Why is Secular European Society Doing So Much Better Than God-Fearing America?

By Gregory Paul | 1 March 2008

(Photo: Jesse Thorstad / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In a series of essays I am exploring the sociological reasons that the prosperous democracies with high levels of religiosity – the conservative and creationist USA most of all – tend to have high levels of social dysfunction, and vice versa. In previous essays we looked at specific subjects such as youth sex, marriage and divorce, and child rearing. The last posted offering in this series showed that some factors such as America’s frontier heritage, immigration, ethnic and racial disparities, and media violence do not fully explain America’s exceptional level of social ills. This, the final piece in the series, looks at the broad and fascinating combination of factors that sociological science has shown is producing the best conditions in history in the progressive secular democracies.

As I mentioned previously, the sad fact that America is performing so poorly in so many basic indicators of societal health is a matter of grave concern because the failings cannot be blamed on a low level of wealth vis-à-vis other western democracies. Because the secularized democracies are achieving lower levels of general dysfunction despite having somewhat lower levels of per capita income, they must be using their resources in a more efficient manner.

Here is how it works. Among the 19 most prosperous democracies all but the USA have adopted most or all of a set of pragmatic secular policies that have elevated these nation’s societal efficiency, success and security. The policies include handgun control, anti-corporal punishment and anti-bullying policies, rehabilitative incarceration, intensive sex education that emphasizes condom use, increased leisure time that can be dedicated to family needs and stress reduction, and above all else reduced socio-economic disparity via tax and welfare systems combined with comprehensive health care and job security.

Take your typical citizen of a strongly secular democracy such as France. It is very difficult for such a person to lose their middle class status. No French person, any European or Canadian for that matter, fears bankruptcy due to overwhelming medical bills because everyone is fully covered over their entire lives. Jobs are highly secure. Because their comfortable middle class circumstances are so assured, most Europeans do not feel to need to accumulate massive wealth, so they are not engaged in an intense, rat-race competition with their fellow citizens. The result is reduced levels of stress and anxiety.

A critical point is this. The above policies and positive consequences are based on progressive, secular values and ideas that emphasize pragmatic results over faith-based ideological “morality” stemming from ancient tribal scriptures. In other words it is the lack of a traditional religious world-view that helps create the most benign societal conditions yet seen. In turn, the same positive conditions are directly antagonistic towards popular religiosity. The majorities of western Europe, Canada, Australia and Japan are so sufficiently secure in their middle class lives that few feel a need to seek the aid and protection of supernatural deities. That, more than anything else, is the simple but potent reason why most peoples of the west have abandoned the churches in droves. Because secure prosperity drives general belief in a creator sharply downwards, creationism is likewise undermined. In addition, the displacement of faith-based charities by government assistance reduces the outreach of the churches into the lay community, reducing their ability to recruit and retain members.

The mass secularization that follows from liberal socio-economic practices is not intentional, but it is immensely powerful. Not a single democracy that has adopted progressive policies has failed to see a large-scale drop in popular piety. The most recent European example of the western secularization process is Ireland, where a hi-tech driven economic boom combined with a European style safety net has been accompanied by a strong drop in creator belief in the modern “Celtic Tiger.”

The success of the secular democracies helps explain the failings of the American Way. The USA is anomalous by western norms because it provides citizens with unusually low levels of government support and protection. In essence America is the 1st world nation with the most 2nd and 3rd world like economic arrangement. The need to acquire wealth as a protective buffer contributes to an intense competitive race to the top. Such a high-risk system produces the disparate individual circumstances, and the high levels of societal stress and dissatisfaction, that help elevate rates of social dysfunction.

Take a typical, middle class American nuclear family. They have the big house, a couple of SUVs, plasma TV with cable, take nice vacations, etc., all the fixings of the solid middle class American life style. Say the breadwinner is suddenly laid off due to factors beyond their control. Happens all the time. With the job goes the health care coverage. That happens all the time too. A member of the family comes down with a severe illness that quickly generates enormous bills. Another common event. Medical services often require those without insurance to use a credit card, which piles on the interest. Pretty soon the family is in deep, hopeless debt, and they have to declare bankruptcy. Millions file for the latter each year, and most such failures involve medical bills.

To the personal insecurity middle class Americans must chronically cope with, add the exceptional levels social dysfunction regarding lethal crime, youth sex, divorce and the like detailed in my earlier essays, and it is no wonder that most Americans feel sufficiently anxious and fearful that they perceive a need to seek the aid and protection of a friendly creator with extraordinary powers. In other words, the USA is theist world nation with the most 2nd and 3rd world like levels of religiosity because it is the western country with the most 2nd and 3rd world like socio-economic circumstances.

