any college or university, the professor will inevitably spend some time on what is known as secularization theory. This theory posits that as societies become more economically prosperous and obtain higher levels of education, the inevitable result is a movement away from organized religion and toward secularization…

ReligionandWealth

The conclusion from this graph is clear: the more economic prosperity a nation enjoys, the fewer citizens of that country say that religion is very important. There are a few outliers, however. China is in the bottom left portion of the graph, which means that based on the country’s economic output it should be more religious than it currently is, with the same occurring in Hungary.

Obviously, both of those countries have a history that is closely associated with communism, which is the likely cause of their low levels of religiosity. On the other hand, the United States is clearly an outlier on this graph. It ranks as the most economically prosperous country in the dataset, but if it were going to be in the middle of the trend line, the overall level of religiosity should be very close to zero.

The takeaway lesson from teaching this in undergrad sociology classes is that the United States is unique in terms of religiosity. Then, the task of sociologists and other social scientists is to tease out why exactly this pattern holds for many industrialized countries and not others. Burge goes on to discuss one explanation from recent sociological research in the United States:

Taken together, the results from this sample tell a simple story: secularization is apparent for older generations of Americans, but for those born after 1950 there is no evidence that education leads to a decline in religious affiliation.

Of course, secularization is not just about wealth. As Norris and Inglehart argue, the more that governments or nations take on the role of providing existential security to residents, the less need residents have for religion.

Or, as a number of scholars have argued, the United States is an outlier for another reason: it has a unique religious market. Because of a lack of government involvement in state religion plus the protection for freedom of religion, religious groups have been free to compete. This competition leads to innovation and religious groups compete for attendees and resources.

 

Claim: US undergoing secularization, just at a slower pace

Two sociologists argue that the United States is not that unusual regarding secularization trends in the industrialized world:

Most research that compares American religion with religion elsewhere emphasizes the high levels of participation in the United States, and treats those high levels as strong evidence that America is exceptional.

If we look at the trends, though, it appears that the US isn’t a counter-example to the idea that modernization causes problems for religion. On the contrary, religious change in the United States is very similar to what we see elsewhere: long-term decline produced mainly by generational replacement.

This process operates slowly, and it can be counteracted in the short term by short-lived revivals, but it is very difficult to reverse…

Figure 2 – Attendance monthly or more often by decade of birth, United States, 1973-2014

Voas Fig 2

Chaves has been making this argument for a few years now.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. As they note at the end, the interesting question then to ask is why the United States has been slower to follow the secularization trend than other nations. This is not a small question and at least several suggestions have already been made by researchers including World Wars in Europe and the rise of the welfare state.
  2. Researchers are in a unique position if they argue any trend is inevitable. Voas and Chaves may be shown correct if religiosity continues to decline in new generations but it could be decades before the conclusive evidence arises. Additionally, societal patterns can change – even if such changes seem improbable at one time. If a researcher is correct in calling out a trend, they can appear prophetic but if they are wrong, their status may be diminished.

Berger on the religious pluralism of cities

Peter Berger describes some of his own experiences seeing religiosity break into city life and sums up with these thoughts:

Years later I took a course at the New School of Social Research under Albert Salomon entitled “Balzac as a Sociologist”. I sensed that Balzac’s novels conveyed the same experience of Paris, all its secrets hidden behind closed doors. What could be going on behind this particular door: a religious cult (Balzac was curious about esoteric cults), a great crime, an orgy, or a political conspiracy?  During my student days I roamed endlessly through New York; since I was already obsessed with religion (as a friend of mine once put it, rather pejoratively, “once a godder, always a godder”), I visited every sort of religious space—not only regular Christian churches and different synagogues, but any manner of what for me were esoterica: a brand-new Zen center, the Anthroposophical Society and its cultic offspring, the so-called Christian Community (where one could attend a quasi-Gnostic ceremony in 20th-century America), a Mormon church, Pentecostal storefronts in Puerto Rican East Harlem (about which I wrote my M.A. thesis, my hands “dirty with research”), and the Baha’i (about which faith I wrote my doctoral dissertation). I could go on. But enough. I will observe that mystery is always, minimally, akin to the core of religious experience which Rudolf Otto (in my opinion the greatest 20th-century scholar of religion) called the mysterium tremendum. Thus it should not be a surprise that cities have typically been places of religious innovation (Pentecostalism, the biggest religious explosion of our time, mainly flourishes in the intensely pluralistic mega-cities of the Global South).

