Bryan Caplan  

Salvaging Secularization

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Sociologists have been saying funeral rites for religion for over a century. Either it's already dying out, or its just about to have a heart attack - a claim known as the "secularization hypothesis." My debating partner Larry Iannaccone and others have pointed out, however, that reports of the demise of religion are greatly exaggerated. On the one hand, the best data shows that people were not all that religious in the pre-modern period; on the other hand, by most measures religion is currently stable or gaining ground.

Overall, Iannaccone and other critics of the secularization hypothesis have the facts on their side, at least as far as the U.S. is concerned. But there are two confounding economic forces that, as far as I've seen, neither friend nor foe of the secularization hypothesis has taken into account.

1. Transportation costs. Suppose church attendance stayed flat over the past century. That seems like conclusive proof against the secularization hypothesis. However, what if the typical believer a hundred years ago had to travel two hours each way from his farm to his church, while the modern has only a twenty minute drive? For attendance to remain flat in the face of this massive decline in transportation costs strongly suggests a substantial downward shift in the demand for religion.

Put differently, what would happen to church attendance today if we made getting to church as inconvenient as it was a century ago? I would predict a steep decline, probably to historically low levels.

2. Increasing leisure. One of most obvious differences between life today and life a hundred years ago is that we have far more leisure. Even a hundred years ago, a farmer would be lucky to have twenty hours of free time per week. People today probably have three or four times as much. If the taste for religion were as strong today as it were a hundred years ago, then, you would expect that people would be spending much more time on religion.

In practice, however, most of the extra free time has been gobbled up by new activities like watching t.v. - an average of three hours per day according to the General Social Survey. And none of the leading channels offers a significant amount of religious programming. Indeed, they supply a ton of the sexy and violent entertainment that almost all religions preach against.

In any case, when I read debates about the secularization hypothesis, I get the impression that the participants greatly overestimate how much is at stake. Who ever said truth was popular? Even if religion is just the opiate of the masses, why should we expect them to lose their taste for opium? And even if Christianity is the absolute truth, religion could still be in a tailspin. Indeed, isn't that just what the Book of Revelation predicts?


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
John Thacker writes:

Interesting points, though circuit riders were common enough in the days when transportation issues meant that many couldn't make the two hour trips.

Phil writes:

Don't forget the state's involvement in religious symbolism. Many have pointed out that religion stagnates where there is a state religion, and is most vibrant where there is religious competition and the state stays out of it.

Suppose some religious people are happy simply expressing their beliefs once a week. Now, they recite the pledge of allegiance in school, or sing the Canadian national anthem at a hockey game. Back then, their only choice was to go to church.

As has been pointed out on this blog, many people find sufficient moral fulfilment making a gesture rather than solving a problem. Supporting a minimum wage, or supporting rent control, is much easier than actually helping the poor. And, similarly, seeing "In God We Trust" on the money might be sufficient for those whose religious preference is asserting a position rather than adopting a lifestyle.

I honestly believe that this is a significant part of the effect, just as I suspect that (adjusting for other factors) there would be fewer Greenpeace members in neighborhoods with recycling programs.

anglophobe writes:

Re: point one, the same could be said for any number of things that happen currently. Would the olympics still be as large if you had to take a steamer to compete? (or any sporting competition for that matter)
At a period of time when it might have taken you 2 hours to get to a church everything else was similarily far away, and as such, there was no real replacement that was within a shorter time distance away, as there obviously is now.

Dan Landau writes:

The problem here is that you are trying to measure with easily available statistics something which is very complicated. The religiousness of the average person is not well measured by frequency of attendance at a house of worship. Beside the effort required to attend services, there are many other indicators of the depth of belief.

I was born Jewish to atheist parents. My family members never went to synagogue except for marriages and bar mitzvahs (not our own). I was suggested to me, “Join a synagogue to socialize, you don’t need to take the religion seriously."

Jews, Christians, Moslems all have various sub-divisions which differ a great deal in their orthodoxy. Surely, the religiousness of reformed and orthodox individuals is different.

My own guesstimate is that the reopening of the evolution/creation debate in the schools (creationism is now called “intelligent design”) is a very strong indicator religiousness is on the rise and secularism is on the decline.

Roger M writes:

If you study religious movements since Christ, you'll find that they wax and wane. Interest in religion reached a low point in Europe just before the Reformation. We've had several periods in the US of very low interest and very high interest. In the former communist countries of Eastern Europe and the old USSR, interest in religion is extremely high. In China and Iran, Christianity is growing like wild fire. Protestant Christianity is booming in Africa and South America. Europe today claims to be secular, since church attendance is down to less than 2%, but that doesnt' count the rise of so-called New Age religions, such as witchcraft. I believe that if you include the New Age religions, Europe is probably more religious than the US.

Roger M writes:

Bryan raised the issue of transaction costs and religion. The evidence in China contradicts that. Persecution of Christians in China is severe, yet is growing at very rapid rates. The same goes for Iran and Indonesia.

Matt writes:

I agree that considering the historical costs of traveling to a religious location is a poor indicator of whether or not a population is varying in its religiousness. Though the costs to worship in a given location have declined for many, perhaps attending such traditional services has given way to other methods. After all, physically attending a traditional worship service is only one worship medium.

