Thursday, June 12, 2008

Towards a more secular America

I promised, in my post Why the Gods are not Winning, that I’d have more to say about this same-titled article. I was a little distracted by the media ignoring Rep. Dennis Kucinich and his Articles of Impeachment. But, hey, it’s been 36 hours and I’m ready to move on too. That’s the way we Americans are.

Early in the article, the authors state:

"It is well documented that Christianity has withered dramatically in Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. The failure of the faith in the west is regularly denounced by Popes and Protestant leaders. Churches are being converted into libraries, laundromats and pubs. Those who disbelieve in deities typically make up large portions of the population, according to some surveys they make up the majority of citizens in Scandinavia, France and Japan. Evolution is accepted by the majority in all secular nations, up to four in five in some."

Notice that America is not one of the places where “Christianity has withered dramatically”. You knew that, of course. We are all very well aware of it. But why not? We started this whole democratic society thing. Why would religion still have it’s claws so much deeper into American culture than all of those (and many more) mentioned above? Is it possible that America somehow much more accurately reflects the trend of religious belief in the future than these others? Let’s see what the authors say in this regard:

"The mass loss of popular faith in the Eurocultures is often waved away as an isolated aberration in a world still infatuated with the gods. After all, who cares what the "old Europe" of France and Sweden is up to? This is a big mistake. Such a thing has never been seen before in history. And where it has happened is critical to the future of faith. Aside from constituting proof of principle that religion is dangerously vulnerable to modernity, that secularism and disbelief do best in nations that are the most democratic, educated and prosperous directly falsifies the Shah and Toft thesis that these factors are the allies of religiosity.

At this point I was still furiously scratching my head. Are we not modern? Of course we are! Educated? Somewhat more problematic, but we are still well educated when seen on the grand world scale. How about prosperous? Most would argue that we are, but maybe we are closing in on some key differences between The United States and other “Western style” democracies. What is it that is going on “over there” that’s maybe a little different:

"Nor is it all that surprising that faith has imploded in most of the west. Every single 1st world nation that is irreligious shares a set of distinctive attributes. These include handgun control, anti-corporal punishment and anti-bullying policies, rehabilitative rather than punitive incarceration, intensive sex education that emphasizes condom use, reduced socio-economic disparity via tax and welfare systems combined with comprehensive health care, increased leisure time that can be dedicated to family needs and stress reduction, and so forth.

"As a result the great majority enjoy long, safe, comfortable, middle class lives that they can be confident will not be lost due to factors beyond their control. It is hard to lose one's middle class status in Europe, Canada and so forth, and modern medicine is always accessible regardless of income. Nor do these egalitarians culture emphasize the attainment of immense wealth and luxury, so most folks are reasonably satisfied with what they have got. Such circumstances dramatically reduces peoples' need to believe in supernatural forces that protect them from life's calamities, help them get what they don't have, or at least make up for them with the ultimate Club Med of heaven. One of us (Zuckerman) interviewed secular Europeans and verified that the process of secularization is casual; most hardly think about the issue of God, not finding the concept relevant to their contented lives.

"The result is plain to see. Not a single advanced democracy that enjoys benign, progressive socio-economic conditions retains a high level of popular religiosity. They all go material."

OK. Now we are getting somewhere. So what the hell is the problem here in the Untied States?

"Because they are afraid and insecure. Arbitrary dismissal from a long held job, loss of health insurance followed by an extended illness, excessive debt due to the struggle to live like the wealthy; before you know it a typical American family can find itself financially ruined. Overwhelming medical bills are a leading cause of bankruptcy.

"In part to try to accumulate the wealth needed to try to prevent financial catastrophe, in part to compete in a culture of growing economic disparity with the super rich, the typical American is engaged in a Darwinian, keeping up with the Jones competition in which failure to perform to expectations further raises levels of psychological stress. It is not, therefore, surprising that most look to friendly forces from the beyond to protect them from the pitfalls of a risky American life, and if that fails compensate with a blissful eternal existence.

"The effect can be more direct. For instance, the absence of universal health care encourages the utilization of faith-based medical charities. The latter, as well intentioned as they are, cannot provide the comprehensive health services that best suppress mortality at all ages. But charities extend the reach of the churches into the secular community, enhancing their ability to influence society and politics, and retain and recruit members."

I teased this post by saying that it all has something to do with Darwin. Not biological evolution but, unfortunately and ironically, the fact that while Christians hate the notion of evolution, and use the examples of the horrors they think occurred during the 20th century being due to the evils of “social Darwinism”, we live in an American society that is deeply a social Darwinian one.

