American Exceptionalism

By Sean Carroll | October 30, 2007 10:57 am

Andrew Sullivan and Kevin Drum both link to this Pew Report on various worldwide opinions. Here is the graph that gets people talking, a plot of per capita GDP versus religiosity:

2583.gif

This looks like a curve that was drawn by hand, rather than fit by least-squares, but there is obviously a correlation: as a country gets wealthier, it gets less religious. The United States, obviously, is a whopping outlier. Why is that? What is it about the U.S. that makes it so different from our demographic cousins, even within the Anglosphere? (Kuwait is also an outlier, but the reasons are pretty straightforward.) I’ve heard various theories, but none has really been convincing.

(Looking closely, maybe a better fit to the data would be to horizontal line segments: one at 2.25, for GDP between 0 an 10,000, and one at 0.75, for all higher incomes. Perhaps there is a phase transition that countries undergo when their per capita GDP hits around 10,000. Or, even more likely, there is some hidden third variable that is highly correlated with both GDP and religiosity. That kind of curve would make the U.S. seem less exceptional.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion, World
  • Tico

    I’m sure if you split the US 50/50 down the line after sorting for religiosity. I’m sure the most religious 50% would have a lower GDP than the least religious by a long shot. The U.S. is a big and varied and multicultural place compared to most countries.

  • Debbie

    “but there is obviously a correlation: as a country gets wealthier, it gets less religious”

    The second part of that statement could be read as implying the link is causal rather than a correlation. Who knows? I could just as easily see a country getting wealthier as it gets less religious.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    The “phase transition” that I’d think of first is fertility. The US will deviate in terms of that variable as well. I keep seeing the Darwinian argument that secularists are so reproductively unprolific that they’ll eventually be swamped by religionists, especially if the secularists encourage the religionists to migrate into secularist regions (e.g. from a poorer country to a richer one).

    The more complicated evolutionary reasoning may be spurious, but I don’t think the fertility relationship is.

  • Beren

    I’d like to see another axis added for population density. I suspect the U.S. is comparatively sparsely-populated, compared to other wealthy nations. Perhaps that is a factor?

    Of course, Mexico City comes to mind, and I’m not sure whether India and China count as wealthy nations. Perhaps it’s a combination of wealth and population density? The idea being: the denser your population is, the more likely you are to encounter (and befriend!) people with other beliefs, thus potentially eroding the idea that your religion makes you a fundamentally different sort of person.

  • Ben

    Using GDP as an indicator of wealth is not the best idea.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gross_domestic_product#Criticisms_and_limitations

    I could get hit by a car tomorrow and do more to raise the GDP than I would in a whole year in my relatively low paying job.

  • tacitus

    Having emigrated from the UK to America, one reason for the US being an outlier is that it is a much more politically conservative nation than most of Western Europe. I don’t know if it’s cause or effect, but conservative nations do tend to be more religious.

    Whatever the reasons, surveys are beginning to show that the US may well come back into line with the rest of the wealthy nations within a few decades regarding religiosity. The younger generations are markedly less religious than the baby boomers and pre-boomers, and trending further that way.

    We’ve gone from 5% of a generation claiming to be non-religious to around 20% in 40 years. Given that most people tend not to change their beliefs once they have reached their 20s, this will naturally make America less religious as the balance of the population changes.

    What beliefs the next generation holds is anyone’s guess, but I would be very surprised to see this trend towards the secular reversing. It certainly hasn’t happened anywhere in Western Europe.

    But rather than worry about the individual beliefs of Americans, what I am hoping is that this trend marks the beginning of the end for the religious right’s ability to shape public policy. With the current backlash against the Republican party, we may have already seen the high-water mark in the past six years of the Bush administration. When they are finally able to recover from their recent setbacks, they may find their base is an awful lot smaller than it was before. I, for one, will not be terribly disappointed.

  • citrine

    I’d like to see this graph done per country, plotting “religiosity” (or however one quantifies it) against annual income.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I believe there’s a pretty strong negative correlation between per capita income and fertility, so if you normalized to either, I’m guessing the fit would improve.

  • Matt

    I’m guessing that there would be a correlating graph for GDP and education, that as the general education of the population rises, the GDP rises, with a blip to one side for the US, indicating that it’s easier to be bone-ignorant in America, yet still make a good living.

    Not to imply that religious people are bone-ignorant, or anything.

  • Rien

    Beren:

    I’d like to see another axis added for population density. I suspect the U.S. is comparatively sparsely-populated, compared to other wealthy nations. Perhaps that is a factor?

    I know one counterexample: Sweden is extremely sparsely populated too, even more than the US: 20 people per km^2 compared to the US’ 31. It is also the least religious country in Europe.

