Sunday, November 21, 2004

In the Week in Review section of The New York Times, business writer Eduardo Porter considers a thoroughly silly theory to explain America's religiosity -- and rejects, as obsolete, an explanation that seems perfectly satisfactory.

The silly notion:

...over the past 10 years or so a growing group of mostly American sociologists has deployed a novel theory to explain the United States' apparently anomalous behavior: supply-side economics. Americans, they say, are fervently religious because there are so many churches competing for their devotion....

Americans are more churchgoing and pious than Germans or Canadians because the United States has the most open religious market, with dozens of religious denominations competing vigorously to offer their flavor of salvation, becoming extremely responsive to the needs of their parishes.

Let's see: I'd need to travel less than a mile from my apartment here on the notoriously secular Upper West Side to attend a synagogue, a Catholic church, an Episcopal church, a Greek Orthodox church, a Baptist church (yes, really -- a block south of Zabar's!)... funny how this isn't making me any less of an atheist. Nor did the Catholic church that was across the street from me when I lived in the East Village (or the mosque that was just around the corner).

But I'm just one guy. Porter actually does a much more thorough job of debunking this nonsense -- even as he takes it seriously:

The free-market argument is not absolutely watertight, however. Islamic states, for instance, have very strong quasi-state churches and high religious participation. And some European sociologists argue that there is much more religious competition in Europe than the supply-siders acknowledge.

And in the United States, the most religious states and counties are those most dominated by a single denomination - Mormon, Baptist or Pentecostal - not those where there is most competition...

Reminds me of the caption of an old William Hamilton cartoon:

"You're leaving out one thing, Frank -- Asia."

Here's the rejected theory:

Old-school sociology holds that as nations become more prosperous, healthy and educated, demand for the support that religion provides declines.

Uh-huh. And what's happened to America, particularly red America in recent decades? The disappearance of manufacturing; the near-destruction of the union movement; the end of the social contract between employers and employees; lower pay and lost benefits, especially the loss of health insurance, in the jobs that remain.... Forget GDP growth -- in all those big, sparsely populated counties on the mostly red map of the U.S., things are simply worse for most people. (Yes, they're worse in other developed countries where secularism still prevails, but the safety net hasn't been eliminated, as it has here.)

Middle America is less prosperous -- and, apparently, more religious. Why entertain some crackpot notion that flatters theocrats and market-worshipers on the right when the old theory works just fine?

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