In a series of essays I am exploring the sociological reasons that the prosperous democracies with high levels of religiosity – the conservative and creationist USA most of all -- tend to have high levels of social dysfunction, and vice versa. In previous essays we looked at specific subjects such as youth sex, marriage and divorce, and child rearing. The last posted offering in this series showed that some factors such as America’s frontier heritage, immigration, ethnic and racial disparities, and media violence do not fully explain America’s exceptional level of social ills. This, the final piece in the series, looks at the broad and fascinating combination of factors that sociological science has shown is producing the best conditions in history in the progressive secular democracies.
As I mentioned previously, the sad fact that America is performing so poorly in so many basic indicators of societal health is a matter of grave concern because the failings cannot be blamed on a low level of wealth vis-à-vis other western democracies. Because the secularized democracies are achieving lower levels of general dysfunction despite having somewhat lower levels of per capita income, they must be using their resources in a more efficient manner.
Here is how it works. Among the 19 most prosperous democracies all but the USA have adopted most or all of a set of pragmatic secular policies that have elevated these nation’s societal efficiency, success and security. The policies include handgun control, anti-corporal punishment and anti-bullying policies, rehabilitative incarceration, intensive sex education that emphasizes condom use, increased leisure time that can be dedicated to family needs and stress reduction, and above all else reduced socio-economic disparity via tax and welfare systems combined with comprehensive health care and job security.
Take your typical citizen of a strongly secular democracy such as France. It is very difficult for such a person to lose their middle class status. No French person, any European or Canadian for that matter, fears bankruptcy due to overwhelming medical bills because everyone is fully covered over their entire lives. Jobs are highly secure. Because their comfortable middle class circumstances are so assured, most Europeans do not feel to need to accumulate massive wealth, so they are not engaged in an intense, rat-race competition with their fellow citizens. The result is reduced levels of stress and anxiety.
A critical point is this. The above policies and positive consequences are based on progressive, secular values and ideas that emphasize pragmatic results over faith-based ideological “morality” stemming from ancient tribal scriptures. In other words it is the lack of a traditional religious world-view that helps create the most benign societal conditions yet seen. In turn, the same positive conditions are directly antagonistic towards popular religiosity. The majorities of western Europe, Canada, Australia and Japan are so sufficiently secure in their middle class lives that few feel a need to seek the aid and protection of supernatural deities. That, more than anything else, is the simple but potent reason why most peoples of the west have abandoned the churches in droves. Because secure prosperity drives general belief in a creator sharply downwards, creationism is likewise undermined. In addition, the displacement of faith-based charities by government assistance reduces the outreach of the churches into the lay community, reducing their ability to recruit and retain members.
The mass secularization that follows from liberal socio-economic practices is not intentional, but it is immensely powerful. Not a single democracy that has adopted progressive policies has failed to see a large-scale drop in popular piety. The most recent European example of the western secularization process is Ireland, where a hi-tech driven economic boom combined with a European style safety net has been accompanied by a strong drop in creator belief in the modern “Celtic Tiger.”
The success of the secular democracies helps explain the failings of the American Way. The USA is anomalous by western norms because it provides citizens with unusually low levels of government support and protection. In essence America is the 1st world nation with the most 2nd and 3rd world like economic arrangement. The need to acquire wealth as a protective buffer contributes to an intense competitive race to the top. Such a high-risk system produces the disparate individual circumstances, and the high levels of societal stress and dissatisfaction, that help elevate rates of social dysfunction.
Take a typical, middle class American nuclear family. They have the big house, a couple of SUVs, plasma TV with cable, take nice vacations, etc., all the fixings of the solid middle class American life style. Say the breadwinner is suddenly laid off due to factors beyond their control. Happens all the time. With the job goes the health care coverage. That happens all the time too. A member of the family comes down with a severe illness that quickly generates enormous bills. Another common event. Medical services often require those without insurance to use a credit card, which piles on the interest. Pretty soon the family is in deep, hopeless debt, and they have to declare bankruptcy. Millions file for the latter each year, and most such failures involve medical bills.
To the personal insecurity middle class Americans must chronically cope with, add the exceptional levels social dysfunction regarding lethal crime, youth sex, divorce and the like detailed in my earlier essays, and it is no wonder that most Americans feel sufficiently anxious and fearful that they perceive a need to seek the aid and protection of a friendly creator with extraordinary powers. In other words, the USA is the1st world nation with the most 2nd and 3rd world like levels of religiosity because it is the western country with the most 2nd and 3rd world like socio-economic circumstances.