  • http://tsm2.blogspot.com wolfgang

    If one divides the sample into Europe and ‘all others’ one could make the case that
    the social safety net in most European countries explains the reduced need for religion.

  • spyder

    Well, I can’t remember his exact quote, but paraphrasing James Dobson of Focus on the Family (and other crazy xTian political zealotry): Attacks on American Christianity are attacks on capitalism and our way of life!

    It is interesting that the graph shows the US somewhat higher in per capita GDP than either the IMF or even the CIA. Norway, Finland, Ireland, and tiny but principled Luxembourg have higher GDP/capita. Ireland therefore makes another interesting case re: religiosity versus over capitalism.

  • http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/ John Baez

    Here’s one reason per capita GDP is not a good way to study the correlation between wealth and religiosity. The same reason applies to average income or any measure of wealth where you total up some amount of wealth and divide by the number of people.

    Say you have a country with one multii-zillionaire and everyone else dirt poor. If poor people tend to be religious, this country will have a lot of religious people. But, its average income could be high, thanks to that one multi-zillionaire.

    In short: even if the proposed correlation between religiosity and low income is true, this way of looking for it won’t work for countries that have a high variation in income – a few people
    much richer than the rest.

    And, of course, the US has a higher variation in income than most European countries. Maybe that’s why it looks exceptional in this graph. I can’t tell.

    So, this graph is based on a crappy methodology – unless the hypothesis we’re interested in is really that high per capita GDP, per se, makes people less religious. (Maybe one multi-zillionaire on the block is enough to make all the poor folk stop believing in god. Who knows? But this seems a bit far-fetched.)

  • S. Clark

    I seems to me that the graph does not account for the vast scope of religion. The concept of religion itself is as varried as the number of religions. This graph treats religion as a uniform concept, while even a mere student of religion will quickly learn that not all religions are moral equivalent.

    So I guess to finish my point, could the US be such an outlier as a result of the primary religious belief being various forms of Christianity? Whereas Africa is much more varried in religious beliefs including Islam, Christianity, and a host of other less mainstream beliefs. Could it be that this graph is really displaying the differences in religion? Perhaps some religions are beneficial to the development of society, and others are not?

  • http://quasar9.blogspot.com/ Quasar9

    So where are China & Russia in that graph?
    Seems that atheism or lack of religion per se, hasn’t made them all that ‘wealthy’ in the past century.
    I would say having faith in their own currency, adopting ‘capitalist’ economics – being willing & able to hold vast sums of dollar debt from the US – and the velocity of ‘money’ have contributed to the Chinese economic miracle.

    But then again, in Capitalism money is god.
    Ironically per capita or per head, means that some of the poorest and most densely populated parts of earth have the potential for the highest GDP. Imagine if and when average incomes in India, China, Brazil, Mexico (and Africa) reach US & EU levels – their GDP will grow rapidly. Whereas their ‘inherited’ wealth (infrastructure & property) still lags a little behind.

    Life is a series of repetitive rituals (and consummerism):
    get up and have breakfast, a cup of coffee or tea (and brush your teeth?)
    get up and have the three esses – a sh*t, a shower, and a shave?
    get up and read the daily papers, and/or learn something ‘new’
    get up and travel to work, and/or take the kids to school on the way?
    get up and make money (pray for more paying customers to visit your shop?)
    get up and get drunk, and hope to have some fun – or at least the ilusion
    or simply get up, and enjoy another day.

    So which daily rituals float your boat?
    But hey, it’s all about whatever gets you through the day.
    So Enjoy and “have a nice day”

  • tacitus

    China and Russia are probably not good data points as their governments actively crack down on religion (or used to, in the case of the former Soviet Union). There was a rebound in religious observance all over the ex-communist countries when the yoke of communism was lifted, showing that even though they were supposed to be atheist, many people never abandoned the faith of their fathers.

    No doubt the decades-long crackdown has had some lasting effect, and these countries are never likely to be as religious as they once were, but they are probably not useful as comparisons with what’s happening in the US.

    In the same way, some Islamic countries, like Saudi Arabia, will skew the data the other way since it is illegal for a citizen not to be a practicing Muslim.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    But where, realistically, the average outnumber the super-rich by thousands, if not millions, to one, can a gilded-age economy (i.e. extreme economic polarization) skew per capita GDP all that much?

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Sorry, I should have said mode rather than average.

  • Ellipsis

    excise the states that lost the Civil War and you have your answer.

    the divides that existed in American society then are precisely reflected in that plot. If those states had seceded and the coutries were truly and formally divided, the “Confederate States of America” would be back amongst the yellow dots (they would have had, and would still have, a difficult time living without the northern states), whereas the US (rest of it) would be with western Europe.

