Sunday, November 04, 2007

Religion as a social marker   posted by Razib @ 11/04/2007 09:01:00 AM

Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science has an interesting post where they present two charts; one displays average religious attendance vs. average income and another within-state correlation of religious attendance vs, average income. The red data points show states where George W. Bush won the popular vote in 2004 and blue John Kerry. Two conclusions:
  • People in richer states are less religious (this mirrors world-wide trends)
  • The rich are more likely to attend church in Bush-voting states and less likely in Kerry-voting states

There is an important caveat here: religious attendance is not a perfect proxy for religiosity. In some cultural contexts religious affiliation and attendance are critical social markers. You can see data from many Catholic countries which attests to this, disaffiliation is very strong among the lower and working classes due to anti-clerical socialist movements as well as the association between the powerful & the Roman Catholic elites. But this does not necessarily mean that there is no religious sentiment among the non-affiliated population, for example, in Chile the lower classes who have traditionally been apathetic to Roman Catholicism are converting wholesale to evangelical & charismatic Protestant groups. This manifests the division between denominations and sects. The former exist at low tension with society, make modest demands, and are avenues toward respectability. In the United States Episcopalianism is a classic denomination. Sects on the other hand tend to exist at some remove from the rest of the population & make significant demands on adherents. The Assemblies of God would be a sect. In general the history of most religious groups in the United States exhibits the transition from sect to denomination. Methodism is a case in point; initially an evangelical revival movement derived from Anglicanism it is now a respectable mainline denomination. Some religious groups manifest several tendencies; Roman Catholicism for example has several sectarian movements which nevertheless remain under the umbrella of the Church.

How does this work in relation to the data we have above? From what I know in the American South religion still exists as a social marker. Episcopalians are at the top, Presbyterians below them, then Methodists, then Baptists, and finally various sects with charismatic tendencies. Presidential candidate John Edwards illustrates this; raised in a working class Baptist family he is now a member of the United Methodist church, which is more in keeping with both his rise in the class system as well as his more liberal religious inclinations and politics. What about the rest of the country? It seems likely that in many regions of the United States association with religious institutions no longer serve as necessary accessories in the lives of public citizens. At the commanding heights of public life religion still seems rather important, note the overwhelming avowed affiliation of United States members of Congress. On the margins religious affiliation probably matters even outside of the South, but the affect is weak enough that the often tepid and skeptical inclinations of Western cultural elites has resulted in disaffiliation. For lower status individuals the small absolute marginal return on sectarian affiliation is still high enough that they will still affiliate. Consider new Korean immigrants who do not speak English well; the local Korean Presbyterian church likely serves a very practical role in their lives in terms of connecting them to a community in which they are comfortable and which returns tangible practical benefits. In the South non-affiliation is atypical enough that the negative consequences are strong enough that elites still make sure to find a "church home" so as to embed themselves in a religious institution.