The unpredictability of cultural norms

By Razib Khan | October 18, 2012 12:28 am

I do pay for The New York Times, but as you may know I get frustrated with the lack of context for international stories. Most Americans are not particularly informed about world affairs, so fact without frame can confuse. For example today a story came into my feed, Uruguay Senate Approves First-Trimester Abortions. Naturally the article alludes to Latin America’s Roman Catholicism, but I also happen to know that aside from Cuba Uruguay has long been Latin America’s most secular nation. The chart from the left is from Uruguay’s household survey. I don’t know Spanish, but even to me it’s clear that 17.2 percent of Uruguay’s population identifies as atheist or agnostic, about three times the similar number in the United States (being generous). Fully 42 percent of the nation’s population is non-Christian, with 40 percent disavowing any religion.

This is all relevant because most readers of The New York Times are going to see Uruguay, a Latin American country where the Catholic religion is the dominant confession, and make some inferences of the weakening of the power of the church. But in Uruguay the church has been weak for 100 years! So why has Uruguay had strict abortion laws like its more religious neighbors? Because it is a small nation surrounded by influential neighbors, who no doubt effect its mores and norms. It reminds us of the power of cultural inertia and peer effects.

  • Dm

    It’s interesting that you mention cultural inertia. It’s often hypothesized that popular beliefs are influenced by longing for the Golden Age, the past era of grandeur. In Uruguay and Argentina, the Golden days happened in the 1940s, and it’s been all decay and upheavals ever since. A degree of romantization of the cherished past could influence today’s attitudes, what do you think?

    BTW the reported, and likely exaggerated, differences in religiousness between Argentina and Uruguay remind us that even in XXI century, the fear of persecution may influence self-reporting of religious and ideological affiliation. What makes the Argentines fudge the answers is their country’s recent history of violent suppression of the liberals and leftists, when people disappeared by tens of thousands, and when the clergy conspired with the military to rid the nation of subversive thought, and allegedly to make hefty illicit profits in the process, too. The generals are out of power now, albeit virtually never punished, but their cronies still retain a lot of control, and people are still compelled to hide their true beliefs.

  • cavernicola

    Hi, I’m uruguayan and I’ve read the news of “Uruguay, the catholic country”, and “the weakening of the of catholic church” nonsense, it’s like that for some media Latin America is a bigger version of Mexico.
    Uruguay was never as religious as other South American countries. Why? During european colonization, we had a little and extremely hostile indian population and no gold or silver; so we were of no value to the catholic church and very few missions were sent here. There was nobody to evangelize, and no money to make.
    Without the influence of the church, most of our liberals laws came in the early XIX century, (free and secular education in 1877, church-state separation in constitution 1916); there was also an economic boom (sad to say) with the World Wars. Then after the 50’s the country became poorer and more conservative, and every time Brazil or Argentina sneezes, our economy trembles. (Nowadays we’re a bit more prepared and in a growth trend)
    Most people, particularly old people when you ask about religion says “catholic” as a synonymous with “christian”, but they never attend church or are influenced by what church dictates.
    Why we haven’t legalised abortion yet? I agree with you with “cultural inertia”. “Powerful neighbors” is the reason why we haven’t legalized pot yet.
    On a side note, it feels weird to read about USA politics, our current president is openly atheist, his predecessor catholic, and of others nobody knows. Religion is considered something private and nobody cares what you believe, it’s like telling your favorite color.

  • Dm

    BTW I didn’t realize that Uruguay’s “conservative neighbors” include the whole of Latin America except Guayana (according to the Time magazine). In Mexico, the influence of the Church has been curtailed very long ago, but abortion hasn’t been legalized. In Venezuela or Nicaragua, the Left was (or is) in power for an extended period of time, but it hasn’t been legalized. So we are talking about a trend far wider than the South Cone.

    BTW the paper says that mortality and severe morbidity from illegal abortions in Latin America claims 1,000,000 victims a year, and that the region has one of the world’s highest abortion rates, almost all of it clandestine.

  • Anthony

    “Creyente in Dios sin confesión” probably means somewhere between “non-denominational Christian” and “culturally Catholic” in the U.S. – believe in God, but not too worried about the details.

    Being openly atheist seems to be more culturally permissible in Catholic countries than in Protestant ones, probably due to the history of anti-clericalism – in Protestant countries, rebellion against the Established Church took the form of Dissenting churches, while in Catholic countries, it mostly took the form of laicism or outright atheism.

    There’s a difference between the Church being politically weak and the society not following the moral dictates of the Church. Even in countries which disestablished and expropriated the Church in the 1800s, the falling away from the general family and sexual morality didn’t really pick up steam until the 1960s. (The U.S. was similar – while very few churches were nationally politically powerful, the general social and moral consensus preached by most Christian denominations held pretty well until the 1960s.)

  • Razib Khan

    Being openly atheist seems to be more culturally permissible in Catholic countries than in Protestant ones

    which protestant countries besides the USA?


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar