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After reading your comments on markets and monopolies, I wonder if there is another explanation for the variety of religious choices in this country.

It's important to note that the United States was not founded all at once. In truth, there were over a dozen colonies that were founded in North America - some by Puritans, some by Anglicans, some by Quakers, one by Catholics, and others such as Rhode Island.

By the time thirteen of these colonies got together to form USA 2.0 (after the failure of USA 1.0, the Articles of Confederation), the multitude of state religions was already well established.

Which raises an interesting "what if" - what if England had established a single colony spanning the entire eastern seaboard, with a single governor (and presumably a single religion, probably of Anglican character)? If this had happened, I suspect that we would be more similar to Europe.

Christopher Calton

@Empoprises Astute observation; and it would infer that competition was built into the American system. Just to add on to that, we were influenced by the competing French and British cultures, as well as their religious values. This would certainly (though not proven to be causal) contribute to the spectrum of religious adherence in the United States.

Thomas Mclennan

"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."

This was a mean spirited comment; however, not untrue. Of course one who believes in invisible god(s), mystical powers and whatnot is less credulous than an atheist. In a perfect world I would not want any of those people around my children. Posner is indeed correct in his assertion that Americans are less credulous than Europeans in that sense; however, remember that in Europe there exists a nation-state INSIDE of Italy, that was granted under the rule Hitler's Duce of Fascism, Mussolini.

I find it unfortunate that many Americans go to such ridiculous lengths with their pseudo-science to 'prove evolution wrong', as a Canadian, these arguments all seem childish and laughably ignorant.

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"the question of religious belief does not arise for aspirants to become European heads of state."

It would certainly arise in the UK, where the head of state is also the head of the Church of England. That would be a difficult role to take up for someone who doesn't believe in God! (But of course on the flipside, there aren't too many who aspire to become the British head of state, seeing as it's pretty obvious from birth whether or not you stand a chance.)

Matt Brown

Your last comment makes no sense, that there are Mormons who do not consider themselves to be Christians. The name of the church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Christ is the heart and center of our religion. Our church was founded by Him, and is lead by Him. He is literally the Son of God, he suffered and died for us, and rose on the third day. He was given all power, both in heaven and earth, as stated in Matthew, and it is only through Him that salvation is possible. The phrase 'Non Christian Mormon' would be an oxymoron.


How can we explain the difference between religious practices in Europe and the US?

Posner observes that Americans are more mobile than Europeans, and that joining a church is a means by which people integrate themselves into a new community. And Mark in Spokane remarks (above) that Europeans with strong religious adherence were more likely to immigrate to the US, and more likely to succumb in the religious wars that swept Europe, than people who lacked such adherence. Both of these explanations conjecture that we can explain differences in the patterns of religious adherence due to forces unrelated to the CONTENT of the religion in question. I find that a useful insight, and will expand on it.

How can we explain the difference between religious practices in Europe and the US? Well, how can we explain the difference in religious practices AMONG the states in the US?

Within the US, people report greater emphasis on religion in places of social stress and decay. That is, states that report the highest rates of religious observance also report the highest rates of poverty, violent crime, divorce, high-school and college drop-outs, bad health outcomes (obesity, stress-related illness), out-of-wedlock births, pornography consumption, many types of chemical dependency, etc. Some people regard this as a paradox, or a sign of hypocrisy. Some people regard it as a predictable coping strategy: People facing the greatest threats are the ones most in need of the hope and structure that religion purports to bring.

Europeans face economic stresses today – and I wouldn’t be surprised to find more Europeans turning to religion as the Euro crisis continues. But in general, Europeans enjoy a strong social safety net. Consequently they do not need to build social networks for themselves to enable them to weather hard times. In contrast, many parts of the US lack this type of social safety net. If you want to be assured that someone will come to your spaghetti dinner to raise funds to pay for little Suzy’s brain scan, you need to spend time building social networks. I suspect church attendance is, in part, a manifestation of this need to build social networks. This would explain why we observe more of it in areas suffering greater levels of social stress and decay.


Excellent post (as usual). To clarify: most active Mormons do consider themselves Christian but not Protestant nor accepting the Trinitarian concept of God (speaking as a practicing Mormon).