So I think I have the answer to our problems here, though I know a lot of people won’t like it. We have to move towards a more socialist society. We can still be a capitalist society, but it can’t be simply a free-market economy. We have to veer towards what I’ll call Capitalistic Socialism. Until the under-classes are secure in all aspects of their lives, religion will thrive. We have to have a culture in which adults can expect a decent paying job (that rather than being moderately likely to lose, would be extremely unlikely that they will be fired), have themselves and their families assured that their health problems will be taken care of without lose of home, and that their children will receive a top-rank education without making other sacrifices. This is what other democracies have done and those countries are now much more free of religious influence.

We certainly aren’t likely to move in this direction with Republicans in the White House and controlling the Congress. I’m not a Democrat and I’m not saying that voting Democratic is the only way to get to where we need to be. But we have to start somewhere and we need to do it immediately. Barack Obama has made universal heath care one of his top platform issues. That would be a great place to start.


PhillyChief said...

One huge factor ignored was that the European nations all have state religions, don't they? I think having no choice coupled with the complacency of the churches as a result of not having to compete nor solicit donations made for a lukewarm religious environment. Quite a contrast to the US where with no state help and tremendous competition, religions grew strong and loud and very active. Likewise, if given a choice, people will put more value in the thing they're choosing as opposed to the thing they simply have to accept.

So you could say that Capitalism stands in the way of ridding religion in that, in the US, we have a Free Market religion economy and that economy is strong vs a socialist religion economy in Europe which has all but collapsed.

I don't know about providing a social safety net being the answer to ridding religion. So giving them cake will make the peons stop clutching their guns and churches? Aren't we quite the elitist! LOL

The Exterminator said...

This post sounds suspiciously happy-face to me. A therapeutic dose of Jesus ought to wipe that silly grin off your face.

Just for the record, we've never had a free economy in the United States. The corporate-welfare crowd has had its thumb in the governmental pie ever since the founders baked it.

By the way, Philly's definitely onto something. The best offerings don't always flourish in the "marketplace of ideas." Sometimes the vendors form a secret cartel.

In any case, religion is firmly entrenched in America, and may or may not have anything to do with our lack of "benign, progressive socio-economic conditions." That's the fallacy of ad hoc ergo propter hoc. Using the same argument you did, you might also claim that religion fades in those societies that most appreciate a wide variety of cheeses (France, Spain, Italy) or that talk funny (Canada, Australia, New Zealand).

Seriously, I think you're putting the enlightened cart before the faith-free horse. Those societies that are enlightened are the least religious, and, perhaps as a result of their enlightenment forbid handguns, do away with capital punishment, educate their youth about sex, etc.

John Evo said...

Fair criticisms from both of you.

Even if it's like you say though, that the enlightenment came before things like hand gun controls, universal health care and education - then I'd still argue for those things! If a possible side benefit of reduced religious zeal emerges from those very positive cultural changes, so much the better.

We still need to emulate some of the successes of our partners in democracy and not just assume that everything the U.S. does is the best possible way of doing things. Clearly, there are a number of areas where we do not do it best.

Ex, I'm willing to add free cheese to my government support programs - naturally with a variety of choices. We already talk funny enough in various parts of the country, so I don't see the value in fucking with that.

Philly, I like your "free market religion" argument. Nicely done. In a society where religion doesn't get to be the primary source of assistance to the community, their place in the free market will waver somewhat.

You underestimate the power of religious belief when you assume that people are more easily swayed because they didn't have as many to choose from. And the premise is not even entirely true. They did start out as state religions (unlike us), but certainly in the past 100 years, people have been generally very free to change to other denominations - and have.

PhillyChief said...

They did start out as state religions (unlike us), but certainly in the past 100 years, people have been generally very free to change to other denominations - and have.

Too late.

I vote for more cheese, for we will always have a friend in cheeses.

Anonymous said...

Sing along with Philly:

What a friend we have in cheeses,
All our bread and wine to share;
What a privilege to consume them -
Muenster, Feta and Gruyere.
Oh, what peace we often forfeit,
Oh, what needless hunger we bear,
All because we do not carry
Cheeses with us everywhere.

Kelly said...

Can you elaborate on "capitalistic socialism"?

John Evo said...

Hi Kelly. How have you been?

What I'm talking about is much like how European countries (along with Japan and Australia) are doing things. The general practices of people being free to set up enterprises for profit coexisting within a framework of a society that provides a strong safety net for the people at the lower end of the profits. I'm obviously not an economist and it's not particularly well thought out, other than to say it's already being done successfully in other parts of the world - so I'm not trying to push an untried idea.