  • Haelfix

    The US has high median per capita GDP as well, so the billionare outlier isn’t that strong of an argument either. Also Ireland seems to be up there also on the GDP/Capita and they are fairly religious (or so I might have thought)

    I’d venture to guess its just historical coincidence, America just so happens to have been a resource rich, fairly isolated area free of war that highly religious people colonized not so long ago on historical timescales.

    Also we are far less religious today than we were even 200 years ago, so perhaps its just that the system hasn’t had time to relax yet.

    I’m not particularly sure if the statement makes sense even at the individual level though. We could look for correlations on the Forbes 100 list for religiosity for instance, but Im not sure if we would see anything there -shrug-

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Perhaps a clearer way to put it:

    GDP = consumption + investment + govt. spending + (exports – imports).

    Kind of a complicated measure compared to something like personal income or wealth.

    Now, it’s true that wealth is distributed incredibly unevenly in the US (top 1% have something like a third of the wealth, whereas in the UK it’s more like a fourth or a fifth, and in Scandanavia, there’s even less inequality). It’s easy enough to see how such a distribution is going to separate, say, median income from the mean. But how well does unequal wealth distribution correlate to per capita GDP? My naïve comparison of per capita GDPs of European nations to the US would lead me to guess perhaps not much. What’s the true relationship btw. per capita GDP and measures of personal wealth or income?

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I see some partial answers have come in since I started typing.

  • Shantanu

    Sean, I am surprised no one has blogged about this interesting paper by Psaltis et al
    0710.4564 . Maybe you could blog about it.
    Thanks

  • Steven Schreiber

    I think that the suggested issue that the US is really made up of “two Americas” with a secular, wealthy upper class and a vast swarm of poor people who are very religious is misguided. Despite wealth inequality, median incomes in the US aren’t very low and consistent with those of other well-developed nations and often higher. That seems to undermine the idea that it wealth inequality is the driving force.

    I think the more likely explanation would be found with the difference in the social function of religion in the US v. Europe. In many parts of the US, religious institutions also form the major social institutions, serve as centers for networking and thereby wealth creation. It is likely, then, that a great many more people to the north of the median income are religious, or profess to be religious, than in other countries because of the social and economic benefits of doing so. At the same time, however, aggregate church attendance (both in- and outside zones where religion serves as the prime social force) is fairly low while Americans frequently lie about their church attendance, inflating it dramatically. That indicates that appearing religious probably serves a social function, one deeply ingrained enough that Americans will lie about it to strangers.

    That’s my answer: America isn’t really that much more religious, it just pays to say you are in the US, skewing the numbers.

  • tacitus

    No, I disagree. America has a much, much larger minority of deeply religious people than in Western Europe. For example, less than 10% of the UK attends church frequently, whereas its around 50% in the US, of which about half are characterized as evangelicals / fundamentalist / bible-believers.

    While I am sure there is some lying going on, it’s not to the degree that would completely invalidate these survey results — there are many more well attended churches here than in the UK, for example.

    Whether or not these religious people live according to the dictates of their faith is, of course, in doubt, but there is no doubting that a much larger proportion of the US population is seriously committed to their beliefs than in Western Europe.

  • D

    Immigration?

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I guess I fail to see what the incentive is to lie on a poll like this, where one is most likely assured anonymity. Surely folks lie to members of their social circle if telling the truth has negative social repercussions, but why lie to the Pew Research Center?

    The more I think about this, the more mysterious it is. Clearly, what per capita GDP tells us is that a nation needn’t be economically egalitarian to be an economic powerhouse, but it’s not such a stretch accept that per capita GDP probably does say something about the common citizen’s “quality of life”. “Poor” in the USA is qualitatively different than “poor” in Somalia. Those who find themselves below the US poverty line don’t also tend to find themselves frequently on the verge of starvation, in a mud hut, with no access to clean drinking water or the most basic medical care, perhaps fearing death by violence on a daily basis, etc.

  • John Merryman

    With government and religion as the basic communal institutions and a generation of nativist badmouthing of government condoning and encouraging diversity, institutional religion benefits, whether it agrees, or not. On the other side of the coin, poor countries tend to have corrupt governments, thus religion attracts the dispossessed.

  • Jack

    Guffaw! When conservatives post this kind of graph, liberals get a good laugh at their ignorance of basic methodology. Post up a graph of suicide rates vs “degree of socialism” if you doubt this. But now SC can post up this idiotic thing and it is taken seriously. So what are the units of religiosity? Kilopopes? Nanodawkins? LOL!!