While cities are often regarded as centers of secularization and financial markets, they often contain a remarkable amount of religious activity. Two books I have read recently attest to this. In How the Other Half Worships, sociologist and photographer Camilo José Vergara looks at a number of urban churches primarily through images with some explanation of the experiences had within the diverse church buildings. While Vergara roams far and wide in poorer neighborhoods, sociologist Katie Day examines the dozens of religious congregations along Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia in Faith on the Avenue: Religion on a City Street. Both books hint at the lively religious life of urban residents and organizations even as other aspects of cities receive much more attention from scholars.

Americans talk differently about faith online

Pew reports that religious faith is expressed differently online compared to offline:

But according to a new report from Pew, the way people talk about their faith online actually is different from how they talk about it in real life. In a nationally representative survey of more than 3,200 Americans, only 20 percent said they had “shared something about [their] religious faith on social networking websites/apps” in the past week. Twice as many said they had talked about faith in person within the same period.

Although people from different religious backgrounds reported different levels of what one might call faith-sharing, this relationship between on- and offline sharing was roughly the same across Christian denominations and the religiously unaffiliated: Twice as many people talked about their religious beliefs offline vs. online…

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this is that there’s hardly any variation among age groups: People younger and older than 50 were nearly equally likely to say they’d talked about their faith on social media within the last week. That’s remarkable for two reasons: In general, younger Americans are less religious than older Americans, and they’re also much heavier users of social media. Across two demographics who think about both faith and the Internet very differently, the mores of talking about God online seem to be similar.

This survey doesn’t say much what those mores are. But it does suggest that people like talking about their religious beliefs face-to-face more than they do online—or, perhaps, they’re more willing. Broadcasting your faith to all your Facebook friends is a very public act, and religion is a very personal thing; it may be that people feel more comfortable discussing God in communities that exist offline, like youth groups or book clubs. These spaces can feel much less vulnerable: It’s possible to know exactly who will hear you and maybe even have a sense of how they’ll respond. On Facebook or Twitter, that’s impossible.

Having conducted research in this area as well as having been online quite a bit in the last decade or so, I’m not surprised. I remember noticing this in the early days of Facebook. At that point, I believe certain information like your religion was more prominently featured on your profile. A number of my online friends – people of faith from a variety of institutional contexts and often with relatively high levels of education – tended to complicate their religious listing as if “Protestant” or “Christian” wasn’t individualized enough.

I don’t know that people are afraid of judgment when talking about faith online or through social media; we know that people talk about all sorts of other personal things. Perhaps this is all evidence of the increasing privatization of religion. You can participate in the public sphere of the Internet as long as you generally keep broad declarations of faith to an acceptable level. There might be some judgment but it maybe goes even further to indifference or embarrassment for such a user. You might be able to get away with more within certain circles – like white evangelicals who share their faith more online – but it wouldn’t be as welcomed within other online networks and sites.

That said, the figures still suggest some decent levels of religious activity online with roughly 20% sharing about their faith regularly and 46% regularly seeing things regarding the faith of other users. Faith isn’t dead online even if it doesn’t quite match offline activity.

 

Is more Internet use correlated to a decline in religious affiliation?

A new study suggests using the Internet more is correlated with lower levels of religious affiliation:

Downey analyzed data from the General Social Survey, a well-respected annual research survey carried out by the University of Chicago, to make his findings.

Downey says the single biggest cause of religious affiliation is upbringing: those you are raised in religious households are much more likely to remain in their family’s religion as adults…

By far the largest factor, says Downey, is Internet use.

