Explain The Strong Attachment Of Americans To Religion

Submitted By Amcneil1
Words: 2317
Pages: 10

“How can we explain the strong attachment of Americans to religion?”

Word Count: 1909

Recent opinion polls report that at least 9 out of 10 Americans still believe in God (Gallup, 2011). This is in stark contrast to the United Kingdom where only 38% were reported to believe in God in a survey by the European Commission in 2005.

This essay will look to establish the central cause as to why Americans are so attached to religion. In order to do this various theories and propositions will be discussed and comparisons will be made between America and Western Europe, and in particular why America, although scientifically and technologically more advanced, appears to be the exception to the secularization thesis.

For decades church attendance figures in America were regarded as being predictably resolute and have hovered between the 40-43% mark since the late sixties (Bruce, 1996). While other countries were seen to be conceding to the secularization process, Americans were seen to be attending religious service often up to four times more frequently (Walsh, 1998).

That being said, Hadaway states that ‘...the characterization of American religious participation as strong and stable is not uniformly accepted‘ (Hadaway, Marler & Chaves, 1993, p. 743). Research began to show that Americans were overstating the amount of times they attended church service, and a study by Hadaway et al confirmed this theory by reporting attendance figures were substantially lower than the widely accepted 40% (ibid, p. 743).

Despite discrepancies in reported church attendances and actual church head counts, the apparent ubiquity of religion in the United States has been a focal point of debate between social scientists for many years. The observations of Alexis de Toqueville, a French nobleman who toured America in the 1830s, compared what he knew of the traditional or ‘old world’ of Europe and what he saw in the ‘new world’ of America (Bruce, 1996, p132). He was intrigued by the voluntary aspect of religion as well as the vast amount of choice open to the American people, unlike his native France where the Catholic Church reigned supreme and sided with the ruling class (ibid, p133).

De Toqueville proposed that unlike Europe with its disliked state church, there was no state interference in America, and a free market ensured something for everyone as the clergy had to compete for congregations as without one, they did not eat (Bruce, 1996).

However, de Toqueville’s theory of alienation, where state and church work closely together is only applicable in Catholic societies (Bruce, 1996). Similarly, his notion of pluralism in America was derived from his constant traveling through the various states where he encountered diversity in religion unknown of in Europe. But to the ‘typical’ American religion was homogenous, with often the majority of the state following the same religion. With Britain having a similar amount of alternatives, it is unlikely that diversity in itself can explain why religion was more popular in America than Europe (ibid).

Furthermore, Bruce (1996, p135) states ‘...there was always a major obstacle to Americans actually benefiting from the supposed pluralism. Many of the churches were and still are ethnic churches. Racial segregation is still such that adding a black Pentecostal church to a town does not in the least increase the choice for white Americans.’

Many theorists, including Bruce, lean towards the ‘ethnic and immigrant nature of American churches’ as a more plausible account of the vibrance of religion in the United States (1996, p137). According to the 2009 Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the immigrant population of the United States is 12.5% of the total population, which equates to over 38 million people (MPI, 2010). As can be expected, migration is seen to be stressful on those involved and as