Does secularization of the USA spell social meltdown?

Does secularization of the USA spell social meltdown? May 16, 2009

Back in 2005, the sociologist Robert Putnam got a $1.2 million grant from the Templeton Foundation to look at social capital in the USA (social capital is the term to describe all the interlinking relationships that help society tick along).

Well, the payoff comes this year, with a book by Putnam on the way. Putnam also spoke recently at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and a taste of what will be in the book can be seen in the media buzz.

It seems that American youth are more secular than their parents, and the country’s going to hell in a handbasket as a result.

From a certain, narrow perspective, that’s a perfectly reasonable conclusion. After all, Putnam’s study showed that religious Americans are more ‘civically engaged’ than their non religious counterparts:

The scholars say their studies found that religious people are three to four times more likely to be involved in their community. They are more apt than nonreligious Americans to work on community projects, belong to voluntary associations, attend public meetings, vote in local elections, attend protest demonstrations and political rallies, and donate time and money to causes — including secular ones. (USA Today)

Stands to reason, then, that fewer religious people means a disintegrating society, right?

Well, maybe not. In the USA today, being religious is a social norm. Those people who are prepared to stand up and be counted as atheists are also those who reject this social norm. It’s not too surprising that they don’t score as highly on these measures of integration.

Those atheists who do want to participate in their community are going to have to swallow their principles and pretend to be religious. If you want to participate in American society, then you need to be a church goer. It’s expected of you.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. Focus the microscope on more secular countries – New Zealand, Denmark, Sweden etc. – and the image you get is rather different. These are hardly nations on the brink of social meltdown. Rather, they are among the happiest nations on earth.

So could it be that religion has little or nothing to do with social capital?

That’s certainly what two European sociologists, Loek Halman and Thorleif Pettersson, have concluded. Using data from the European Values Survey, they found that there was no relationship between how religious a country was (on average) and a rich it was in social capital.

For example, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have similar levels of social capital, although Slovakia is far more religious than the Czech Republic. Some of the countries with the most social capital, Sweden and Denmark, were also the least religious.

In fact, in Western Europe, the trend is the reverse of what you might expect – the least religious nations have the most social capital!

Now, the important fact to bear in mind is that, in Europe as in the USA, more religious people are more civically engaged. It’s just that, at the aggregate level, other factors are overwhelmingly more important.

For example, social trust, a key generator of social capital, is driven at a cross-national level by the same factors that build a strong democracy – such as open institutions and free speech. Although religious are generally perceived to be more trustworthy on an individual level, that really has no bearing at a national level.

In other words, this is another example where extrapolating from the personal effects of religion to the society-level (or aggregate) effects just does not work.


Loek Halman, & Thorleif Pettersson (2001). Religion and social capital in contemporary Europe: results from the 1999/2000 European Values Survey Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion, 12, 65-93

Kaasa, A., & Parts, E. (2008). Individual-Level Determinants of Social Capital in Europe: Differences between Country Groups Acta Sociologica, 51 (2), 145-168 DOI: 10.1177/0001699308090040

Newton, K. (2004). Social trust: individual and cross-national approaches Portuguese Journal of Social Science, 3 (1), 15-35 DOI: 10.1386/pjss.3.1.15/0

Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative
Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License

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