Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Religion: Lessons from sociology

Those of you who heard Thinking Allowed yesterday will know that H4S member Tom Rees has shown in an academic paper that people in unequal societies are more religious than those in more equal ones, eg Americans are more religious than Swedes. Tom has built a statistical model that explains 60% of the variation in religiosity between countries. Inequality (and not, for instance, affluence) is the most important explanatory factor in this model.

That's academically interesting but what does it mean for humanists?

First, it confirms the humanist view that religion is a social phenomenon. It can be studied by psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists. Tom's research refines the older modernisation theory; that is, the idea that modern ideas and lifestyles undermine religious belief and practice. It shows that this happens because modernisation reduces inequality and, through social security and state medical services, personal insecurity. This links the high level of religious practice in the US with the weakness of its social security, Medicare and Medicaid services. Perhaps that's why fundamentalist US churches are so hostile to 'socialised medicine'!

Now this doesn't disprove the theological claims of religions but it does discredit the idea that the churches show God's working in the world. You would hardly expect God to be less active in Europe than the USA or to have become less active during the 20th century. (Then again, the ways of the Almighty are said to be mysterious ... though mostly by people who think they understand them!)

Second the research also refutes the so-called rational choice theory favoured by some American theorists. This theory claims that people have an innate need for religion and that differences in actual practice reflect differences in the effectiveness of religious organisations in marketing their services. Put crudely, these theorists believe that US churches are more successful than European ones because they are better at marketing. However the research shows that this theory "has no independent power to explain differences in religiosity across this international sample". This is academic-speak for "it's wrong". There is thus no reason to think that people have an innate need for religion (though they clearly have an innate capacity for it).

Third, the research confirms earlier findings that passionate dualism, ie strong belief in God, Hell and the Devil, is correlated with homicide rates. Now Hell and the Devil are violent ideas so it's very likely that it's these beliefs make people more violent, rather than vice versa. The prevalence of passionate dualism explains 25% of the international variation in homicide rates.

So the research shows religion to be a human response to difficult social conditions. Faced with the threats of an unequal society people seek the consolations of religion ('pie in the sky when you die') and the support of a religious community (pie on the table when you get sick). But it's also consistent with the view that religious belief contributes to those threats. Passionate dualism leads to murder whilst the absolutism of religious moralising blocks efforts to improve society. For instance, abstinence-only sex education inspired by American Christians contributes to rates of abortion and sexuallly-transmitted dieases.

In relation to social insecurity, religion is probably as much cause as consolation.

The poverty gap as a cause of religion

Tom Rees, a H4S committee member, was interviewed today by Laurie Taylor on Thinking Allowed, BBC Radio 4. the topic was his recent study on the social causes of religion.

You can listen to it on 'Listen again' (timings from 1.53 to 13.59min):

The episode is also downloadable as a podcast, available here:

For more details of the study, you could read the paper (available online), or even better join our Yahoo group and quiz him directly!