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Tilting at Windmills

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May 19, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

RELIGION AND HAPPINESS....In Europe, the advance of secularization has corresponded with an increase in reported happiness. In America, it's just the opposite: religious participation is positively correlated with higher levels of self-reported happiness. Will Wilkinson suggests that this is mostly a matter of fitting in: since most Americans are religious, you're more likely to be happier if you fit in with our religious culture. Ross Douthat suggests the answer lies elsewhere:

My suspicion is that the difference has something to do with the role of the welfare state as well — that the benefits of belonging to a religious community are greater in the U.S. than in Europe in part because our welfare state is smaller, and religious participation provides both tangible and intangible forms of security that are more valuable in a society where the free market is more freewheeling and the welfare state weaker. If you're a Christian who prefers the American model, you might say that the Europeans use government as a substitute for God; if you prefer Europe's path to modernity, you'd probably say something about Americans clinging to churchgoing because it's the only protection available against the harsh brutality of our jungle capitalism. Either way, I suspect that this symbiosis between high levels of religiosity and economic individualism is at the heart of American exceptionalism — which is another way of saying that libertarians root for secularization at their peril.

This is way outside my wheelhouse, but here's another possibility: Europe has suffered through centuries of devastating religious wars that didn't end until fairly recently. If you live in Western Europe, there's a pretty good chance that you associate strong religiosity with death, destruction, and massive societal grief, not with church bake sales. So whatever you think of religion itself, seeing the end of religious wars, religious terrorism, and massive state-sponsored religious bigotry is almost bound to make you happy. You'd have to be almost literally crazy not to be happier in today's secular Europe than in yesterday's religious Europe.

Religion in America is just a whole different story. Sure, it's caused its share of problems, but nothing even remotely on the scale of what happened in Europe. We still have a pretty innocent view of religious belief here, and this probably accounts for part of the reason that religion is associated with happiness here but not in Europe. Whether that makes us exceptional or just naive I'll leave for others to debate.

Kevin Drum 12:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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Sure, it's caused its share of problems, but nothing even remotely on the scale of what happened in Europe.

And with the rising intensity and intolerance of the religious right, what assures us that we won't go the way of "what happened in Europe" here?

Posted by: Bill H on May 19, 2008 at 12:39 PM | PERMALINK

People in Europe might just be happy because they aren't subjected to Amy Sullivan talking about religion, like we are here.

Posted by: Pat on May 19, 2008 at 12:39 PM | PERMALINK

Hmmm... not my "wheelhouse" either, but I think that Ross's explanation is more convincing than yours. There were centuries of religious wars, but how well remembered are those popularly? (Are we terrified of sectional division lest there be another Civil War?) Ross's explanation has the advantage of being a tangible presence in people's contemporary lives -- and one they need not even be conscious of -- so it needn't posit an unrealistically present historical memory.

Posted by: Stephen Frug on May 19, 2008 at 12:39 PM | PERMALINK

Hmmm... not my "wheelhouse" either, but I think that Ross's explanation is more convincing than yours. There were centuries of religious wars, but how well remembered are those popularly?

How long has their been peace in North Ireland?

(Are we terrified of sectional division lest there be another Civil War?)

So terrified that nobody even talks about it anymore. The idea of division has been practically excised from the culture for most of the country and beaten into hiding for the rest.

Posted by: Goran on May 19, 2008 at 12:47 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin

A little more complex.

Religion is 'the state' in most of Europe.

It is decisively aligned with 'the people in power': the Tory party in the UK, the Christian Democrats parties in Europe-- so for example in Italy the heart and soul of Italian corruption. In Bavaria the right wing conservative party (Christian Social Union).

Think the Church of England. Or any of the state protestant religions of the Magisterial Reformation. Or the Catholic Church in Spain allied with Franco, or Italy.

So being aligned with 'the church' is to be aligned with the dead hand of social conservatism and state power across most of Europe. And has been so all the way back to 1848 and the efforts of liberalism to be born in Europe (which were crushed, and crushed again, until 1945).

In the US there isn't this tradition (outside of Utah?) of the Church being aligned with the people in power.

If the Episcopal Church was the official church of the US of A, then 'religion' might have a different feel for Americans.

De Tocqueville commented that Americans had no state religion, so they are more enthusiastically religious.

Posted by: Valuethinker on May 19, 2008 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

I can't believe you didn't mention the most obvious explanation: demographics. The people who are still religious in Europe tend to be old, poor, and/or recent immigrants. In the U.S., on the other hand, while it's also true that religion declines with wealth, there are a large number of middle class and upper-middle class, non-old, suburban people who are religious. These people have more money and are younger, so it's not surprising that they're happier than their European counterparts.

