Why is Western Europe so secular?

If you have lived abroad, it is obvious that the United States is very religious for a wealthy country. Here are some explanations why:

One theory involves the different histories of religious marketing over the last two centuries. Because religion has a long history of state sponsorship in Europe, religious bodies there have perhaps grown lazy. State-supported congregations need not aggressively recruit parishioners to “stay in business.” In the United States, however, religions must support themselves and therefore are more aggressive “marketers,” going to much greater lengths to attract congregants than their European counterparts. In other words, American religious organizations spend a great deal of time and energy advertising, and their advertising nets results (Stark and Finke 2000).

A second theory involves the ethnic, racial, immigrant, and national diversity that typifies American society. Unlike certain European nations that are made up of relatively homogenous populations (Iceland, for instance), the United States is permeated by an enormous array of different cultural groups, whose members may find solidarity and community in religious involvement (Warner and Wittner 1998; Herberg 1955). For example, W.E.B. Du Bois, the first American sociologist of religion, observed the unparalleled importance of the church to black Americans, noting that, beyond promulgating theology, the black churches provided a social space and communal refuge in an often hostile world (Zuckerman 2002). In sum, it is possible that a significant level of ethnic/ cultural/racial heterogeneity, as typified by American society, spurs greater religious participation as people seek a sense of belonging or communal support.

A third consideration involves the possible impact of different social welfare systems. Perhaps when the government takes a greater role in providing social services, religion wanes, and when the government fails to provide extensive social services, religion thrives. For instance, religious belief and participation is the absolute lowest level in Scandinavia, whose countries are characterized by generous social support and extensive welfare systems. In contrast, the United States government offers far fewer social services and welfare programs than any European nation.

A fourth possibility may have to do with differing elementary and secondary educational systems. Perhaps the Europeans have done a better job of conveying rational thinking, scientific methodology, and skeptical inquiry to their children than have American educators.

Here is the full story.

My take: I don’t believe the fourth possibility of greater rationality. A big chunk of Germany, for instance, thinks that 9/11 was an American conspiracy. The first three all ring true. I would add that America is a more rural country with lower population density. This encourages religion over urban entertainments. Furthermore the European churches are identified with aristocratic landholding, taxation, and state privileges. That being said, I do not expect the low religiosity of Western Europe to last. Europe has gone through waves of greater and lesser secularization. Furthermore people may be biologically programmed to believe in myths and religions. The real puzzle is why religious suppliers have been so slow to offer products that suit the new European mentalities.


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