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Still under God

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | May 3, 2012

James Bryce, who would later be the British ambassador to the United States, wrote a major work on American society in the 1880s. The American Commonwealth was a re-do, about 50 years later, of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. One of Bryce’s acute observations was about Americans’ religiosity: “Christianity influences conduct . . . probably more than it does in any other modern country, and far more than it did in the so-called ages of faith.” The common expectation has been that modern times have been eroding Americans’ faith ever since, but as best as historians of religion can estimate, Americans today are roughly as religious as they were in Bryce’s generation. (See this earlier post.)

coin: "In God We Trust"How well does Bryce’s impression that faith in the U.S. is greater than in other modern nations hold up about 120 years later? The latest data are in and Bryce is confirmed. Americans of the 21st century remain strikingly more religious than people in other nations, especially western ones. It is part of what makes America “exceptional.”

Faith in 2008

The International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) is the most sophisticated project that asks parallel questions of people around the world – people in over three dozen countries now. In 2008, member organizations asked a series of questions about belief in God. Tom Smith of the General Social Survey recently analyzed the results (see pdf) and I summarize some of the key findings.

Belief in God: One question asked respondents, “Please indicate which statement comes closest to expressing what you believe about God” and then listed six options, ranging from the flat statement “I don’t believe in God” through various degrees of doubt to the flat statement, “I know that God really exists and I have no doubt about it.” Sixty-one percent of Americans picked the last option, a higher percentage than in all but four of the other 28 nations (the four more believing being Poland, Israel, Chile, and the Philippines). At the other end, only 3% of Americans picked the atheist option – despite all the work of the “New Atheists.” The chart below compares the U.S. to other large, affluent western nations.

graph: Percent believe in God — no doubt

The U.S. is even more distinctive than the graph suggests. The two other high scorers, Italy and Ireland, are (like Poland) basically all-Catholic countries. If you contrast the U.S. to other predominantly Protestant countries – like Bryce’s U.K. – American exceptionalism seems all that more exceptional.

A Personal God: The ISSP also asked respondents whether and how much they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “There is a God who concerns himself with every human being personally.” In 2008, 68% of Americans agreed; only Chileans and Filipinos were likelier to agree. The graph below shows how Americans once again stand out among comparable nations.

graph: Percent Believe in a Personal God

Change in Belief: And the ISSP asked people whether their own beliefs had changed in their lifetimes. “Which best describe your beliefs about God?: 1. I don’t believe in God now, and I never have. 2. I don’t believe in God now, but I used to. 3. I believe in God now, but I didn’t used to. 4. I believe in God now and I always have.” Eighty-one percent of Americans said they had always believed, again more than any others except the Chileans and Filipinos. Smith calculated an index to measure the direction of change in belief in each country, comparing the percentage in each country who said that they moved from belief to disbelief to the percentage who said they had moved from disbelief to belief. The next graph shows the net change toward disbelief.

graph: Point Decline in Person's Belief

People in western nations reported having moved, in some countries in great numbers, from belief to disbelief – except not the Americans.

For centuries now, Americans have perplexed Europeans in many ways. Americans’ faith continues to be one of those perplexities.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.