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Finally, religious observance and belief have been declining in Europe since at least the 1960s but increasing in the United States during the same period, though recently there have been signs of reduced observance and belief in the United States as well.

I don't think part of this statement that concerns the US is true, unless "recently" includes the last 40 years. The General Social Survey indicates that religiosity among whites in the US -- which largely excludes the effects of immigration -- has been decreasing since 1972 by almost all measures: 4% of whites aged 30-49 claimed "none" as their religious preference in 1972, compared to 21% in 2010. The percentage of that population who attends church regularly shows a corresponding rise.

The data (up to 2008) can be obtained from the GSS web interface here: http://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss08

George Edelstein

"who [don't] attend[] church"?

Christopher Graves

I have to say that I find the following gratuitously insulting as well as off the mark: "It does seem also that Americans are more credulous on average than Europeans—less matter of fact, less inclined to accept the authority of science (notably in regard to evolution, and geological phenomena related to evolution, such as the age of the earth), more superstitious."

There are serious objections to Darwinian evolution that respect the scientific method. In fact, the geological record shows that there is remarkable stability among biological kinds over time. Even honest defenders of Darwinism admit this. Consider Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge on this issue. The Cambrian Explosion, for instance, reveals species fully developed suddenly popping onto the scene contrary to the prediction derived from Darwin's conjectures.

Darwin's fundamental account of nature is at odds with science since Darwin conceives nature as being purely random and purposeless. Darwin, following Lucretius, rejects a rationally structured reality that is stable and predictable over time. Historically, modern science was practiced and cultivated by Christians such as Locke, Newton, Kepler, Pascal, Boyle among others who were far from what we term naturalism.

Of course, there are numerous, well-established philosophical arguments for monotheism in general and Christianity in particular.

I might also point out that causal analysis is misplaced in the social sciences since humans act consciously and with purpose. Consider here existentialist and phenomenological accounts of social sciences as human sciences as opposed to the natural sciences where inanimate objects are subject to causal forces.

As to the broader topic under discussion, Europeans do not seem to be any less religious in their potential for belief. Belief in God is innate and basic. Consider here the work of Andrew Newberg as well as logician Alvin Plantinga. There seems to be a public climate of antipathy toward religious belief in some European countries. The religious impulse is still present, but many people are afraid to voice their religious feelings. The average person in these nations have apparently been bullied into silence. Americans have been resistant to this sort of social conformity possibly because of our national trait of defiance.

D. R.

"Catholic doctrine on contraception (that only the unreliable “rhythm” method is permissible)"

This is not Catholic doctrine. The rhythm method has not been the birth regulation method of choice for several decades.

The Church promotes Natural Family Planning. NFP is not the rhythm method. http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/marriage-and-family/natural-family-planning/what-is-nfp/

The best variant of NFP is the symptothermal method. According to Planned Parenthood's data, "Of 100 couples who use the symptothermal method correctly for one year, 0.4 (fewer than one) will have a pregnancy." http://www.plannedparenthood.org/health-topics/birth-control/fertility-awareness-4217.htm

Hope that helps clear this up.

Peter Pearson

It's not clear that, aside from religion, Europeans are less superstitious than Americans; perhaps they just have different superstitions. In my US experience, applying for a job never required a handwriting sample for graphological analysis of my character, but in Switzerland it did. My neighbors in Paris educated me on the Evil Eye. When Americans worried that your favorite foods would clog your arteries, the French believed that those foods would damage your liver. And so on.

Thomas Rekdal

These are interesting speculations, but I wonder if the persistence of religiosity is not somehow related to the broader questions about the persistence of ideologies and political cultures more generally. The state in which I reside, for example, has had a "Progressivist" cast to it since the late nineteenth century. The demographic profile of the state has changed over time, different ethnic groups expand and contract, the fortunes of life affect us all in different ways at different times, yet the Left-wing culture (if that is the right word) carries on. I have never found a satisfactory explanation of this. Perhaps there is some cultural law of inertia at work, in addition to the "economic" factors upon which you focus.

