Global Plus: End to American exceptionalism? Researchers find U.S. is part of Western drift toward secularism

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A busy day in New York City.

Generation by generation, more Americans adopt secular world views

By Jörg Stolz

Published Courtesy of ARDA

To tell you the truth, when I went in 2016, as every year, to a conference of the Scientific Study of Religion in Atlanta, I did not suspect to be surprised. These conferences are fun, you can see good quality work, you run into colleagues at the hotel Starbucks—but you’re rarely baffled by results.

I was wrong.

In one session, young scholar Simon Brauer presented a paper that left me, and quite a lot of my colleagues, speechless. He showed that not only was the United States on the path of being more and more secularized. That had been shown by several scholars before. But he demonstrated that the path the U.S. was taking was apparently exactly the same one as all European countries were taking.

Doing so, Brauer confirmed a hypothesis that had been made in a prize-winning article by British sociologist of religion David Voas in 2009. He also further destroyed talk about “American Exceptionalism.”

I was not the only one to be astonished—so was Brauer himself.

When I later talked to him, he readily admitted: “When I first looked at the data, I could hardly believe how well the U.S. data fitted the model.” The results have now appeared in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. The apt title: “The surprising predictable decline of religion in the United States.”

The theory that Brauer verified and that was formulated by Voas has been called the theory of “Secular Transition,” and it is incredibly simple. According to the theory, both the U.S. and European countries have a highly religious past. Modernization destroys this religion and religiosity, but it does so in a very specific way. In fact, modernization—higher education, the welfare state, democracy, technical innovations, biomedicine—influences mainly the younger generations and weakens their religious socialization.

This has the effect that every generation in a modernizing country is on average less religious than the previous one. Since children are not only influenced by society, but very strongly also by their parents, a self-reinforcing process is set in motion in which increasingly less religious former generations create ever more secular later generations.

While others had pointed to these mechanisms, the special point in Voas’ theory is the following: All Western countries take exactly the same trajectory. They start out with (almost) everbody being highly religious. The society does not immediately produce “secular people” in high numbers, but rather people who show an intermediate religiosity called by Voas “fuzzy fidelity.” This fuzzy fidelity rises over time, until a majority of the population is in such a state of religious limbo – but then the seculars rise until the society is largely secular. The overall process goes on for about 200 years.

Scene at a wedding.

What Is different now? Are you a ‘fuzzy’?

If everything is so simple, why haven’t social scientists noticed this earlier?

Because, Voas and Brauer say, the countries we currently observe are at different time points in the transition. Actually, the time when a country enters the secular transition is the only thing that differs between countries. Thus, the Czech Republic, a very secular country, has more than 150 years advance on Greece, a still very religious nation. The U.S. is somewhere in the middle of the process, behind Austria, but before Finland.

One of the interesting things of the theory is that it highlights the phenomenon of the so-called “fuzzies.” These are interesting people and often forgotten.

In a study that I conducted with colleagues in Switzerland, we were able to use large mixed methods studies to capture more closely just what “fuzzies” think and believe. These results echo and deepen studies on fuzzies in other countries.

In Switzerland, the “fuzzies” (we called them “distanced” because “fuzzy” has a strange ring to it in German) are by far the largest group of respondents, making up more than half of the population. Fuzzies do not belong to the clearly religious. Yet, they cannot be called secular either, because they still show a certain number of religious elements, be that certain beliefs, occasional practices, or a formal membership.

Sound familiar? It might, because you, the reader, have quite a good chance of being a fuzzy yourself.

Fuzzies believe and practice something; they do have certain religious and spiritual beliefs and practices. But these are not particularly important in their life and/or are activated only in rare cases. They often believe that there is “something higher” or some “energy,” but do not want to be more specific. They may perhaps go to church for major celebrations (especially at Christmas), but otherwise they are not drawn to places of worship. They usually refer to themselves as members of one of the major denominations– but religious affiliation has no great importance in their daily lives.

For fuzzies, the churches do not give them much personally, but they still feel a residue of connectedness which prevents them from leaving their church.

Take as an example a respondent from our Swiss study, Kaitline, a retired academic. After her divorce, she was excommunicated by the Catholic church and stopped going to church completely. Her belief in God has changed considerably, yet she says that she still believes in a certain way. She is a “fuzzy.”

Or take Deborah, a 41-year-old clerk. She is officially a member of the Reformed church. She describes herself as being “neither religious nor spiritual.” But she does think that there is a God in “some shape or form,” who looks at how things are going. She also believes that there is a life after death. But these elements do not have much importance in her life. She’s a “fuzzy.”