I think the most obvious detriment to using leisure time as a possible indicator is that perhaps the demand for time spent on religion does not vary with a change in income (more/less time). This is not to suggest that God is inelastic but that religion is certainly not a normal good…

Chris Bolts writes:

[quote]Don't forget the state's involvement in religious symbolism. Many have pointed out that religion stagnates where there is a state religion, and is most vibrant where there is religious competition and the state stays out of it.[/quote]

True. After the collapse of communism and along with it a state sponsorship of atheism, participation rates amongst Orthodox Christianity skyrocketed.

I was raised Jehovah's Witness, but I consider myself to be a God-fearing man without a religion. It's better than the alternative (atheism) and superior to the former (having to go to church three times a week for two hours a day).

Bob Knaus writes:

Roger M is correct that religious interest has peaks and valleys. An Elliot Wave theorist could doubtless predict the next outbreak of fervor :-)

I don't think Brian's theories about transportation costs or leisure hold water. Check any old USGS topo map and you'll see lots of symbols for churches and graveyards, far more than we have today. Just like there used to be lots of little general stores back when the roads were bad.

As for leisure, farmers actually had quite a bit of it on their hands depending on the season of the year. Don't let grand-dad's tales fool ya!

Leisure cut both ways. One the one hand, clearly at certain times in rural America, people did choose to spend a lot of time in church. On the other hand, there weren't a lot of choices back then for entertainment. A revival preacher then would be greeted with the enthusiasm we reserve for a rock star today.

Roger M writes:

It's dangerous to try to discern people's motives. As one prof of fiction writing said, the author is limited only by his imagination. The motives I attribute to another person have mostly to do with how I feel about that person. With that danger in mind, I suggest that an important motivation for religious belief, especially among the intellectuals I mentioned earlier, is the desire to understand and find meaning in reality. Science helps us understand the material world, but it fails miserably in the arena of meaning. On top of that, it fails to explain personality (e.g., love, morals, self-awareness, etc.).

Bob Knaus writes:

Duh, forgot to post the link to the cyclical nature of religion in America by Nobel laureate Robert William Fogel.

Paul N writes:

Bryan is entranced by substitution effects, but they aren't very strong for religion - people that go to church often believe that their soul is at stake based on their attendance. Most farmers who go to church would go whether they have 10 hours of free time a week or 100, and whether the church is right next door or two hours' drive away.

Matthew Cromer writes:

Perhaps "that old time religion" is the opiate of the masses. I think Robin Hanson got it right about academia though:


"But I'm not very sure that most people really want a fairer system. While academia and media claim that their function is to create better estimates of truth, their actual functions seem baser. Academia helps students and donors affiliate with impressive people. The news media also lets individuals show off by creating common topics for discussion. Existing institutions do fine jobs at these tasks, and that may well be all most people care about."

I guess that would make grant proposals, prestigious journal publishing and tenure the opiates of academia.

Let go thinking about the opium for a while. Take up meditation or some kind of contemplative practice. Take a vacation from your "career". Reflect again on that question "who am I" you used to ask before you internalized the "correct answer" ie: "the product of blind natural selection operating on random chance mutations."

"Sooner or later, just like the world first day, sooner or later, we learn to throw the past away. . .
History, don't teach us nothing
Know your human right, be what you come here for"
-Sting

Steven McMullen writes:

It seems Bryan has a habit of forgetting his economics when he starts talking about religion. His comparisons are trying to get at the opportunity cost of religious participation, which he claims could be decreasing because of easier transportaion and increased leisure. This ignores the fact that opportunity costs of attending a church service have likely increased dramatically as standards of living have increased, wages have increased, etc.

Another point, the cost of attending church has dramatically increased now that commerce is done on Sundays, earlier in this country and many European countries it was not.

Paul K writes:

I don't think that transportation costs or increased leisure impact behavior because they affect all possible activity choices equally.

If I live on a farm in 1880, I have to travel just as far to go to the saloon, or the Grange, or the GAR meeting, or a quilting bee at a friend's house as I do to go to church. Your expectation of a decline in church attendance today if it still took two hours to get there is based on the hidden assumption that it would still only take 15 minutes to drive to the golf course.

What you saw in the 19th century was that activities lasted longer in order to amortize the increased cost of travel. In other words, church services lasted all morning. Nowadays, Saturday night Mass lasts 30 minutes.

The same thing applies to increased leisure time. A factory worker in 1880 worked six ten-hour days, but that is irrelevant to how they decided to spend their day off. What mattered was what the alternatives were. The saloons and dance halls and theaters were closed on Sunday morning, so the choice was to stay home and do what? Nowadays, people going to church are forgoing many more opportunities and many more kinds of immediate gratification than were available 100 years ago.

I would think you could even make the opposite argument about the amount of time people spend on religion. The increase in leisure time is the result of increased productivity. Therefore you should expect that this productivity should apply to religion as well and that a person today could satisfy their spiritual needs in much less time than in the past because there is less overhead in their religious activities. Charitable events can be organized by e-mail and cell phone instead of face-to-face planning meetings, books and tracts can be ordered from Amazon.com, sermons can be heard on the radio or by streaming audio on the Web, &c..

It was harder to be religious 100 years ago, but it was harder to be anything 100 years ago.

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