Terry Bennett

Hold on a minute...if we tend to be skeptical of the authority of science, doesn't that make us less credulous rather than more credulous? Also, I'm with Christopher on the Cambrian explosion.

I don't think the phrase "religious belief" is useful, as I would distinguish belief from religion. I have fully formed beliefs about what is senior to myself, but I do not engage in any rituals based thereon. I am not "religious".

Catholicism is a peculiarly top-down endeavor, what with the putative infallibility of the Pope and all, but that architecture fundamentally conflicts with the spirit of freedom running through American culture, so you'll hear us say, "I'm a Catholic but..." A Catholic is someone who believes x, y, and z, the doctrines of Catholicism as defined by the Pope. If you believe in x, y, and w, you are not a Catholic, period.

The visceral reaction to Mormonism has always amused me. Ignoring for the moment a few of Joseph Smith's more infamous and now-exposed shots in the dark such as men on the moon and holy sites in Kansas City, I cannot as an outsider see any difference at all in the relative plausibility of LDS compared to the more orthodox Christian doctrines. Mormons are way out there, but so are the rest of the Christian population. I cannot imagine how I could ever possibly swallow either dogma.

As for the economics of it all, religion has some unspecified utility for large numbers of people. I think that European Catholicism is a complacent monopoly, whereas the mega-churches of the U.S. Bible belt put on a knock-your-socks-off show, which has resulted in a revival of sorts within my lifetime, post-Woodstock. I'd be tempted to attend just for the music. In a 95% Catholic country, Catholicism is not in doubt, and if culture has shifted in recent decades and it doesn't seem so necessary to attend church, the populace probably still consider themselves Catholic just as they consider themselves French. If culture shifts back and they find themselves needing church, they'll very likely go straight to the Catholic church they know. John Paul II drew huge crowds all over Europe, but he brought an energy that a run-of-the-mill mass doesn't even attempt to generate, and Sunday mornings on your kness just don't seem to help like they used to. America on the other hand was built on fire and brimstone, and lots of people her still feel the nag of their inner sinner. Sort of like medicine commercials, the churches publicize the need and their solution together, and they are apparently doing a stellar marketing job.

George Edelstein

One more, if I may.

For my money it all comes down to this: either you believe in the supernatural (zombies, resurrections, Apollo Belvedere, reincarnation, and so forth), or you don’t. What a fascinating topic. Sugg: “Religion Explained,” by Pascal Boyer (Basic Books, 2001).


"It does seem also that Americans are more credulous on average than Europeans . . . ."

Remarks like that make me wonder about Posner at times.

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I agree with Peter Pearson. The differences in the respect for the authority of science isn't systematic, its piecemeal. For every American who rejects evolution, there is a Frenchman that rejects the science behind tobacco use. And I guess that the evolution question simply stems from the evangelical vs. mainstream divide. Catholicism and other mainline protestants readily accepted it, the Evangelicals don't.

Having said that, I do think that evolution's biggest problem is relevance. As factually correct as it is, in the big scheme of things, it's, dare I say, not really useful to know. If society rejects physics, society is sent back centuries. If society rejects evolution, say to a state of "not knowing" how we got here, what would really be significantly different? Anything?

Howard Thomas

“Darwin's fundamental account of nature is at odds with science since Darwin conceives nature as being purely random and purposeless. “
> Head, meet table; repeat, repeat, repeat.
Again, again and again we see this wilful deliberate misrepresentation of Darwin’s explanation. Darwin’s explanation for the development of species is NOT purely random. Yes, gene changes do seem to occur randomly, the important point is that from the perspective of the individual, these are either rewarded or not depending upon environmental factors. Those mutations most conducive to environmental survival are more likely to survive and reproduce and pass on those gene traits. This therefore is NOT random in terms of survival and reproduction.

The other important matter to consider is the immensity of time for this development. For instance, in just a few hundred years the average heights of Europeans is significantly taller, in terms of Earth existence as a measure of a typical life time, that time period is but a blink.