Plus there's a less obvious explanation: the religious outlook in America is much more about asserting that one is happy all the time and all is right with the world. In other words, our religious outlook involves being out of touch with reality in a way that tends to cause people to say (sincerely) that they're happier.

Posted by: on May 19, 2008 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

"Sure, it's caused its share of problems, but nothing even remotely on the scale of what happened in Europe."

Unless you count our little war in Iraq as a religious war, which many in the Middle East do. And many in the USA as well, for that matter.

Posted by: RCC on May 19, 2008 at 12:52 PM | PERMALINK

In Europe, the advance of secularization has corresponded with an increase in reported happiness.

Big surprise. Once you realize you're not living at the whim of some terrorist in the sky, things definitely look brighter.
.

Posted by: Grand Moff Texan on May 19, 2008 at 12:52 PM | PERMALINK

Edit to that.

Imagine if the Episcopalian Church was the official church of the US of A, and its political arm was the Republican Party.

You can only legally be married in an Anglican Church in England-- any other religious marriage also has to have a civil ceremony. When you join the Army if you put 'none' as your religion, they automatically list you as 'Anglican'.

Imagine then how anyone liberal or of a minority religion would react to the Church?

(of course the Anglican Church doesn't work that way in England any more: but England is a post-religious society)

Posted by: Valuethinker on May 19, 2008 at 12:55 PM | PERMALINK

As you say, KD, well outside your wheelhouse. There was indeed a lot of religious conflict in early modern Europe, but even then it was heavily mixed with political imperatives (e.g., the Thirty Years' War featured Catholic France-- largely led by a Catholic Cardinal, no less-- lavishly funding Protestant armies to frustrate the political and territorial ambitions of the equally Catholic Habsburgs). Large parts of Europe became a slaughterhouse from 1914-1945, but it is very difficult to blame this on religious convictions as opposed to an almost psychotic nationalism, and with it various pernicious ethnographic enthusiasms and racist delusions. Europe in general has not turned against religion per se, but more broadly against what the postmodernists used to call "metanarratives"-- any "story" about God, but also nature, nations, history or justice that demands some sort of complete self-dedication or sacrifice. Hence Europe was not secularized in the near- or medium-term aftermath of early modern demi-religious warfare (say, in the 17th or 18th centuries) but centuries later, in the second half of the twentieth century (the bottom fell out of church attendance and religious vocations in the 1960's and 1970's). Europe's secularization was part of a more general abandonment in Europe of comprehensive accounts of what it means to be human, of justice, etc. One can argue that the abandonment of these comprehensive accounts is a great historical triumph (I would not, but it can be argued), but in historical terms, it cannot plausibly be argued that a secularized Europe is even a reasonably direct result of the violent or pernicious possibilities associated with religious conviction.

Posted by: APL on May 19, 2008 at 12:55 PM | PERMALINK


Yes, how soon we forget.
Mussolini's Lateran Pacts of 1929 established Vatican City as a sovereign city-state and Roman Catholicism as the official state religion of Italy.

Both Franco of Spain and Salazar of Portugal established Catholicism as their state religions to the denigration (and limited tolerance) of other religions.

The Nazi regime instigated the kirchensteuer (a mandatory Church 'tithe' payroll deduction) in Germany and Austria - which, amazingly enough, remains in effect today. The 'church-tax' only applies to members of the major denominations, and has unsurprisingly led to a remarkable number of people becoming 'former members'.

Posted by: Paidi on May 19, 2008 at 12:55 PM | PERMALINK

"Big surprise. Once you realize you're not living at the whim of some terrorist in the sky, things definitely look brighter."

Who isn't?

Posted by: Alice on May 19, 2008 at 12:56 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin wrote: "Religion in America is just a whole different story. Sure, it's caused its share of problems, but nothing even remotely on the scale of what happened in Europe."

The genocide of indigenous Americans and the enslavement of Africans by European invaders and colonizers of the Americas were "problems" on the "scale" of anything that "happened in Europe" and both were justified and enabled by religion, just as centuries of European wars were justified and enabled by religion.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on May 19, 2008 at 1:01 PM | PERMALINK

To me there seems to be a strong positive relationship between authentic religious adherence and poor education (or ignorance, put simply). We can all admit that non-authentic social positioning adherence exists everywhere.

