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The U.S. is less religious now. Are we richer for it?

The relationship between secularism and economic growth might surprise you.

The U.S. is less religious now. Are we richer for it?
[Photo: Chris Liverani/Unsplash]

By most measures, Americans are still religious. As of 2014, the vast majority–about 89%–still believe in God, though only 63% can say that with “absolute certainty,” according to the Pew Research Center. The religiously affiliated are still devout, with two-thirds saying religion is “very important to them” and that they pray daily.

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But in recent decades, the percentage of Americans who are unaffiliated with any one religion has inched up to 23% (from just 16% in 2007) as the share of millennials surveyed has increased. The reasons for this shift are many. For one, there’s the demographic shift as even young millennials have reached adulthood. Only 38% of millennials cite religion as being “very important” in their lives. While the U.S. remains the most Christian nation in the world, it has become less Christian; since 2007, the share of Christians has dropped from about 78% to 70%.

There’s also the fact that certain organized religions haven’t necessarily kept pace with social values: More than 60% of Americans now support same-sex marriage, but among the religiously unaffiliated, 85% are in favor of same-sex marriage, and about three-quarters of millennials are supportive. Religious Americans have started to come around on the issue, with more than two-thirds of Christians and white mainline Protestants supporting same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, the many sexual abuse cases in the Catholic Church have led 37% of Catholics to question their faith and church membership, according to a recent Gallup poll. Some have reported cutting back on contributions to bishops and parishes.

Many who now identify as religiously unaffiliated still have spiritual beliefs. In the Pew study, about 60% of people surveyed said they feel “spiritual peace and well-being” on a weekly basis. “It’s not that those who are disaffiliating are saying they’re hardcore atheists,” says David King, director of the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. “But maybe they’re practicing and finding their religious values and spirituality outside of institutional religious structures.”

Secularism and the economy

This dip in American religiosity dovetailed with a more sweeping economic shift: In 2018, the GDP crossed $20 trillion, more than 20 times what the GDP was in the 1960s. In other parts of the world, a rise in secularism often coincides with an increase in economic growth. The researchers behind a recent paper in Science Advances found that in an analysis of more than 100 countries, from Great Britain to the Philippines, increased secularism preceded GDP growth.

Damian Ruck, one of the authors on the paper and a researcher at the University of Bristol, says the reasons for why secularism might stimulate economic growth aren’t entirely clear-cut. “A lot of competing theories exist,” he says. “I’m inclined to think it has to do with the type of knowledge and know-how societies are driven to accumulate. In a traditional religious society, it makes sense to spend your time learning religious doctrines and parsing religious texts because your salvation depends on it.” In a more secular society, on the other hand, Ruck posits the emphasis on knowledge of the material world “fuels science, technology, and ultimately economic growth.”

But the relationship between religion and economic growth is harder to explain in the U.S. Despite a decline in religious affiliation, the U.S. remains unusually religious when compared to many other Western countries, according to Ruck. “The United States has been secularizing rapidly in recent times, but 50 years ago it was already much less secular than Western Europe and has not closed the gap since, making it is more similar to Latin America in that regard,” he says.

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In fact, Americans are still making sizable donations to religious institutions: A recent report by Giving USA found that in 2017, religious institutions received more than $127 billion, out of more than $410 billion charitable dollars. According to King, fewer people seem to be giving to religious institutions, but those who do are increasing their donations. “Giving to religious congregations is not drastically falling off like we might expect,” King says.

A unique case study

The economic trajectory of the U.S. is also unlike that of any other country. Over the last 100 years, Western Europe has secularized at a much faster pace than the U.S. but hasn’t seen the same economic gains. (Countries like France and the United Kingdom lag well behind the U.S. in economic growth, each with a GDP of just over $2.5 trillion; Germany clocks in at about $3.7 trillion.)

Secularism may be one piece of it, but the exponential gains specific to the U.S. are certainly the result of immigration as well (which has, in turn, impacted the religious demographics of the U.S.). “Secularism is only part of the story,” Ruck says. “Since World War II–and maybe even before–the U.S. has been uniquely attractive to the world’s talent.” In some of the least religious countries–former communist nations like the Czech Republic, for example–secularism on its own has not paved the way for economic growth.

The real key to understanding the relationship between secularism and economic growth may be a culture of “openness and tolerance,” Ruck says, a trait found in most countries that have seen more economic success. It’s that same quality that might encourage secularism. In the U.S., especially, a “tolerance of individual rights”–the very trait responsible for shifting religious beliefs–may also help explain economic growth.

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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