“Darwin, following Lucretius, rejects a rationally structured reality that is stable and predictable over time. “
> Because there is no evidence to think otherwise. What a bitch, eh? You can’t reject an explanation on the grounds that it may be disquieting.

“Historically, modern science was practiced and cultivated by Christians such as Locke, Newton, Kepler, Pascal, Boyle among others who were far from what we term naturalism.”
> All of whom died well before Darwin’s explanation.

"Of course, there are numerous, well-established philosophical arguments for monotheism in general and Christianity in particular."
> They may be ‘well established’, but In terms of evidence, all have the same integrity as believing that a magical teapot showering life’s essence is orbiting the Earth. And Polytheistic arguments have equal validity to monotheistic arguments, again equal to the Teapot argument.

Christopher Graves

Howard, I do not appreciate your tone any better than I do Posner's. It really has no place in any intelligent discussion.

As for the substance, I see from your response to my comparison between Lucretius and Darwin, you do admit that both theorists reject a rational order to reality. Science, however, depends on there being a rational structure to nature. This is why Christians pioneered modern science. It is consistent with their metaphysics.

Returning to your first response, consider Karl Popper's initial take on Darwin's version of evolution as being untestable (as well as metaphysical speculation masquerading as science). On the other hand, if Popper's later take on natural selection is correct, then is natural selection itself a rational ordering principle? If so, then we are back to the notion of there being a rational structure that under-girds nature.

As for a number of Christian scientists and philosophers of science predating Darwin, so what? They were all familiar with earlier versions of evolution. Two of the most influential philosophers of the 20th Century rejected Darwin's account along with scientism, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger. Most scientists today believe in God although at lower levels than the general population.


The vast majority of medical doctors do believe in God. Among atheist scientists, their work as scientists is not the only factor or might not even be the primary factor in their belief that there is no God. For example, family history plays a significant role in anyone's religious beliefs including scientists. Ecklund, E. H. and C. P. Scheitle. 2007. Religion among Academic Scientists: Distinctions, Disciplines, and Demographics. Social Problems 54: 289–307.

As for your concluding response, I do not see any argument here at all. For anyone interested, take a look at the following articles on just two of the arguments for God's existence and one can see that there is a vibrant on-going literature on this controversy--hardly on the order of magical teapots. By the way, if you take a look at the ontological argument (even if one were to accept, say, Kant's criticism of it), you will see that the polytheistic conception of deity fails on its face.




I think much of the religiosity of the American masses is a reaction to the anti-religious zealotry of the elites. European elites did not seek to completely drive religion out of public life. Paradoxically, this led religion to die a natural death. Meanwhile, in America, the early 60s Supreme Court decided to read an absolute separation of church and state into the Constitution, an interpretation of the First Amendment that had somehow been lost on all previous generations of Americans. At least the expansion of the commerce clause could be justified by changing circumstances and the fact that the commerce clause cases upheld programs that were passed in a democratic fashion. The Court's jurisprudence regarding religion, however, appears completely arbitrary and went against the wishes of the vast majority of the population. I think that this was one manifestation of an elite culture that was simply out of touch with the masses on this issue and sought symbolic victories at the expense of social harmony.

Bob McCarthy

Adam Smith's debate with David Hume ("By far the most illustrious philosopher and historian of the present age") in the Wealth of Nations (Book V, Chapter 1, Section 3, article 3) is the best statement of this case I've seen. Smith contrasts a free-market approach to religion (small, vigorous churches that provide moral education) with Hume's monopolistic approach (established churches with comfortable, intellectual, uninspiring clergy). http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN20.html#B.V, Ch.1, Of the Expences of the Sovereign or Commonwealth

Mitchell K.

The post above from RA draws attention to a frequently overlooked feature of the separation of church and state. Before the Warren Court, few Americans objected to prayer in public schools, public displays of the Ten Commandments outside of courthouses, and other religious references on constitutional grounds. Nowadays, even a scheduled moment of silence is scrutinized for possible religious motives, and lefty political science professors wondered aloud if it was appropriate for lawmakers to sing "God Bless America" on the steps of the Capitol Building the day after 9-11.