I do think that US religiosity is not so nearly benign as you argue it is. Western Europe has now largely been cleansed of the anti-rationalist brigades though of course not entirely. Very few Europeans today would argue that faith represents an alternative to knowledge (an optional adjunct perhaps, but not an alternative). On the other hand, the US seems to have more than a full share of such delusionals.

Posted by: Anon on May 19, 2008 at 1:06 PM | PERMALINK

SecularAnimist: ... genocide ... enslavement ... justified and enabled by religion

True. But these historical realities just aren't on most Americans' map. I think that Europeans are in general less ignorant of their own history.

Besides when you mention these things to American Christians, they'll say "but those weren't real Christians." As if Pat Robertson is.

Posted by: thersites on May 19, 2008 at 1:11 PM | PERMALINK

This is way outside my wheelhouse...

You used that expression in another recent post, which was the first time I had heard it. I'm more familiar with the more archaic-sounding "outside my bailiwick" i.e. outside of my familiar neighborhood.

Posted by: Grumpy on May 19, 2008 at 1:16 PM | PERMALINK

Happiest people on earth... Icelanders.
Predominant national religion: Pagan.

Enuf said.

Posted by: Buford on May 19, 2008 at 1:23 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin: "If you live in Western Europe, there's a pretty good chance that you associate strong religiosity with death, destruction, and massive societal grief, not with church bake sales."

I live in America and I associate strong religiosity with death, destruction, and massive societal grief, and not with church bake sales.

I've lived through eight years of war, societal grief, selfishness, greed, you name it.

But this is what God wants, right? After all, this nation has never been run by more religious leaders than we have now. Either God is a Sadist, or . . . maybe, just maybe, these jokers don't speak for God.

Nah, can't be. Vote McCain -- yippee!

Posted by: on May 19, 2008 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

I am too lazy to read Will's piece, but I think it's mostly related to socialization. Certainly Europe's view on religion is affected by the carnage religion brought for a couple thousand years, but at the end of the day, I think people are happier when they conform to the norm.

Posted by: BombIranForChrist on May 19, 2008 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

I'm unclear what Kevin meant when he wrote, "In Europe, the advance of secularization has corresponded with an increase in reported happiness."

This might either

1. Europeans have grown happier over time during a period when secularism has increased, or

2. Secular Europeans are happpier than religious Europeans.

The discussion seems consistent with #2. However, if only #1 is the case, then one should also look at other factors that have trended favorably during the period when Europeans have grown happier, such as greater prosperity.

Posted by: David on May 19, 2008 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK

It is rare to see a young family attending church in France these days. What you do see is parents and kids alike having three meals at home every work and school day.
You see them on vacation together, and going to restaurants together, and visiting relatives together, on a regular basis.
You see them at the doctor’s waiting room, unconcerned about the quality or cost of medical treatment.
Although the unemployed may chafe restlessly, they do not want for living expenses, nor do they fear catastrophic loss.
Those that are working take pleasure in knowing they will get 5 weeks paid vacation, along with some 20 paid holidays per year. And they are secure in the knowledge that their retirement was planned out before they were born.
Are they happier? You bet they are happier.
Ross Douthat doesn’t mention that France outlawed Pluralism as a defense against religious fanaticism.
Of course, Bush and Cheney talk endlessly about how the world is now locked in a titanic battle between the forces of Good (us), and the Axis of Evil, (not us). Do they know Pluralism originated in Persia?

Posted by: gaston44 on May 19, 2008 at 1:59 PM | PERMALINK

First, I question the assertion that "the advance of secularization has corresponded with an increase in reported happiness." Ahem, does correlation equal causation? Perhaps both the increase in reported happiness and the advance of secularization are the result of rising standards of living. This rise has been most dramatic for the Europeans over the past 50 years since Europe lay in ashes after WW2. But perhaps religion has nothing to do with it.

Second, I question the lumping together of all Europeans into one big happy bunch. Last I heard, the French were pretty unhappy overall. So while Denmark, Iceland and Sweden seem to be very happy nation-states, not all European countries are.

Third, one important, if rarely acknowledged, function of religious practice is a sense of membership in community, of belonging. Feeling included has many social and psychological benefits.

Countries like Denmark or Iceland are very homogeneous to begin with--religious practice would not add anything incrementally. In the heterogeneous US, by contrast, one of the few ways we can establish group membership is by joining a community, "We are the people who believe...." is a statement that establishes in-groups and out-groups whether the stated belief is religious or secular. It feels good to be in an in-group.

So happiness is one dimension, possibly produced by rising standards of living, and participation in a religious community is another.

