Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Religion in America

I'm not sure the rather sensationalist headline attached to this Scotsman piece from which I traced this fascinating survey of religion in the United States has it quite right. Religion in America is not declining to anything like European levels and the report argues that one of the factors in its relative strength is the buoyant marketplace of faiths that the United States has to offer.

The 'unaffiliated' are indeed the fastest growing group. However, these constitute only around 16% of the population.

That the relative strength of religion in the US is down to religious groups competing and adapting to their 'market' would seem to be confirmed by the fact that it is the traditional denominations that are disproportionately represented in the net losers: Baptists, Methodists but above all Catholics are failing to attract more converts than they are losing to changes in religious affiliation and death. Non-denominational protestants, on the other hand, have tripled in number.

I have to say for someone who has an interest in this sort of thing and doesn't buy into the stereotypes routinely peddled about Bible-thumping Americans, there wasn't a huge amount in this report that was particularly surprising. A couple of things did stand out though.

The representatives of evangelicals, at least, are often heard to mutter darkly - actually shout rather loudly - about the decline of the American family. The evidence here would suggest they might want to put their own house in order first because evangelical protestants are slightly more inclined to get divorced(pdf) than the national average.

The other thing that surprised me slightly was that they don't seem significantly more keen on breeding(pdf). On this they are exactly in line with the national average and the 'unaffiliated' are only marginally less inclined to do so.

This suggests to me that the evidence that the religious worldwide are more likely to breed than the non-religious has to do with economics. In poor countries people breed more for a variety of reasons, which would include compensating for the risk inherent in higher rates of infant mortality, lack of access to contraception, lack of opportunities for women, an insurance policy against old age and so on. In the absence of these conditions, in the case of the United States anyway, religious faith per se doesn't seem to have much to do with it.

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