The "anti-religious zealotry" referred to in RA's posting is the same kind of nuttiness that caused supposedly smart people to claim that the Bush administration was intent on establishing a theocracy. However, the backlash against secular activism has manifested itself primarily through the increased political activism of religious groups and not increased rates of religious worship. Evangelical leaders mostly avoided the political arena until Supreme Court decisions on school prayer and abortion left many Christians feeling marginalized. Not long after, evangelicals became very politically active and helped Jimmy Carter become president (consider the example of Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann who was once a volunteer for Carter's campaign). It is a phenomenon that continues to resonate and has become a undercurrent in the so-called Tea Party movement.

Mark in Spokane

Demographics are key as well. I think it is quite likely that 2 demographic factors contribute to the difference between Europe and America when it comes to religious belief: 1) a large chunk of the very religiously devout population of Europe -- the part of the population for whom religion was more important than family, ethnicity or nationality -- left their homelands to come here to practice their religions in peace; and 2) a large chunk of the religiously devout peasantry who didn't escape to the New World were slaughtered during the European wars during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Angela Squires

Thank you Howard for explaining yet again about natural selection and the origin of species. My head is sore too :)
Christopher: Your statement that "Most scientists today believe in God although at lower levels than the general population" is utter rubbish! Scientists who believe in God are few even in America.

Christopher Graves

Angela, the Leuba study that your link refers to wrongly identified scientists as atheists who responded that they believed in God but held heterodox views such as Deism or pantheism. Larson and Witham in a more recent follow-up study fall into some of the same errors.

I might also point out that much of the opening paragraph in the link you provide relies on the ad hominem circumstantial fallacy.


All the arguments, pro and con, regrading the existence of God here and elsewhere, are rather humourous. They all remind me of the problem in Geometry of "Squaring the Circle".

The "Divine" transcends mere mortals and their feeble attempts at reason and logic to divine it. The real solution comes down to a matter of belief and faith. It's as simple as that. No matter how complex and convoluted our intellectual attempts become - raising the "Theology of the Absurd" to high art...

George Edelstein

Yet again.

Ms. Squires:

An interesting question is why the answer is "few" and not "none."

Plagiarized from Neil d. Tyson's work.

Christopher Calton

@Christoper Graves: As I was reading through the thread I stumbled upon your post and found that Howard had already responded -- not in a way you liked, but as we know, offense has no connection to what is true. I would like to build on that interaction:

1. Howard correctly points out the misunderstanding of Darwin's theory. On the point of randomness: adaptation being at the core of Darwin's theory is anything BUT random. To quickly illustrate I'll use an arena with a couple of players. The arena is defined as being the rules and place of play, the players being two analogous species seeking to survive (for the purpose of reproduction). The only simplification I make is that the arena is static, unlike the Earth, and this simplification does not assist me in anyway; on the contrary, if we were to take into account the violently capricious nature of the Earth my illustration would be better served. These two players, being similar in function but not structure, are competing to survive in an arena. The one who first (seemingly by chance) tests a successful strategy (in the loosest possible terms) will be the one who gains the first advantage. After n iterations of the game, the one who adapts to the static arena the fastest will be the winner -- this is not random. There will not be an alternate scenario whereby the one who does not adapt successfully wins, and I'm sure you can see why. Ultimately, the one who is capable of receiving greater benefit at less cost quicker will be the winner (if you're looking for a more module way of looking at it). Lastly, unless you are operating on an entirely different definition of randomness, science is not oppose to the idea that random process happens and yields relatively stable equilibrium in relatively short time frames -- hell, quantum mechanics builds it in.

2. Science has no comment on "purpose". Science, please refer to the dictionary, is a toolkit for systematically examining phenomenon. Purpose is what we assign to it, and you're simply appealing to the emotion of readers by playing that car. Even if the universe had no purpose, which I make no comment on, that is not evidence to what you implicitly argue is true regarding a divine creator.