Posted by: PTate in MN on May 19, 2008 at 2:05 PM | PERMALINK

Douthat may be on the right track, but not quite there.... We all act as if religion in America is all of a piece. Yet I lived in northern New Jersey as a child and now live in southern California and there's a world of difference in the religion I saw in these places. In New Jersey, the churches are all old and paid for and the ministers make little effort to attract new parishioners. In California, they're building new churches every day, and I get a post card nearly every week inviting me to a service or an easter egg hunt. The church around the corner has a restaurant, a school, a concert hall, and activities and clubs for every day of the week. And it's here in California that there are fish on every other car. So, yes, it's a kind of social service thing. But I don't think I buy into the idea that European governments are the providers of similar social services. (Although I've heard that at least in the past German unions did this kind of stuff and more.) But what's driving all this is not the availability of social services, it's the entrepreneurship of the ministers themselves, who aren't simply being given congregations, but have to build them, themselves. They do this by constant advertising and by offering multiple services. Europe is like the eastern United States, with more churches than they know what to do with, and enough money to support their ministers for none of them to go that extra mile.

Posted by: catherineD on May 19, 2008 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

I think it has to do with the correlation between "community" and "happiness" and where people find community in the US and Europe.

European countries have a lot of advantages that give them strong secular communities: shared cultures, rich heritages, common history, less sprawling and auto-centric communities, more of what they call "third places" (outside of home and work, like cafe's, parks to hang out and meet friends). These features connect people to the community, giving them a sense of belonging, strong social networks, lots of friends, etc. Thus they are happy without religion.

The United States on the other hand is a multicultural, young society that lacks these strong social connections and shared culture that serves to tie Europeans together. We have a sprawling, privatized physical environment that makes strong social communities more difficult in a million little ways. The only way people can find that shared sense of community is in a church. Having grown up in a religious family and having since left the church, I can speak from personal experience. Americans have not built the social infrastructure that allows a person to easily find community outside of religion, although we are moving in that direction more and more.

Posted by: nathan on May 19, 2008 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

I think it has to do with the correlation between "community" and "happiness" and where people find community in the US and Europe.

European countries have a lot of advantages that give them strong secular communities: shared cultures, rich heritages, common history, less sprawling and auto-centric communities, more of what they call "third places" (outside of home and work, like cafe's, parks to hang out and meet friends). These features connect people to the community, giving them a sense of belonging, strong social networks, lots of friends, etc. Thus they are happy without religion.

The United States on the other hand is a multicultural, young society that lacks these strong social connections and shared culture that serves to tie Europeans together. We have a sprawling, privatized physical environment that makes strong social communities more difficult in a million little ways. The only way people can find that shared sense of community is in a church. Having grown up in a religious family and having since left the church, I can speak from personal experience. Americans have not built the social infrastructure that allows a person to easily find community outside of religion, although we are moving in that direction more and more.

Posted by: nathan on May 19, 2008 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

Religion certainly drove the death march in Massachusetts Bay and Salem (women tortured for smiling in church). In general religion has lent itself handily to cults of death and mass-murder with bracingly transcultural catholicity (so to speak). See James Carroll's film Constantine's Sword, it's brilliant on the history of this cult of death and violence as well as its current incarnation in the coercive evangelical fever at the Air Force Academy (until recently at the hands of none other than Haggard).

Posted by: q on May 19, 2008 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

I've been rereading Kierkegaard lately, and it seems to me that the US much more closely represents his idea of "Christendom" than does Europe. Hence religion becomes nothing more than a means to contentment in the US, rather than something that makes genuine demands upon the Xian. It appears reasonable the that religion would provide a means to happiness, in the naive sense of "fitting in."

Posted by: The Sophist on May 19, 2008 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

The Gnarled Oak Deity in my backyard says everyone's going to hell but me.
I'm very happy.

Posted by: thersites on May 19, 2008 at 2:40 PM | PERMALINK

No question in my mind at all, Kevin - you are absolutely right. Both of the other views struck me as being stretches; then I read yours and said, "of course."

In addition, think of who in the US is least likely to be religious. I'd be willing to bet that those most educated in History are more likely to be atheist/agnostic than those most educated in Science.

True in my case, anyway. Religion = intolerance.

Posted by: CaliforniaDrySherry on May 19, 2008 at 2:58 PM | PERMALINK

An even bigger reason is that Americans tend to almost completely ignorant of religious tenets and the underlying history associated with their particular belief system...

In otherwords...Americans are too dumb to know they should be more conflictive on religious matters.

Posted by: Nazgul35 on May 19, 2008 at 3:08 PM | PERMALINK

The Gnarled Oak Deity in my backyard says everyone's going to hell but me.
I'm very happy.