  • Haelfix

    I agree with the poster who noted that religion plays different roles between the US and say Europe. It does indeed serve as sort of a communal rallying and networking role in the US which I imagine helps up the GDP numbers somewhat.

    So I guess the point is the US is simply an anomaly and nothing much can be learned from it.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Aha! A measure of income inequality can be expressed as the Gini Coefficient:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gini_coefficient

    The wiki has a blurb on how the GC correlates with per capita GDP: Little to no relation on the low end of the per capita GDP scale, with values converging on 0.4 or less on the high end. With a GC of about 0.67, the US is yet again an anomaly.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Gah! 0.47, not 0.67…

  • Lord

    Most countries have or have had something close to a state religion. America is rather unique in that case and competition between religious entities has maintained more religious feelings.

  • jw kersten

    To me the most plausible explanation for this anomaly, lies in the difference in social security. The existential threat to US-citizens in case of accident or disease is far greater than it is in europe. I think if you could make a graph plotting existential security vs religiosity there would be a correlation where the US would not be an anomaly.

  • Tumbledried

    Yes, I suppose one could say that the irony about the US is that although it is one of the closest countries in the world to having a pure capitalist economy, that has the consequence that communist type aspects of government (such as social security, and/or safety nets for the disadvantaged) are somewhat neglected, and this tends to generate a growing economic underclass over time. Also, I think it is a well documented aspect of human nature that it is not how well off you are that determines your level of general happiness in a society, but how well off you are in relation to the others within it – since this is a way of measuring status. Hence my hypothesis is that the US has a large number of people that are drawn to religion due to an undercurrent of general unhappiness via this cause. And of course there are the historical aspects to the foundation of the current american state. The original colonists of the country known today as the United States were outcast from Europe due to their weird religious beliefs, some 400 or so years ago. Draw from this whatever conclusions you will…

  • Tumbledried

    Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to jump on the bandwagon and be overly critical of America here. There tend to be a great deal of threads on the web over the last few years inviting comments that might seem rather negative and judgemental about the US, in particular towards aspects of its culture. I think we too soon forget all of the great things that America has done for the world in the last hundred years, particularly in the last fifty. The second industrial revolution, the information age, the internet – all of these things were and still are almost completely monopolised by the US. Advances in biology, medicine, you name it – the US is still the world leader in R&D, and still will be the dominant player in this regard for decades yet. I think it would be best not to forget that – and not to forget all that we owe to these technologies that have enhanced our lives in the modern age, and to the nation responsible for their development.

  • Pingback:   Comment on American Exceptionalism by tacitus by swiftda()

  • efp

    The U.S. economy is an outlier in just about every way. I’m willing to bet a fair part of that excess GDP is offense defense spending.

  • bob

    We live in a country whose citizens believe that America is the source of all goodness and peace in the world despite the fact that it has killed something in excess of a million civilians in unprovoked wars over the last half century.

    We shouldn’t be surprised that gullibility extends to religion too.

  • drunk

    1) Where is China and India, 2/5th of the world population?

    2) US position is an indication of a trend. There is a surge of religiosity because there is a trend towards lower GDP.

  • Rien

    Yes, I suppose one could say that the irony about the US is that although it is one of the closest countries in the world to having a pure capitalist economy, that has the consequence that communist type aspects of government (such as social security, and/or safety nets for the disadvantaged) are somewhat neglected, and this tends to generate a growing economic underclass over time.

    Where is the irony in that?

  • Belizean

    I agree with post #14.

    The simplest explanation is that the United States is the only country on earth founded by a collection of Protestant sects.

    These sects practiced versions of Protestantism that were more extreme than those prevalent in 17th-century Western Europe (e.g. Anglicanism or Scandinavian/German Lutheranism.)

    In particular, these sects were unusual in the degree to which they held work, specifically capitalistic wealth creation, to be a moral imperative.

    It shouldn’t be too surprising that wealth correlates positively with the prevalence of religious beliefs that encourage its creation.

    It should also be no surprise that wealth correlates positively with the weakness of religious beliefs that discourage its creation (most strains of Catholicism, quasi-Catholic forms of Protestantism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism)

    [Is there such a thing as a Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim, or Hindu work ethic?]

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Dharma springs to mind, though it may be a more rigidly classist system than the one which our “founding fathers” were born into.

  • mormon

    In particular, these sects were unusual in the degree to which they held work, specifically capitalistic wealth creation, to be a moral imperative.

