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November 22, 2004

Sacred versus Secular: Reproducing Religion and Cultures in the 21st Century

Sacred and Secular : Religion and Politics Worldwide (Cambridge UP, 2004), co-authored by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, is one of those books that breaks new ground. Norris and Inglehart explore a seeming contradiction at the heart of sociology: The founding writers of this discipline--Marx, Weber, Durkheim--all predicted secularization as an inevitable outcome of modernization, but our post-modern world definitely doesn't seem to be secular.

Their answer? In part, that we're defining secularization incorrectly and reading too much into classic sociology. Norris and Inglehart deal with the apparent global failure of these secularization theses by pointing out that in almost every post-industrial nation, secularism has made significant advances. (Yes, even the United States. More on this later.)

Religion might still be strong globally; it might even be making advances, with followers of religious beliefs of one sort or another growing as a proportion of the global population. This, they argue, stems from the fact that secularism and especially human development have a negative impact on fertility. Fertility, in turn, reflects underlying insecurities in a given culture which predispose that culture's constituents towards religiosity.

The World Values Survey, along with the European Values Survey, provide the bulk of the raw data used by Norris and Inglehart. This makes sense, inasmuch as these surveys constitute excellent sources of cross-cultural data over several decades. As with all surveys, there are serious questions to reliability, in this case mainly through self-reporting (if you think that you should go to church, will you really admit to a stranger that you don't go)? The trends indicated by the data, though, are suggestive.

It's nice to see the supply-side theory of religious belief and practice put to an empirical test. This theory, for those of you who are unfamiliar with it, argues that there is a direct relationship between religious diversity and religious practice: The more religious choices (different denominations, different theologies) available to a population, the more religious the population is likely to be. Thus, the high level of religious practice in the United States stems from that country's historical theological diversity; the low level of religious practice in Europe is product of that continent's tradition of state churches and enforced religious unity.

The problem with this theory, Norris and Inglehart demonstrate quite conclusively, is that it's completely wrong. In Europe, it's the countries with the closest links between religion and state and the highest degree of denominational homogeneity--Ireland, Poland, Italy--which have the highest rates of religious practice. In post-Communist Europe, the relaxation of state controls on religion coincided with a religion-wide decline in religion. (Yes. There is a negative correlation between religious pluralism and religious practice.)

Why do people practice religion? The authors argue that existential concerns--Maslow's hierarchy of needs--strongly determine patterns of religious practice. The more insecure a person within society, the more likely the person is to be religious, if only in the hope of finding some structure to manage and perhaps improve the chaos of daily life. As industrialization proceeds in a given society and knowledge of science spreads, it becomes possible to find alternative structures--to avoid premature death, for instance, or to partake in a prosperous consumer society outside of the confines of traditional agrarian culture.

This pattern of religious practice within culture, Norris and Inglehart argue, manifests itself in two sets of reproductive strategies. On the one hand, advanced societies which provide security for their members tend to see low birth rates, with significantly and historically high investments in the well-being of the relatively few children and (consequently) stronger hostility towards the idea of risking these few. Less advanced societies, though, marked by greater insecurity and lower investments per child, tend to be less risk-averse. (For the record, they divide societies into three categories: post-industrial societies with a Human Development Index rank greater than 0.900; industrial societies which rank between 0.700 and 0.899 on the same scale; and, agrarian societies are those which rank below 0.700 on the HDI.)

The relative rankings of societies on the different scales are interesting. France, Nordic countries, Estonia, and the Czech Republic regularly rank as the most secular societies in the world, with very low rates of religious practice and belief. Among post-industrial and industrial societies, Ireland, Poland, Italy, Mexico, and above all the United States regularly rank as the most religious societies. (Indeed, in terms of global comparisons the United States appears to be slightly more religious than Iran.)

There is a relatively weak correlation between secularism and support for science: Many Muslim countries (and the United States) rank as significantly more supportive of science and experimental technologies than the most secular countries of Europe. Similarly, the authors don't find a negative relationship between religiosity and support for democracy and civil rights. In the post-Communist countries of the Orthodox world, if anything, there is a weakly positive correlation. What they do find--reported by them in the March/April 2003 Foreign Policy (PDF format)--is a strong correlation between support for democratic politics and civil rights and support for changing gender and sex roles (support for feminism or gay rights, say). The more non-traditional a country in this domain, the more likely it is to be politically democratic. They suggest that toleration of diversity on this mark--connected to relatively secure and stable conditions--might serve as a barometer.

Sacred and Secular makes other interesting observations. They remark, for instance, that even after secularization has proceeded successfully, the once-dominant religion and its culture still leaves its mark on the life of society. They demonstrate that there is a positive correlation between one's religious practice and the likelihood of one's support for the Right, although this is weakening. They make the point that Weber and Durkheim argues that industrialization and rationalization would undermine religion, not destroy religion entirely in every case. They do agree with Putnam's thesis that churchgoers tend to be more active in community organizations, though they suggest that people who join organizations might simply be more likely to join churches as a demonstration of this tendency. They agree that the United States is an outlier among advanced countries, but point to significant recent secularization and suggest that the relatively high volume of immigration from traditional countries is responsible for much of this lag. Very interestingly, they demonstrate that by almost all measures, China and Vietnam are highly secular societies, and are likely to stay highly secular.

This may be a controversial book. It does provide a testable hypothesis, though, namely that societies which move towards the upper end of the Human Development Index will not only move towards below-replacement fertility rates but will see declining rates of religious practice and belief. As a rule, advanced societies might move towards deinstitutionalized religion, away from established churches and towards more inchoate and/or non-traditional beliefs. It's worth paying attention to the more religious countries in the upper half of Norris and Inglehart's middle ranking--South Korea, Argentina, Chile, Croatia, perhaps also Malaysia and Ukraine and Brazil--to see what patterns of religious belief develop in these countries in the decade to come.

Posted by randymac at 08:42 PM