1. & 2. endnote: I cannot help but assume that you've simply read, as confirmation bias would dictate, authors that agree with a position you would like to be true. And if you had read Darwin's Origins, you quite clearly were not reading it objectively -- very good psychological data behind this phenomenon and I'm not terribly surprised.

3. Rather than address Howard's points, you latch onto his agreement with you as if it matters. Howard's opinion about rational order doesn't matter. Howard's agreement with you on this matter, also does not matter. What matters is what is true, and agreement between you and Howard is hardly a condition; to simply forward semantic arguments that resemble philosophy (coincidentally you bring up Popper) on what is fundamentally a scientific question is simply ridiculous. Further, your "rational order" has yet to be defined, given that most people operate on a definition of rational = "sensible" and do not remember their philosophy class (Particularly Christian Wolff?) You simply use words that the reader will self define in a way that makes your argument coherent and then build on that. Rationality has a much more nuanced meaning in the sciences, and due to the the array of definitions, you should very much define it -- unless you want to come off as some sort of reasonably lettered huckster. Locke's own insidious reason for pushing religion confirms Seneca's hypothesis that religion is useful, so long as you're ruling: "Promises, covenants and oaths, which are the bonds of human societies, can have no hold upon an atheist" ~ Locke. I need not explain why this is NOT evidence for Christianity or God or (fillintheblank). A side note, he was dead wrong, there are very good models regarding cooperation from Game Theory and Evolutionary Dynamics -- particularly Axelrod's work "The Evolution of Cooperation".

4. To posit that Christianity had a net positive effect on science is inconceivably ignorant. Starting with the murder of Hypatia, Christianity (in particular) has been a road block to scientific progress. This is NOT to say that Christians did not practice science, however, to say that Christians pioneered science as a result of practicing it is equally inconceivably ignorant. Science predates Christianity, and if we want to be matter of fact about it, more scientific progress has been made since the 20th century than in all centuries prior. This was with an ever dwindling number of scientists as identifying as Christians in anyway that is discernible to what MOST people reading this picture when they think of "Christian".

5. I really think you're invoking Popper and then building on that highlights the gigantic gulf in your logic. For what you're saying to be true, first Popper must be correct, then you control the definition, and then follow it up with what must be true as a result. Perhaps instead of reading Popper you could take a glance at the Crane/Ladder example that Daniel Dennett puts forward?

6. Its quite evident that you know what you're doing. For instance, you used your PEW survey to show that most scientists are religious. First, within the National Academies the number of religious (and often near deistic) scientists is anywhere from 10-20% (It's 10, but I will allow 20 to buffer any insanely calculated evidence you have the contrary). Second, you simply interpreted the data in a way that fit your argument, well anyone can play that game.
Watch, the numbers are:
33% believing in God (God undefined),
18% who believe in a higher power or universal spirit (slightly more defined)
41% who do not believe in either of the two previous choices
7% don't know/refused.
Well, to me, since you're pushing Christianity, at the very maximum Christians make up 33%. 41% are strictly atheist and so we can assume at least a portion of that 18% are what we define as "agnostic" and the rest are functionally deistic. And a portion of the 7% who responded "Don't know" are admittedly agnostic. The number's don't look so friendly to your position any longer, and inferring from the numbers at the National Academies we can safely say that the more scientific training you have, and the better you are at it, the less religious you're likely to be. That's curious, and holds dire implications for your hypothesis. This all furthers my personal opinion that you simply use undefined language, knowing that the reader will define it in a way that makes sense for them -- however that is -- and mix it in with what you've been told by people you respect.

Christopher Calton

@malcolmkass Actually, on the contrary, evolutionary predictions are at the root of modern biological (including genetic) science. Vaccines for instance come up immediately as a great example of WHY evolution matters. While we evolve over VERY long time scales, flu virus does not.

Christopher Calton


One small correction to my first point:

"yields relatively stable equilibrium in relatively short time frames"


"yields relatively stable equilibrium that are durable for relatively short time frames"

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