    But that happened four centuries ago… I very much doubt that today the average American worker works more hours a week than the average Korean, Japanese, German, Norwegian, you name it.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Um…like, holy crap. Just on a lark I did a search using terms like religiosity and fecundity, and found an article with “American exceptionalism” in the first sentence, even.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/04/AR2007050401891.html

    Kind of makes me wonder more about the Darwinian arguments in #3.

  • Tumbledried

    #42: Yes, I think I made a bad choice of words there. I suppose the core of what I meant was that even though the economy of America is run more optimally than those of other countries, this tends to make people’s lives comparatively suboptimal for various reasons, a view that you may or may not agree with.

    #45: There are arguments for and against the power of legacy. But to suppose that it has no influence in a country that is as deeply patriotic as the US might be slightly naive. However I do agree that saying there is a deep link between events 4 centuries ago and today is a bit on the kooky side. Nonetheless I think it is worth bearing in mind, since historical context is always useful.

  • Belizean

    But that happened four centuries ago… I very much doubt that today the average American worker works more hours a week than the average Korean, Japanese, German, Norwegian, you name it.

    Turns out that the average American does work more hours, at least according to
    this recent article from the New York Times. [Unfortunately, the Times has ceased to be a reliable source of information. This article has Sarkozy as an advocate of the French 35-hour work week, when he is in fact its most ardent opponent. It also seems to be attempting to de-emphasize the US lead in absolute productivity by solely discussing relative productivity gains of inferior economies.]

    This article highlights the fascinating case of the Irish. Is their rise to #2 in productivity (behind the U.S.) due to weakening Catholicism?

  • bookwerm

    This division of the US from other high producers is highlighted by the “red state/blue state” divisions in America. If you actually evaluate America, it is really two countries, Blue states with low religiosity, and high output, and then the Red states, with high religiosity, but low output/rural life. While there are some with high religiosity in Blue States, and some in Red states that have bank, look at the gestalt, there is a division. There are many hinterlands in America, where faith is unquestioned, they vote the Republican ticket without review of issues, and “trust” in America. I say America is built by those who do NOT trust, but verify, the antithesis of a “faith based” reality.

  • Haelfix

    Eyeballing the statistics for GSP/capita or even just straight GSP for the US states, I can’t really see a noticeable red/blue correlation. Maybe a little bit, but not exactly conclusive.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I can’t believe they even include DC (#1) in the per capita GSP breakdown. Government spending is about the only economy the place has, and although that contributor is massive, a huge proportion of the actual govt. employees live in suburban VA or MD. Unemployment rates for DC residents hover around 6%, and a far larger percentage barely make a living wage if they’re not govt.-employed. It’s completely in its own catagory.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    “To examine the relationship between wealth
    and religious belief, a three-item index was created,
    with “3” representing the most religious position.
    Respondents were given a “1” if they believe faith in
    God is necessary for morality; a “1” if they say
    religion is very important in their lives; and a “1” if
    they pray at least once a day.”

    — rather a crude measure of religiosity, IMO.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    It also seems to be attempting to de-emphasize the US lead in absolute productivity by solely discussing relative productivity gains of inferior economies.

    If a barber in India and a hair dresser in the US both serve a customer per fifteen minutes, but the barber in India is paid 40 rupees (say) == 1 dollar and the hair dresser in the US is paid 40 dollars (say), then by one measure the US hairdresser is forty times more productive, and by another not any more productive than his Indian counterpart.

    What absolute productivity means in a service-sector dominated economy is not at all clear.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Belizean,

    Hinduism discourages the creation of wealth? Which alternate reality are you from?

  • Kaleberg

    I have to agree with Ellipsis on the Confederacy. The Bible Belt is also the murder belt, the divorce belt, and a belt of grinding poverty.

    I also have to agree with Arun in that there is a Hindu work ethic. Hinduism is syncretic, so if it didn’t have a work ethic, one could be added.

    There is a reason that chart has the shape it does:

    The entire bottom right of the curve covers Europe, East and West, much of which had been under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. The Church was one of the first multinationals, and horribly successful and successfully horrible. (Buddhism was multinational, but decentralized; most other religions cover relatively small, relatively coherent regions).

    Part of the reaction to the Church was a series horrifying religious wars. Another part of the reaction was science, the systematic application of the primacy of evidence as opposed to ideas. This has really only appeared once in our world and in one specific time and place. A new means of exploiting the natural world was developed, and that led to greater wealth, whether measured by GDP, median income, or lower infant mortality rate.