Posted by: thersites on May 19, 2008 at 2:40 PM

That's not what I programmed the chip in the tree to say! It's supposed to be the reverse. Darn it, got to fix it now, so hard to do remotely.

Posted by: optical weenie on May 19, 2008 at 3:18 PM | PERMALINK

Weenie:

The Gnarled Oak Deity is displeased with all who demand hardwood flooring.

Go figure.

Posted by: thersites on May 19, 2008 at 3:35 PM | PERMALINK

I'd be willing to bet that those most educated in History are more likely to be atheist/agnostic than those most educated in Science.

Actually, not true. Scientists are far more likely to be atheist/agnostic than most every other profession.

But then again, pretty much everyone on earth is atheistic and/or agnostic to some degree. Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Jews, for example, are atheists about Zeus, Odin, Isis, Moloch-Baal and a host of other deities.....

Posted by: Stefan on May 19, 2008 at 3:41 PM | PERMALINK

Stefan: Christians, Muslims ... are atheists about Zeus, Odin ...

Actually, they tend to be worse than atheists.
Aside from the Soviets few, if any, atheists have broken into, say, a Catholic church, smashed the statues, rounded up the parishioners, and forced them to renounce God at the point of a sword. The history of Christianity and Islam is rife with such behavior toward "pagans."

The most dangerous idea in human history is the idea of One True God. (Or, in the case of Soviet-style Marxism, One True Ideology.)

Posted by: thersites on May 19, 2008 at 4:01 PM | PERMALINK

What Nathan said.

Posted by: inkadu on May 19, 2008 at 4:43 PM | PERMALINK

O.K., I know this stretches the boundaries of Kevin's original post, but it needs to be said. I'm proud to be a Liberal, and I'm proud to be a Christian; in fact, I don't see how you can follow the teachings of Jesus Christ without being a liberal.

But as a Lutheran, I tend to take an iconoclast's view of the Christian church. And the most striking thing that I've noticed is that as of late, the money changers have invaded the temple; the church is where business gets done. This trend seems to be at its extreme with the more conservative, fundamentalist sects. There are church sponsored investment forums and churches are offering financial advice. A church is proposing a new complex here in Boulder County that includes a shopping mall. An acquaintance who attends one of those conservative "mega-churches" talks of a church sponsored "millionaires club" that sounds like some kind of pyramid scheme. And I had always understood that it was harder to get a rich man into Heaven than to get a camel through the eye of a needle.

At any rate, I can't help but wonder if the difference doesn't have something to do with the difference in what "religion" means. Apparently, here in the States, religion has come to be something less than a shared faith in a supreme deity or deities. Many "religious" people in the U.S. practice their religions solo, in the confines of their homes, and many more may attend church for the ancillary benefits: business contacts, day care, a safety net.

Posted by: Dave Brown on May 19, 2008 at 4:56 PM | PERMALINK

Is there any evidence supporting the proposition that the government is NOT God?

Posted by: slanted tom on May 19, 2008 at 4:59 PM | PERMALINK

Dave Brown: the money changers have invaded the temple...seems to be at its extreme with the more conservative, fundamentalist sects

Makes you wonder exactly what "fundamentalist" means, doesn't it?

Posted by: thersites on May 19, 2008 at 5:08 PM | PERMALINK

It's much simpler than that, really. Here, you have your choice of religion, so you can pick which one helps you achieve happiness. There, you have only one established religion and a couple alternatives on the margins. It's little wonder that fewer people are happy under that regime.

Posted by: phil on May 19, 2008 at 6:08 PM | PERMALINK

SecularAnimist, another point to add to that is that European religious wars have tended rather toward stalemate overall. There are still Protestants and Catholics in abundance. In America, until relatively recently, it was pretty much all Christians across the board. One should perhaps ask any of the indigenous tribes for their input into the religious war question. When you're only quizzing the winners of a religious war (as it were), positive answers oddly enough outweigh negative ones.

Posted by: The Critic on May 20, 2008 at 10:37 AM | PERMALINK

Assuming this, this or this article is true, what kind of Christians are Americans?
If they don´t even know what they´re talking about and allegedly believing?

"Only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels. Twelve percent believe Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. This failure to recall the specifics of our Christian heritage may be further evidence of our nation's educational decline, but it probably doesn't matter all that much in spiritual or political terms. Here is a statistic that does matter: Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. The thing is, not only is Franklin's wisdom not biblical; it's counter-biblical."

"Many high school seniors believe that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife..."

Posted by: Detlef on May 20, 2008 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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