Influential elements of the religious right are promoting policies and values that contribute to America’s ills while they boost popular religiosity, and vice versa. Inspired by a combination of faith-based ideology and self-aggrandizement, these constituencies emphasize wedge issues such as opposing abortion and gay rights over fighting poverty. They have endorsed a deregulated, low taxation (especially of the wealthy), free market, high-risk ownership society that emphasizes personal responsibility and potential gain over communal cooperation, and has produced a high level of socio-economic disparity. Take a moment to consider that it is supremely ironic, that the folks most opposed to Darwinian science are, in the main, strong advocates of socio-economic Darwinism! The extreme expression of this world-view are the popular Prosperity Christianity and Rapture parallel cultures (whose highly politicized, Bible-based world-view encourages anti-Darwinist’s beliefs).

(Photo by Luis Quintero from Pexels, CC)

The megachurches are self-help entertainment complexes operated by self-promoting ministers. As an adjunct to privatization, religious conservatives are promoting the displacement of government services with faith-based charities. This has the advantage of helping the same churches expand their outreach into the larger community – and don’t think that leaders of the religious right don’t know this. But extensive sociological research indicates that the consequences for society at large are not so benign. Private charities can do some things government cannot, but overall they are no more effective than the latter, and cannot provide the comprehensive assistance that government can.

My research has been criticized for supposedly blaming religion as a whole, including the liberal sects, for creating America’s social problems, rather than placing the blame where it most belongs, on the religious right. Liberal believers contend that it is should be possible to construct a nation that is both highly religious in a liberal manner, and socially healthy.

In principle this seems reasonable since left oriented denominations generally favor progressive secular social and economic strategies. But in practical terms this does not work. For one thing, because their world-view is so secularized, liberal sects are hard pressed to inspire high levels of religious activity. Even worse, the implosion of religion that invariably accompanies the adoption of progressive policies applies to faith across the left-center-right spectrum. The only way to refute this hypothesis is for a nation that is highly religious, liberal, and socially successful to appear. So far none has, and there is no logical reason to think one will.

Some of you reading this are by now stamping your feet and saying that Christian capitalist America is an economic power house that will leave the stagnant godless progressive democracies in the dust. It is correct that the secular democracies have some serious economic issues. But the argument is rather thin when the dollar is collapsing compared to the Euro as America loses its manufacturing base while building up enormous personal, national and international debt loads, in what may prove to be a colossal financial bubble.

American finance is afflicted by one bubble after another, as well as a series of scandals, that cast serious doubt on the competence of its laissez-faire leadership. The World Economic Forum recently removed the USA from its perch as the world’s most economically competitive, placing it behind some of its secular competitors. There are worrying signs that American education levels are slipping relative to the rest of the west. Our private health care system is so outrageously expensive – it costs a third to half more per head than those of all other 1st world nations (while delivering high levels of juvenile and adult mortality) – that it wastes about a half trillion dollars each year. Money that could be used to repair our crumbling infrastructure.

Is the USA doomed to forever remain a conservative Christian land afflicted by a host of societal ills? Fortunately no. The evidence that the religious right – which makes up only a quarter or so of the population – has peaked and is on its way to long term decline is compelling. Christians as a whole are dropping as Protestants approach minority status for the first time. For a long period it was the “mainstream” sects that were taking it on the chin, now the growth of the conservative evangelicals such as the Southern Baptists has stalled or even reversed.

Bible literalism is sinking with remarkable speed as the rising Bible skeptics threaten to outnumber them in a couple of decades. Church membership has been slipping from its peak in the 1950s, leaving just a fifth of the nation in church on a typical Sunday morning. American youth is increasingly nonreligious. The 2007 PEW survey of political and social attitudes confirms that as Americans continue to secularize they increasingly favor the progressive social policies and cultural tolerance that in turn encourage further secularization and so on in a classic feedback loop.

Even the evangelicals are becoming more progressive as the old leadership that understood the dangers posed by secular ways die off. And the corporations of all things are calling for some form of universal medical insurance in order to relieve themselves of the massive costs. The future course of the nation was outlined a few years ago when Judis and Ruy Texeira – who are a lot more savvy then Karl Rove – took a look at the pro-secular trends and predicted The Emerging Democratic Majority.

There is very little that the right can do to recover the situation, which is being driven by long-term trends that no one really controls. Obviously the godly conservatives can no longer plausibly claim that they will expunge secular corruption in favor of faith-based integrity when they are in charge of the government. And once the progressive cycle of democratic social and economic secularization has set in it has never been significantly reversed – the Europeans and Australians show no signs of chucking universal health care, or of returning to the churches. Will the USA some day be as progressive and secular as Denmark or Japan? Perhaps not. But who in the 1970s could have imagined that the devout dictator Franco’s Spain would in just a few decades become a prosperous Eurostyle democracy where the church enjoys so little of its former power and influence that abortion, gay marriage and divorce are legal?

Gregory Paul is an independent researcher interested in informing the public about little known yet important aspects of the complex interactions between religion, secularism, culture, economics, politics and societal conditions. His scholarly work has appeared in Evolutionary Psychology, Journal of Religion and Society, The Journal of Medical Ethics, Philosophy and Theology. Popular essays are at Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post/On Faith, Edge and one of the most widely read Washington Post op-eds (5/29&30/11). Coverage of Paul’s research has appeared in Newsweek, USA Today, The Guardian, London Times, LA Times, MSNBC, FoxNews.

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