    As for the United States, Americans never had a state church, so they never had as great a reaction against it. Religion is a friend, not a brother. You get to choose.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Not exactly the right thread to post this in, but here goes:

    http://www.city-journal.org/html/17_4_oh_to_be.html
    What the New Atheists Don’t See
    Theodore Dalrymple (who is an atheist, too)

    ….recently, an epidemic rash of books has declared success, at least if success consists of having slain the inveterate enemy of reason, namely religion. The philosophers Daniel Dennett, A. C. Grayling, Michel Onfray, and Sam Harris, biologist Richard Dawkins, and journalist and critic Christopher Hitchens have all written books roundly condemning religion and its works….

    …Yet with the possible exception of Dennett’s, they advance no argument that I, the village atheist, could not have made by the age of 14…

    ….Lying not far beneath the surface of all the neo-atheist books is the kind of historiography that many of us adopted in our hormone-disturbed adolescence, furious at the discovery that our parents sometimes told lies and violated their own precepts and rules….

    …The emblematic religious person in these books seems to be a Glasgow Airport bomber—a type unrepresentative of Muslims, let alone communicants of the poor old Church of England….

    The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy. And in my own view, the absence of religious faith, provided that such faith is not murderously intolerant, can have a deleterious effect upon human character and personality. If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement. Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies.

    etc.

  • http://www.mpe.mpg.de/~erwin/ Peter Erwin

    Belizean said:
    Turns out that the average American does work more hours, at least according to this recent article from the New York Times.

    Japanese consistently worked longer hours than Americans right up until the early 1990s. South Koreans work longer hours than just about anyone in the industrialized world. Americans do work longer than most Western Europeans, but not Eastern Europeans (e.g., Czechs, Poles).

    [Is there such a thing as a Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim, or Hindu work ethic?]

    See: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, for starters. Or the new entrepreneurial centers in India (e.g., Bangalore). Also see, for example, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Indian immigrants to the US, and their descendants. The Lebanese merchant diaspora is made up of Muslims and (non-Protestant) Christians. And so forth.

    [Is there such a thing as a “Protestant work ethic”? Not really. Even Weber, who came up with the idea, eventually abandoned it because it didn’t really explain much. It doesn’t explain why solidly Protestant areas like Scandinavia remained relatively backward until the 20th Century, nor does it explain why a strongly Calvinist Scotland lagged behind a less fiercely Protestant England. Nor does it explain, for example, the extraordinary commercial drive of medieval and Renaissance Italian cities.]

  • http://ideaworx.com Lewis Perdue

    The bitter battle that cannot be won — the proof of God/no god — bores many people, myself included.

    Anti-religionists (atheists, Brights, or whetever moniker they choose) annoy as vexatiously as Creationists (Intelligent Design-ists, yaddayadda).

    Regardless of which side one chooses, the evangelical compulsion to expound prevents the converted from critically examining the advocate’s viewpoint and blinds opponents to ideas with which they could agree.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    Lewis: OK, you have a point. Many people (like Ali, who has posted on the thread/s about God’s existence) and Unitarian Universalists, have decided it is better to pursue “spirituality” as stance and valuation rather than argue about God’s “existence” (as if “exist” was even so clear cut anyway, considering real/virtual particles, the notion that all worlds are just equations and descriptions anyway (erasing the traditional distinction between the Platonic world of ideas and “substantive” worlds) etc.) Although I think “God exists” in some sense and enjoy arguing with opposing commenters hereabouts (but see my admission that I get a kick out of tweaking people), I am a Unitarian Universalist. I seek “spirituality” in a way that can be practiced alongside those who do not believe that “God” “exists.” Consider joining a UU church or fellowship.

  • http://ideaworx.com Lewis Perdue

    Well, I very much like the intelligent physics and most other commentary from Sean and his cohorts.

    Having studied physics at Cornell back in the early 1970s when the Internet was called ARPAnet and Hans Bethe taught undergraduates, I struggle to remain current.

    I do have a problem when we try to use scientific weight to argue for or against God.

    In Sean’s case, I think it detracts from the power of his intellect when his arguments are phrased so dogmatically.

    You might ask whether I find Barrow or Davies equally problematic when they stray into the God realm. I do find their presentation less dogmatic and emotional. But I do _not_ think their arguments _for_ God help their science.

    Science must present falsifiable theories and must predict phenomenon that can be experimentally tested. BOTH sides need to realize that beliefs may fall out of experimental results, but beliefs are faith and not science.

    Faith is not science … and science is not faith.

    Having myself rejected and fled from the fundamentalist believers of religion, I do not like the prospect of finding myself in the arms of atheist fundamentalist believers such as Dawkins and others who are Falwell anti-particles.

    I do see science as a pillar to cling to while belief and faith, non-belief and anti-faith scour each other with endless invective.

