Tag Archives: europe

Extinction of Western Religion?

Flickr photo by moominsean

CNN reports the projected extinction of western religion.

A few major caveats:

1) The underlying paper on which this report is based only focuses on Western Europe (which has seen rising rates of secularization much faster than in the US).  While rates of “nonery” (those saying “none” to a question of what their religious tradition is) have risen dramatically in the US (see “American Grace“), most of these “nones” still actually believe in God, they just haven’t found the right church; and

2) Relatedly, these projections assume that people flip to be “secular” to mirror the populations around them, but assumes that the religious environment itself doesn’t change to attract these seculars.  U.S. history is rife with examples of religious entrepreneurship — religious leaders inventing or reinventing religion to meet changed needs.  “American Grace” in Chapter 6 discusses a host of these like megachurches, Mormonism, circuit riders, the chapel car, cyber- religion, televangelism, etc.

Excerpt from “American Grace“:

In the nineteenth century, the American frontie4r presented a problem for religious leaders.  People, especially young people, were spread out in far-flung communities, many of which were too new to have churches.  And so both Protestant ministers and catholic priests came up with an ingenious solution — the chapel car.  Clergy would use these train cars repurposed into mini-chapels to travel from town to town, holding services for the otherwise unchurched settlers on the frontier.  They are largely forgotten today, but in their day chapel cars represented the state of the art in bringing religion to remote areas.

The paper by Abrams et. al, summarized in the CNN story, ignores this entrepreneurship and assumes that religious leaders and entrepreneurs will sit idly by and watch their denominations dwindle rather than invent new ways of helping to attract new converts.  This seems extremely short-sided in making predictions of the future.

The quote from Peter Berger at the end of the CNN story is telling.

Peter Berger, a former president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, once said that, “People will become so bored with what religious groups have to offer that they will look elsewhere.”

He said Protestantism “has reached the strange state of self-liquidation,” that Catholicism was in severe crisis, and anticipated that “religions are likely to survive in small enclaves and pockets” in the United States.

He made those predictions in February 1968.

Obviously Berger’s prediction hasn’t materialized.

For more detail, see paper by Daniel Abrams, Richard Wiener and Haley A. Yaple called “A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation,”presented it this week at the Dallas meeting of the American Physical Society.

For more blog posts on “American Grace”, visit here.

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Folks in your area distrusting? Blame the weather 1500 years ago

Flickr photo by wink

Ruben Durante (PhD candidate from Brown Univ. in political economy, May 2010) has an interesting job-market paper exploring the origins of social trust by examining variability in precipitation and temperature 1000-1500 years ago.

He posits that norms of trust developed as a result of collective action and mutual insurance triggered by farmers coping with dramatic climatic change.  While most of these areas have now become industrialized, these medieval norms lived on.

For a copy of his paper (c. Nov. 2009) see here.   He compares contemporary social trust (using European Social Survey data) with reconstructed paleoclimatic temperatures from 1500-1900.  (For the statistical junkies out there, one standard deviation in precipitation variability corresponds with a .17 standard deviation increase in social trust and this is robust to controlling for average temperature, terrain ruggedness, soil quality, standard deviation in soil quality, etc.).  The effect, while statistically significant, is not that large, but it is still amazing that weather 1000-1500 years ago convincingly predicts social trust today.

While Durante hasn’t run his data on Italy specifically, his results might help explain the puzzling finding of my colleague Robert Putnam who found that high-trust Italian regions in the north were also the same regions that were high trusting in 1500.  My hunch is that there is much greater temperature and precipitation in the high-trusting northern regions of Italy than in the southern regions of Italy so Durante’s results would likely hold up in Italy specifically.  Durante hasn’t run this same analysis within Italy, or worldwide for that matter.

I’m not sure that I see how his study explains another anomaly in social trust.  There is a remarkable similarity if you rank the average trust levels of third generation immigrants to the U.S. sorted by their grandparents’ home country with contemporary levels of social trust in those countries.  In other words, if one looks at third generation immigrants to America, you find, for example, that the third generation Swedes or Norweigians are at the top of the list in social trust and the third generation Brazilians, for example, are among the least trusting American third generation immigrants.  These rankings look remarkably like the rankings of those countries today by social trust.  In other words, for immigrants whose ancestors came over 70-100 years ago and who are doing little to affect social trust back in their origin countries, both their offsprings’ level of social trust and the level of trust of natives who remained in those origin countries 70-100 years later are remarkably similar.  That’s quite a mystery, and doesn’t seem explained by Durante’s paper on temperature and precipitation variability since the immigrants have moved to a new country whose social norms were presumably influenced (according to Durante) by what precipitation and temperature variability were in the “new country” (America), not their old country.

Anyway, food for thought…