Norris, Pippa, and Ronald Inglehart. 2004. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge University Press.
A long-standing theory in the sociology of religion, secularization, suggests that, as societies modernize, they will also grow more secular. Many scholars have found support for this argument, but there are some countries that serve as exceptions. The most obvious one is the U.S., though how much of an exception it is is hotly debated. The U.S., of course, is a pretty developed country, yet levels of religiosity (in particular, belief in some form of god and levels of religious affiliation), remain fairly high (about 60% of Americans believe in a personal god; another 30% believe in some other form of god or aren’t sure; less than 10% are atheists and agnostics). So, the primary questions Norris and Inglehart are trying to address is: Does secularization result from modernization? And, if so, how do you explain exceptions to the rule?
Keep in mind that most other developed countries around the world (pretty much all of Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, etc.) are pretty secular, while undeveloped countries tend to be fairly religious. That, alone, suggests support for the theory of secularization. But critics of the theory point to countries like the U.S. (and Poland and Ireland, the other two classic exceptions) and say, “But these are developed countries. Why aren’t they as secular?” Well, the U.S. is a lot more secular than, say, Afghanistan, where 100% believe in a god and everyone has a religious affiliation (within rounding error). Previous scholars have suggested modifications to the theory of secularization. Mark Chaves suggested we should understand secularization as “declining religious authority,” not just reductions in the classic indicators of religiosity – belief in god, attendance, and religious affiliation. If you look at secularization as declining religious authority, it’s pretty clear that religions have lost a lot of their ability to dictate beliefs and behaviors to their followers (e.g. over 60% of Catholics in the U.S. use birth control and want women to be ordained priests; clearly the authority of the Roman Catholic Church has declined). Steve Bruce has also argued that secularization can be seen in the changing nature of religion in the U.S.: religion is becoming more “this-worldly” rather than “other-worldly,” meaning it is increasingly similar to pop-psychology and includes watered-down theology with virtually no mention of hellfire and damnation. Both Chaves and Bruce are correct: religions are losing authority and changing to accommodate the broader secular culture.
But Norris and Inglehart suggest another modification. They argue that it isn’t necessarily modernization that leads to secularization, but rather “existential security”: the feeling that survival is secure enough that it can be taken for granted, “We believe that the importance of religiosity persists most strongly among vulnerable populations, especially those living in poorer nations, facing personal survival-threatening risks” (p. 2). As they understand it, those without existential security are experiencing significant levels of stress. “Individuals experiencing stress have a need for rigid, predictable rules. They need to be sure of what is going to happen because they are in danger – their margin for error is slender and they need maximum predictability. Conversely, people raised under conditions of relative security can tolerate more ambiguity and have less need for the absolute and rigidly predictable rules that religious sanctions provide. People with relatively high levels of existential security can more readily accept deviations from familiar patterns than people who feel anxiety concerning their basic existential needs. In economically secure industrial societies, with an established basic safety-net safeguarding against the risks of absolute poverty and a relatively egalitarian distribution of household incomes, an increasing sense of safety brings a diminishing need for absolute rules, which contributes to the decline of traditional religious norms” (p. 13). In short, it isn’t modernization that leads to declines in religiosity; it’s existential security, which often (but not always) comes with societal modernization.
In addition to testing this hypothesis about secularization, the authors also examine a variety of other hypotheses, but they are more tangential to the main argument of the book. Norris and Inglehart suggest that cultural differences will result in slightly different trajectories for different countries (in particular, differences in culture between Protestant, Catholic, and Muslim countries will all effect secularization trajectories). They also suggest that the greatest declines in religious behavior will occur in countries where the importance of religion has declined the most (this is a less than compelling causal argument as it’s virtually impossible to say that one of these causes the other or vice versa). The authors also look at the ramifications of declining religiosity on civic engagement, suggesting, like Robert Putnam does, that higher levels of religiosity increase one’s involvement in the local community. They also suggest that different cultural traditions will influence other societal values, like work ethic. Finally, the authors suggest that modernized countries will continue to become more secular, but the overall levels of religiosity around the world will continue to rise as the most rapidly growing populations are also the populations with the highest levels of religiosity – they are also the least existentially secure.