  • Jason Dick

    How is it dogmatic to state that given what we know of the world around us, as a result of science, the existence of any deity is highly unlikely?

  • tumbledried

    Hello again Jason,

    I hope you don’t mind me rejoining the discussion here, however briefly.

    I’m personally one of those fellows who believes that the whole notion of arguing for/against the existence of a poorly defined entity/concept of varying levels of abstraction (depending on your definition), that some people like to call “god” confuses the issue. So, certainly, it is not really dogmatic to state that a primitive definition of god is unlikely – this is Occam’s razor – and any fellow who would tell you or try to convince you otherwise is deluding themselves. But I think there was a lot of hullabaloo about “setting up straw men” in the other recent thread (“Tell me what God means”), and with more sophisticated forms of spirituality, Occam’s razor just doesn’t cut it.

    To elaborate, the core problem that I see religion as helping to solve is to provide a solid ground on which to think and view the world – a core philosophical basis to base oneself on and one’s decisions. If you strip religion away, you are left with philosophy. I think the core complaint of many people who see the good professor Dawkins and his ilk as going too far is that, in their arrogance, they would strip away the philosophy too, and leave one with no clear values to stand on.

    As for myself, I am not a religious fellow; but I still appreciate the power and simplicity of the ideas underlying the eastern schools of philosophy, particularly the middle path of buddhism, which I try to follow as best I can, though I sometimes find it difficult.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    Folks: talking about “God” is philosophy, and it’s no discredit to Davies et al to *use* scientific knowledge to help make a point. Philosophy is all about framing issues, “thinking about thinking”, and even what science is or does is a subject of philosophy. In doing philosophy, we use all the knowledge we have (not just “science”, but logic, linguistics, our “getting off the ground” experiences, etc.) as a tool – so science is a tool of philosophy, it is not “science” just because science is being used. And Jason, there is really nothing science tells us that gives a low chance of God existing, it just isn’t equipped in principle to do that. The concepts of contingent or necessary existence, even how to frame the issues of existing or not, etc., are not part of the toolkit of science. When scientists do talk about such things (and it’s apart from whether pro or con), they are really doing “philosophy.”

  • http://ideaworx.com Lewis Perdue

    The current issue of “The Economist” has an extensive and exhaustive (and exhausting!) special section on how religion will be the defining factor in 21st century world affairs.

  • Dave

    I disagree that atheism leaves , “no clear values to stand on“. Ask a moral question, analyze the possible answers, and choose the one that leads to the outcome you’re most comfortable with. Are we really so lacking in the data and tools of analysis to answer “moral” questions?

  • tumbledried

    Hi Dave,

    I think you’re quoting me out of context here. Certainly what I understand as atheism or naturalism or whatever is the stance that there is no magic explanation for the universe/creation, in particular, that there is/are no god/(s) as in the bible/Greek mythology/whatever.

    Atheism as I see it is a stance – and I believe that you need more than just the rejection of the “magic” of religious dogma to make moral decisions. You still need some sort of core approach to dealing with things and making decisions. Certainly we view certain things as intuitively wrong, but, to people that we would call sociopaths/psychopaths, these things are not wrong. In particular, I think we all have been confronted with thought experiments where doing something for “the greater good” seems reprehensible, but, if we were thinking completely coldly and rationally, we would just do it.

    If you are going to argue about being completely rational here, you have to quantify this intuition. My key criticism about “the new atheism” is that this hasn’t been properly considered by many of its adherents, and that it is merely a crusade on largely harmless belief systems. Or am I missing something here?

  • Thekure

    Where is Scandinavia and Japan? Richest countries in the world, and also most atheist.

  • http://ideaworx.com Lewis Perdue

    Reading the whole report (http://pewglobal.org/reports/pdf/258.pdf.) offers a LOT more understanding, especially the raw data on each survey question.

    (the page numbers I use are the ones printed at the bottom of the report. Front matter will advance the Adobe software page numbers by 4)

    THEKURE:

    Weird that the Pew left out the color key to the chart everwhere except in the data section of the report which is on page 41 here:

    The actual data is on p. 42 which will allow yopu to see that only Sweden is included, and is lumped in with Western Europe.

    from the report: “The six relatively rich Western
    European countries, for instance, are among the most
    secular included in the survey, and with a mean score
    of .24, Sweden is the most secular. Other wealthy
    nations, such as Canada, Japan and Israel, also have
    low levels of religiosity.”

    DAVE/TUMBLEDRIED:

    You’d be interested in looking at the survey data staring on p. 116 which has the restults of this question:

    “Q.45 Which one of these comes closest to
    your opinion? Number 1 – It is not necessary
    to believe in God in order to be moral and
    have good values OR Number 2 – It is
    necessary to believe in God in order to be
    moral and have good values.”