The model of the secular transition tells us that fuzzies are an only transitory phenomenon. The children of fuzzies will be themselves fuzzies or secular and in the long run the seculars—people without any belief and religious practices—will be in in the majority.

Questions, doubts and the need for further research

But, wait! Can all this really be true? Brauer’s paper on the U.S. case is strong evidence for the robustness of the model. But still, one may have doubts.

There can be doubts about the data. Actually, not all countries behave as well as the U.S. As Voas already admitted in his first article, the French somewhat misbehave with respect to the models’ predictions—who would have thought? Ireland and especially Israel are other countries that show slight (for Ireland) and strong (for Israel) departures from the model.

Some scholars argue the data does not show a decline in “intense” religion in the U.S. In his book, “Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-first Century,” Eric Kaufmann of the University of London predicts that the effects of immigration from religious countries and religious fertility will be to reverse the secularization process in the West.

Other doubts concern generality. The model has been successfully applied to Western Europe and the U.S. But what about other regions of the world? What about non-Christian countries? Is the secular transition supposed to work there, too?

Finally, doubts concern the philosophy of social science. Eminent social philosophers from Karl Popper to Anthony Giddens have told us again and again that there cannot be laws in the social sciences. The speed of light, gravitational forces, gases—they all behave according to laws; not so humans with their annoying habit of suddenly changing their mind or purposely spoiling the plans of their contemporaries.

But isn’t the Voas model exactly such a “social law?”

Which leads us to the conclusion that might have been expected: More research is needed.

No one can predict the future with certainty.

But if Voas and Brauer are right, Americans will have to let go of their belief to be “exceptional” in religious terms. For another 25 years, the number of American fuzzies will still grow and then decline to make room for the ever growing number of seculars.

Jörg Stolz is professor of sociology of religion at the University of Lausanne. He is the current president of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion.

Resources:

Association of Religion Data Archives: Search nearly 1,000 surveys and find citations for several hundred journal articles for comprehensive information on topics such as the nonreligious and related subjects such as secularismatheist and agnostic.

ARDA National Profiles: View belief, demographic, socio-economic and public opinion data for all nations with populations of more than 2 million.

The Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN): Access an overview of research activities and publications on atheism, nonreligion and secularity. The NSRN is the largest research network in this field.

Secularism and Nonreligion: Explore the latest research at the world’s first academic journal dedicated to the investigation of secularism and nonreligion in all its forms. All articles are available online and free to access.

Other websites offering information about the nonreligious include those associated with the Understanding UnbeliefDiversity of Nonreligion and the Multiple Secularities research programs, and The Immanent Frame, which offers interdisciplinary perspectives on religion, secularism, and the public sphere.

Articles:

Brauer, Simon. “The Surprising Predictable Decline of Religion in the United States.” The researcher finds the United States fits closely on the same trajectory of religious decline as European countries.

Mallimaci, Fortunato. GlobalPlus: Religion and Politics in Latin America. A leading authority on beliefs systems in Latin America says the region is not experiencing an inexorable march toward secularism. Rather, he reports, the paradigm of Latin American religious modernity is an evolving dance among political, social and religious forces in a region experiencing the longest democratic process in its history.

Nash, David. “Secularist History: Past Perspectives and Future Prospects.” This article provides a survey of the growth and development of historical accounts about secularism and the wider secular movement

Storm, Ingrid. “Halfway to Heaven: Four Types of Fuzzy Fidelity in Europe.” The researcher identifies four subtypes of “fuzzy fidelity” analyzing data from the Religious and Moral Pluralism (RAMP) survey from 10 European countries.

Voas, David. “The rise and fall of fuzzy fidelity in Europe.” An analysis of the first wave of the European Social Survey found that each generation in every country surveyed was less religious than the last.

Books:

Kaufmann, Eric. Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Religiosity, Fertility and Politics. The book suggest demographic factors, such as the cumulative effects of immigration from religious countries and religious fertility rates, will be to reverse the secularization process in the West.

Lee, Lois. Recognizing the Non-religious: Reimagining the Secular. Drawing on extensive field research, the book sets out the diverse ways in which the nonreligious are making their presence felt in modern societies.

Stolz, Jörg, Könemann, Judith, (Author), Schneuwly Purdie, Mallory, Englberger, Thomas, Krüggeler, Michael. (Un)Believing in Modern Society: Religion, Spirituality, and Religious-Secular Competition. This important study in the sociology of religion sheds new light on the question of what has happened to religion and spirituality since the 1960s in modern societies.

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