Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Many of America’s cultural battles in recent decades seem to be face-offs between science and faith: over the teaching of evolution, the reality of climate change, the value of stem cell research, the personhood status of an embryo, and the so on. Many on the liberal side of these issues see the controversies as part of a confrontation between ignorance and knowledge. For the more philosophically inclined, it is about a centuries-old tension between Faith and the Enlightenment’s assertion of reasoned observation. (Scientific American writer Michael Shermer’s “Skeptic” column is largely devoted to this theme.) Recent research suggests, however, a more complex structure to these debates and Americans’ views: Many of those on the religious side are far from scientific naifs; some are scientifically quite knowledgeable. It’s when science directly touches faith that the conflict flares up.


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Holy-Day Exceptionalism

A visit to Old City of Jerusalem in the holiday season, where Christian pilgrims, Jewish Hanukkah revelers, and Muslim muezzins’ calls to prayer mix in very tight quarters, underlines again the atypical nature of religion in the United States. Many countries, including western ones such as Israel, explicitly join state and church. Many have a formal state religion — in much of the Islamic world, and elsewhere, such as Argentina and Finland. Government officials in other countries route tax money to support clergy and church institutions. Many nations establish separate public school systems by religion, for instance, in Northern Ireland, Fiji, and some Canadian provinces. Governments mandate religious training in, for example, Finland, or provide separate religious instruction, as in Germany. Most dramatically, police forces enforce Islamic cultural codes in, for example, Saudi Arabia.

In contrast, church and state are officially separated in the United States, although this has been an evolving practice. For example, reading the (Protestant) Bible and reciting the Lord’s Prayer in public schools was quite common for much of American history. That Protestantism was long the default religious culture of American public schools sparked strong resistance from Catholics and the construction of a private parochial system. Some would argue that tax deductions for church dues today breach the separation. Still, the U.S. remains relatively distinct in its formal blindness to religious affiliations. The key distinction, however, is the grass-roots, associational nature of church in America compared to the more “tribal” nature of church elsewhere.


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Latest News on “No Religion”

In 2002, then-Berkeley (now-NYU) sociologist Michael Hout and I published a paper pointing out a new trend in Americans’ religious identity: A rapidly increasing proportion of survey respondents answered “no religion” when asked questions such as “What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?” In the 1991 General Social Survey, about 7 percent answered no religion and in the 2000 GSS, 14 percent did.* We explained the trend this way:

the increase was not connected to a loss of religious piety, [but] it was connected to politics. In the 1990s many people who had weak attachments to religion and either moderate or liberal political views found themselves at odds with the conservative political agenda of the Christian Right and reacted by renouncing their weak attachment to organized religion.

If that is what religion is, most of the “Nones” seemed to be saying, count me out.

In the years since, the trend has continued, Nones reaching 20 percent in the 2012 GSS. And a good deal of research has also accumulated on the topic (some of it reported in an earlier post). Notably, Robert Putnam and David Campbell refined our argument in their 2010 book, American Grace, pointing more sharply to lifestyle issues as the triggers for Americans declaring no religious identity.

Mike and I have just published a paper in Sociological Science updating the trend over an additional dozen years, applying new methods to the trend, and retesting explanations for the rise in Nones. We – actually it’s 90 percent Mike’s work – find that our earlier account stands up even more strongly.


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Bible Readings

A recent story noted that president of the Hobby Lobby company, the company that took its religious objections to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) all the way to the Supreme Court, is a leader in a campaign to put Bibles and Bible classes into American public schools. As you would expect, this move is getting push back from groups like the ACLU.



The latest controversy is yet one more episode in a long-, long-running series of conflicts over the Bible’s proper role, if any, in American public schools. The most ferocious such episode was probably the Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1844. As part of rolling battles in American cities between Protestant nativists and Catholic immigrants, this one was sparked by Catholic objections to requiring reading the King James Bible in the public schools. In the backlash, several people were killed and Catholic churches were burned. Typically, conflicts over bible-reading were less physical and more political.

We misunderstand today’s debates on the issue if we imagine that Bible reading was once a universal practice in American schools only recently banished by the courts. And we misunderstand if we think about the controversies simply as disputes over whether to have religion – or which religion to have – in the schools. Historians have shown that the Bible played a complex role in American schools. (My major sources are here, here, and here.) In the end, many ministers decided they would just as soon have no Bible-reading in the public schools than the Bible-reading they were getting.


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For years, political divisions over the environment have had the seemingly odd feature that Americans farthest from the open country have tended to be most supportive of protecting the environment, while those nearest to it—farmers and other rural residents—have been most resistant. This split has been muddled in recent years as nature lovers have retired to the countryside, country folk have realized the business advantages of environmental tourism, and political polarization has increasingly subsumed specific issues. Still, when contentious topics such as the Keystone Pipeline or expanding national parks come up, the nature purists tend to be upscale urbanites. The General Social Survey asked how willing respondents would be to “accept cuts in your standard of living in order to protect the environment”; highly educated, white liberals in metropolitan areas were the most willing.

The urban left’s eco-puritanism takes many forms. Well-educated, secular Americans in particular pay extra for organic products, explore “natural” alternatives to Western medicine, and join environmentalist campaigns as donors and participants.

Whatever the virtues of each practice, running through all of them is the exaltation of nature. This cult of the natural has deep roots in America.  — Read more on the Boston Review website.

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In a well-researched and provocative National Journal column, journalist Peter Beinart seeks to jujitsu conservatives’ charges that President Obama has undermined “American exceptionalism.” Beinart argues that American exceptionalism – by which he means America’s sharp differences from Old-World Europe — is “ending.” Young Americans, he states with data, look increasingly just like young Europeans in their religiosity, class consciousness, and nationalism. Beinart flips the right-wing charge, however, arguing that Obama’s arrival is the result, not the origin, of this convergence and, moreover, that it is largely conservative policies that are ending American exceptionalism. Neatly done.flag

I offer some reservations. Beinart exaggerates the convergence of Americans with other western peoples. What is really striking is how long-lasting aspects of American exceptionalism have been in a era when one might have expected global homogenization. (For an earlier discussion of exceptionalism, see here.)


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Atheists are getting evangelical and congregational, bemused press reports would have it. There are the international bus ad campaigns – “Why believe in a God? Just be good for goodness’ sake,” in the U.S., and “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” in Richard Dawkins’ Britain. More recently, a global effort, perhaps tongue in cheek, landed in the U.S. to provide “Sunday Assemblies” with the music and the community of churches, leaving out the God of churches (here and here). Then, there is the Chicago ceremony that “christened” babies Carl, Heinrich, and Martha in a totally irreligious (and socialist) ceremony. Oh, but that happened in 1884.

Announcing Anarchist Rally (source)

Flier: Haymarket Rally (Source)

Historian Bruce Nelson’s article on ir- and anti-religious working-class movements in late 19th-century Chicago, as well as other research, serves to remind us that widespread irreligiosity, aggressive anti-religious social movements, and even fiercely secular instituions are not new.


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