In the 1980s, Internet use was virtually non-existent, but in 2010, 53 per cent of people spent two hours online a week and 25 per cent spent more than seven hours…

Downey says that his research has controlled for ‘most of the obvious candidates, including income, education, socioeconomic status, and rural/urban environments’ to discount a third factor, one that is responsible both for the rise of Internet use and the drop in religiosity.

Since the full story is behind a subscriber wall, two speculations about the methodology of this study:

1. This sounds like a regression and/or ANOVA analysis based on R-squared changes. In other words, when one explanatory factor is in the model, how much more of the variation in the dependent variable (religiosity) is explained? You can then add or subtract different factors singly or in combination to see how that percent of variation explained changes.

2. Looking at religious affiliation is just one way to measure religiosity. Affiliation is based on self-identification (do you consider yourself a Catholic, mainline Protestant, conservative Protestant, etc.) or what religious congregation you regularly attend or interact with. But, levels of religious affiliation have been falling in recent years even as not all measures of religiosity are falling. Research about the rise of the “religious nones” shows a number of these people still are spiritual or perform religious practices.

If there is a strong causal relationship between increased Internet use and less religiosity, why might this be the case? A few ideas:

1. The Internet opens people up to a whole realm of information beyond themselves. Traditionally, people would look to those around them, whether individuals or institutions, within relatively close proximity. The Internet breaks a lot of these social boundaries and allows people to search for information way beyond themselves.

2. The Internet offers social interactions in a way that religion used to. Instead of going to a religious congregation to meet people, the Internet offers the possibilities of finding like-minded people in all sorts of areas from hobbies and interests, people in the same career field, dating websites, and people you want to sell goods to. In other words, some of the social aspects of religion can now be replicated online.

3. The Internet in its medium and content tends to be individualistic. Anyone with an Internet connection can do all sorts of things without relying on others (outside of having a service provider). This simply feeds into individualistic attitudes that already existed in the United States.

It sounds like there is a lot more here for researchers to explore and unpack.

NYT on Bellah: he helped demarginalize religion in sociology

A summary of sociologist Robert Bellah’s life in the New York Times includes this observation about studying religion in sociology:

He was widely credited with helping usher the study of religion — a historically marginalized subject in the social sciences — into the sociological fold.

This begs the question of why the study of religion within sociology was marginalized in the first place (and also perhaps whether it still is today). It is hard to escape the topic from reading the classical theorists, like Durkheim, Weber, and Marx. Perhaps this is a self-fulfilling prophecy of secularization within sociology?

Turning Apple’s brand and products into a religion

A new book lays out how Steve Jobs transformed Apple into a religion:

Jobs’ Zen master Kobun Chino told him that he “could keep in touch with his spiritual side while running a business.” So in true Zen fashion, Jobs avoided thinking of technology and spirituality in dualistic terms. But what really set him apart was his ability to educate the public about personal computing in both practical and mythic ways.

The iconography of the Apple computer company, the advertisements, and the device screens of the Macintosh, iPod, iPhone, and iPad are visual expressions of Jobs’ imaginative marriage of spiritual science and modern technology…

Technology ads provide parables and proverbs for navigating the complexities of the new technological order. They instruct the consumer on how to live the “good life” in the technological age…

Jobs embraced elliptical thinking as a means of promoting technology objects that pose their own paradoxes. In the Apple narrative, the seemingly oppositional notions of assimilation/isolation and freedom/enslavement are resolved by Apple’s invocation of enlightened paradox.

Others have also made this argument: see this 2011 post as well as this 2012 post.  Claiming a brand is like a religion could be an analysis of a secular age (this piece suggests we traded gods for technological progress and consumerism) or it could be a slam against followers who blindly follow a brand (certain brands may inspire higher levels of devotion yet not all inspiring brands are accused of inspiring religious-like followings).

Yet, beyond Apple, wouldn’t most, if not all brands, aspire to this kind of devotion? Religion implies a devoted set of followers who are willing to participate in rituals, of which the most important is buying the new product. Evangelism, telling others about the products and brand, might also be high on this list. Another key is that brand followers and users think they are participating in a transcendent experience.