  • tumbledried

    Aha I see that is very interesting, thank you Lewis. It is strange, very strange, to see in some countries (including America!) the majority voting for option 2. I guess it goes to show how fundamental religious thought is to the functioning of certain societies.

    As far as I am concerned, the question of morality and the question of belief/non-belief are two separate questions which are not really correlated (although for some people they doubtless are). In particular, I view the second question, the question of belief, as largely meaningless (though of course some people might view it as quite important). Consequently I prefer to focus on the first.

  • TRuu

    Countries with high atheist populations have the highest standards of living, low crime rate, more peacful, and also happen to be the least corrupt. Denmark, Finland, and Iceland have some of the biggest atheist populations in the world and yet they have high standards of leaving and are model democracies.

    On the other hand, countries were religious belief is strong tend to be led by dictatorships, have high crime rates, and are aomng the most corrupt in the world.

    So if atheism leaves one with no clear values to stand on, why does it seem that religious people have trouble being moral.

    Actions speak louder than words.

  • Dave

    Responding to comment 66

    Certainly we view certain things as intuitively wrong

    Yes, a product of evolution that has reproductively benefited our ancestors, but like any of our inherited qualities, should still be subject to conscious assessment.

    but, to people that we would call sociopaths/psychopaths, these things are not wrong

    Well, I don’t think any moral code, regardless of its foundations, would influence those fringe cases.

    My key criticism about “the new atheism” is that this hasn’t been properly considered by many of its adherents, and that it is merely a crusade on largely harmless belief systems.

    I’m not familiar with this “new atheism” you refer to, but I can imagine the existance of “crusade[s] on largely harmless belief systems”. I do agree that many belief systems are “largely harmless”. But I don’t think looking for moral foundations outside of both religion and irreligious (as I thought you were suggesting) is constructive. The sooner we completely let go of the idea that morality is outside rational thought (and by rational, I don’t mean logic alone), the sooner we, including folks like you, can work on the complex problem of how we actually work (including our morality).

  • Tumbledried

    Hi Dave,

    I do believe we may have been talking past each other all this time. You say that

    “The sooner we completely let go of the idea that morality is outside rational thought (and by rational, I don’t mean logic alone), the sooner we, including folks like you, can work on the complex problem of how we actually work (including our morality)”

    and I completely agree with you. I never actually meant to suggest otherwise, and I do think I may have chosen some of my words poorly. I think the main confusion (and point of disagreement) was that you were arguing that “not believing in god” ie atheism, is one and the same as rational thought, whereas I would include “not caring about the god question” as also a perfectly reasonable basis for rational thought (which is where I sit), and then there are plenty of religious people who are otherwise quite rational as well. Furthermore, I argued that although many atheists are rational, not all of them are – which is also a point where I detect we have disagreement.

    I certainly was not “looking for moral foundations outside of both religion and irreligious” – where I detect your undertext in “irreligious” was “rationality”. Indeed I have great “faith” – haha – that one could find a basis for moral foundations based on completely rational considerations, even to the point where one could construct rigorous mathematical models of social situations. Indeed this is the motivation for the area of mathematics known as game theory, or at least one of the motivations.

    To conclude, I think our misunderstanding was a difference in opinion over what being irreligious means. To me it seems clear that there are certainly broader classes of people who are irreligious than atheists, though of course if your definitions differ from mine we will again be in disagreement.

    Hope this helps.

  • Dave

    Tumbledried on Nov 14th, 2007 at 11:23 pm said:

    I would include “not caring about the god question” as also a perfectly reasonable basis for rational thought (which is where I sit)

    I used to think that too, but now I’m not so sure. Since the majority of humanity has cared about the god question, it seems a mistake for us not to as well. Popular vote has ruled it an important question to answer. Pragmatically, I think there are differences in the way one might live being either atheist or agnostic.

    Furthermore, I argued that although many atheists are rational, not all of them are – which is also a point where I detect we have disagreement.

    Oh no, I agree with you there. :^)

    Indeed I have great “faith” – haha – that one could find a basis for moral foundations based on completely rational considerations, even to the point where one could construct rigorous mathematical models of social situations. Indeed this is the motivation for the area of mathematics known as game theory, or at least one of the motivations.

    That is a fascinating and fruitful area of study. Together with evolutionary psychology, I believe much can be understood.

    I think our misunderstanding was a difference in opinion over what being irreligious means

    Maybe, but I think overall we’re on the same page.

    It’s been fun, thanks. I hope others have enjoyed our discourse too!

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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