The bulk of the data the authors use to test these hypotheses comes from the World Values Survey. They combine that data with other data where necessary.
What do they find? They find support for all of their hypotheses, “Due to rising levels of human security, the publics of virtually all advanced industrial societies have been moving toward more secular orientations… Due to demographic trends in poorer societies, the world as a whole now has more people with traditional religious views than ever before – and they constitute a growing proportion of the world’s population… [And] the expanding gap between the sacred and the secular societies around the globe will have important consequences for world politics, raising the role of religion on the international agenda” (p. 19). Remarkably, their statistical models are able to account for 66% of the variation in religious behavior between countries. As social science goes, that’s pretty remarkable.
Turning to some specific findings… How do the authors address the issue of the U.S. remaining somewhat more religious than is expected? First, they note that the U.S. is something of an exception when it comes to the relationship between economic development and secularization, but they also offer an explanation: the level of inequality in the U.S. is really high. There are lots of rich people, but there are also lots of poor people in the U.S. – lots of them! Poor people, regardless of their society, tend to be more attracted to religion’s promises as it provides the existential security they lack. Thus, it is the high levels of inequality in the U.S. that explain the continued religiosity. The explanation offered by scholars like Rodney Stark and Roger Finke – that it’s the high levels of religious pluralism in the U.S. that leads to higher levels of religiosity – is not supported in their data. In fact, they find just the opposite – countries with greater levels of religious pluralism tend to have lower levels of religiosity, while more monopolistic countries tend to have higher levels of religiosity. Additionally, there is not a significant relationship between religious freedom and levels of religious behavior (which refutes Grim and Finke 2006).
Norris and Inglehart also examine religiosity in former soviet countries, which has also been a question of interest in the sociology of religion. Some scholars have claimed that there has been a resurgence of religiosity since the fall of the Soviet Union (see Greeley’s work). The authors of the book note that it is difficult to say for certain whether or not there has been a resurgence since there is no good religiosity data on former soviet countries prior to the 1990s. But their analysis suggests a linear relationship between age and religiosity: older people are more religious; younger people are less religious. Ergo, no resurgence of religiosity in former soviet countries. There is some renewed interest in Orthodox religions and New Age religions, but not enough to offset declines.
Another intriguing finding has to do with some of the other norms and values that differ between countries with different cultures. There are no differences between predominantly Muslim countries and Western, more democratic countries in their support for democracy, democratic ideals, and strong leadership. However, Muslims do show greater support for a strong societal role by religious authorities. But the biggest differences are on gender equality and sexual liberalization. Muslim countries are substantially more oppositional to gender equality and greater sexual liberalization. Ironically, though, Muslim countries show a greater work ethic, greater even than Protestant countries, which Max Weber claimed had the highest work ethic resulting from capitalism (also note that Protestant countries score lower than Catholic countries). If it was true at some point that Protestants had a higher work ethic, it is no longer true. As Protestant countries tend to be post-industrial, they tend to place greater value on leisure, relaxation, and self-fulfillment outside of employment. In fact, level of development is a better predictor of attitudes toward wok than is religion. Additionally, Protestant countries are not the most ethical in their moral views and they are not the most fundamentalist on moral life issues like abortion or euthanasia. Economic development is actually a better predictor of fundamentalist views on those issues; less developed countries have more fundamentalist views.
There are a few problems with the book, but nothing major. The biggest problem I observed was that the organization of the book wasn’t perfectly clear and the authors had a tendency to both jump around from topic to topic and repeat themselves at times. This may have resulted from the broad range of ideas they were examining, but it did make the book more difficult to read than it needed to be. That said, the writing is quite lucid and clear when the organization makes sense.
Overall, this is an extremely compelling argument in favor of secularization theory, though modified to understand the driving force as increasing existential security. The authors bring an overwhelming body of data to the debate and address a number of hypotheses, perhaps a few too many, but this book will definitely serve as a foundational resource for future debates over secularization.
(Note: Most of this book is available online for free: http://www.pippanorris.com/)