A. S. Rust

I don't think America's religious diversity by itself is an adequate explanation for our high rates of religiosity. If state churches lead to religious decline, then a person would expect all countries with state churches to have low levels of religiosity. Some countries, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, in fact have high rates of religiosity along with state supported religious institutions. This seems to pose a challenge to the "religious marketplace" thesis.

Sociologists Pippa Norris and Ronald Englehart propose an alternative explanation, the "existential security" thesis, in their book "Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide." In the book they note an inverse relationship between the robustness of a society's social safety net and the religiosity of its population. From this, Norris and Englehart infer that when people feel secure about their access to basic healthcare, shelter, and nutrition they'll feel less anxiety about their prospects. This decrease in anxiety also diminishes a person's reliance on religious consolations. Under this explanation, America's weaker welfare programs accounts for its higher rates of religiosity.

George Edelstein

In re: Mr. Matt Brown. If Prof. Posner needed an example to support his main point, he has it now.

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I think that there is also a strong relation between atheism and welfare. In the sence that welfare states (such as: Holland, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Japan, Belgium, and the former communist countries) function as a safety-net for all. This makes the need of beeing member of a church for practical reasons almost nil. Let alone that these countries take great value in scientific education.


America does not have very high tolerance of other people's religions. First, it is absurd to put "very high tolerance" and "two major exceptions" right next to each other; it's either "very high / one minor" or "moderate / two major ".

Then there is the problem that there are way more than 2 exceptions. The Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientologists think that every one else is evil and out to persecute them. The Jehovah's Witnesses and the Amish live apart from the rest of society, in part because they fear that we are evil and corrupting. Historically, Americans have hated Jews. They pushed that boat of Jews away in WWII. It was only after WWII that we, and the rest of the world changed. Now the Evangelicals love Israel, because they need the Jews in Israel so that Jesus can return and kill them all. Historically, Americans have distrusted Catholics, Kennedy had a difficult campaign being Irish and Catholic, and the pope first visited America in 1965. Antipathy is a nice euphemism for the Mormons, considering that there were once "shoot on sight" orders for them, and they responded in kind. Even the various Protestant denominations think that anyone not in their exclusive sect is going to hell. Some denominations like the Dominionists and Recontructionists think that they should establish a religious state, like Iran but Christian. Fortunately they all put aside their differences to hate the blacks. Which brings us to our current President who is apparently not a True Christian(tm) or is a Secret Muslim (tm). Americans "love" to extend religious liberty like in Louisiana where they provided money for religious schools and then gasped in horror when they discovered that non-Christian schools (Muslim) also applied for funding. And let us not forget the other religious intolerances that bleed into racial intolerance as it applies to Hindus and Buddhists. When a famous Buddhist like Tiger Woods becomes mildly infamous, the proposed solution was a conversion to Christianity.

There is a neat video on YouTube of an old man shouting his support of some monument of the Ten Commandments. There are 3 versions of the Ten Commandments: Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant. He is undoubtedly ignorant of that fact and thinks that everyone follows the same (and only) Ten Commandments. This is how he is tolerant of other Christians, when they agree with him or when he perceives that they would agree with him. If he knew that the Catholic Ten Commandments put up by the Knights of Columbus was different than his Protestant monument, he might be engaged in a totally different protest.

Americans are only tolerant of religious differences insofar as they are ignorant of religious differences.


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Have you noticed that many American Christian denominations on the right seem to be becoming increasingly intolerant of everyone else? And that their hatred of LGBT people is approaching murderous levels?

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Josh Slade

Thank you, Judge Posner, for your insights on this topic. I will add to your last sentence, however. Having been born into a Mormon family, and having continued to practice Mormonism for thirty years, I have never met a Mormon who did not consider himself a Christian.

Best regards,

Patrick Pentz

Having suffered two horrible wars, I would expect belief in a just God to weaken. Any information as to what religious strength was in 1910 and earlier, compared to today?


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.www.diesel-generatorset.com 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.

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"Indeed some Mormons while venerating Christ do not consider themselves Christians."

Where did you get this idea? The number of mormons who don't consider themselves christian are few and far between. Christ is at the center of mormon belief. In fact, it's at the center of the real name of the church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Whether those outside the mormon faith believe us to be christians is a different discussion, but almost all mormons believe they are christian.


It is well established that the average American is more ignorant than our European counterparts. Ignorance is a breeding ground for irrational propaganda to flourish.

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