The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Inequality Grows As Poor, Ignorant Atheists Swamp US

The stereotype, held apparently by none other than the President of the United States, is that religious people are less educated and less affluent than cosmopolitan and sophisticated seculars.  The bitter clingers handle snakes, guns and Bibles in West Virginia; the seculars discuss literature and economics at swank parties in Georgetown.

In fact, some recent research reveals, it is almost the other way round.  According to the American Sociological Association, the uneducated and the poor (often of course the same people) are dropping God like a hot brick; the ‘bitter clingers’ are increasingly better educated and more affluent than the unchurched.

As far as I can see, this is bad news for everybody.  Atheists and agnostics like to think of themselves as smarter than the God-bothering trailer trash on Tobacco Road, and deeply dislike the thought that they are losing the argument among the most intellectually qualified and best prepared; religious people have to be concerned for the future of religion when whole social classes are dropping away.

It is also very bad news for the poor.  The rich can actually get along without much religion; one of the nice things about being rich is that money can frequently shield you from the consequences of a weak character and bad decisions.  If you are rich enough, you can do very poorly in high school but Daddy will have a nice chat with the college president after which the school gets a new gym and you get a slot in the freshman class.  You can be pretty sure that the college won’t flunk you out or expel you without a lot of second chances and counseling.

Oh, and if somehow you booze and flirt your way through college and don’t pick up any useful skills, don’t worry.  You won’t have any student loans to repay and Daddy will make sure that you find something to do.

The poor aren’t so lucky.  The poor kid who wants to get ahead actually has to achieve something.  He or she has to sacrifice, defer gratification, learn useful skills, and endure the scorn of classmates who think he or she is a geek and a nerd.  Some of us are able to do all that and more without the strength and focus that comes from faith in God — but most of us need all the help we can get.

Holding what the release from the American Sociological Association rather clunkily calls ‘familistic beliefs’ (the quaintly old fashioned idea that people who are intimate with one another should make and keep a lifelong commitment of fidelity and support and jointly raise any children that their union brings forth) is key to social mobility and economic well being in the US as around the world.  Those beliefs are stronger among the religious, and the American lower classes are moving away from both.  This means that their children will be much more likely to grow up poor and in single-parent households.

It also means poor households are increasingly cut off from the strongest and most helpful informal and non-governmental networks of mutual support that our society has.  W. Bradford Wilcox, the lead researcher behind the findings, is deeply and in my judgment rightly concerned:

Wilcox views this disengagement among the less educated as troubling because religious institutions typically provide their members with benefits—such as improved physical and psychological health, social networks, and civic skills—that may be particularly important for the less educated, who often lack the degree of access to social networks and civic skills that the college-educated have.

“Today, the market and the state provide less financial security to the less educated than they once did, and this is particularly true for the moderately educated—those who have high school degrees, but didn’t graduate from a 4-year college,” Wilcox said. “Religious congregations may be one of the few institutional sectors less educated Americans can turn to for social, economic, and emotional support in the face of today’s tough times, yet it appears that increasingly few of them are choosing to do so.”

These trends are more than ‘troubling’; they are bad.   They are not unrelated to the social breakdown in the inner city and they are also have some bearing on the potential for violence in our cities as economic conditions fail to improve despite the beautiful speeches of our political leaders. There are many points one can points one can make; let me stick with two.

It is the most scorching indictment of America’s religious communities I can think of that more has not been done to reach out to those most in need of both the spiritual and the social benefits of faith.  Every member of a religious congregation in this country should be asking how he or she could be doing more.

Second, the increasing disconnect between many poor and poorly educated Americans and the values and ideas that make for success in this society is in part a consequence of efforts by well meaning liberals to keep religion out of schools.  By what we teach and what we don’t teach, what we talk about and where the silences are, we convey clear messages to young children.  We have been broadcasting a clear message to two generations of young people that religion doesn’t matter.

The greatest victims of this fraud and deceit are, as usual, the most vulnerable and needy among us.

To put these two observations together, it seems clear that American religious communities need to become much more deeply involved in the education of the children of the poor.  The stakes for all of us are incalculably high.

Published on August 21, 2011 9:03 am
  • Mrs. Davis

    Golly gee, maybe we should break up the government indoctrination education monopoly? And let kids understand that their life, their forebearers’ lives, and how everything in the world and the way it works is the gift of their creator? How radical. And unrealistic.

  • Charles T. Feudtner

    I graduated from St John’s College in Brooklyn 60 years ago. Somehow, I’ve always been a Doubting Thomas who has been an avowed agnostic for these 60 years. But, I’m an agnostic who believes in The Ten Commandments.

    The problem, in my eyes, is that traditionally our morality has been based upon religion.

    Now, assume that Moses and his fellow wise-men came to believe that the wisdom of the ages led them to the totally rational truth of the Commandments. But to “sell” such wisdom to the totally illiterate people of the day, they presented their Commandments as given to Moses on Tablets from God.

    In a Flat World, such a “sales job” made sense. But in an expanding universe with our earth but one of potentially millions of inhabitable planets, it does not.

    Unfortunately, out went our religious beliefs and out went our morality built upon them.

    I believe you, Professor Mead, are the perfect person to tie our basic moral culture, our moral code — The Ten Commandments — to the underlying secular wisdom that sustains them.

    “Do not covet thy neighbor’s goods” undercuts
    the redistribution focus of the “Blue Model” you cite so frequently.

    All Ten Commandments speak to today’s secular problems. Let the secular Ten Commandments shed its light upon our World.
    Let you explain it!

    God speed!

  • Creid

    @Charles T. Feudtner: Roughly half of the Ten Commandments mean nothing to a nonbeliever, but I can get your point without 100% agreeing with you.

    @WRM: I’m interested in what kind of solution you suggest. This thing about the underclass needing Hot Religion in order to pull themselves up has come up a few times in recent memory now. Personally, I would prefer a new model that does not reintroduce religious indoctrination for purely pragmatic purposes as though that is really an ethical option. But it’s your blog, I’m all ears (or eyes?)

  • WigWag

    “Holding what the release from the American Sociological Association rather clunkily calls ‘familistic beliefs’ (the quaintly old fashioned idea that people who are intimate with one another should make and keep a lifelong commitment of fidelity and support and jointly raise any children that their union brings forth) is key to social mobility and economic well being in the US as around the world. Those beliefs are stronger among the religious, and the American lower classes are moving away from both. This means that their children will be much more likely to grow up poor and in single-parent households.” (Walter Russell Mead)

    The data does not support Professor Mead’s contention that religious affiliation necessarily increases the likelihood that families will stay together; in fact, if anything, the data trends in the other direction.

    In 2009, Gallup released data examining the strength of religiosity in all 50 states. They asked a simple question; “Is religion an important part of your daily life?” They ranked the states by the number who answered their question in the affirmative.

    By this criteria the ten most religious states in the United States are: Mississippi (85% answered “yes”), Alabama (82%), South Carolina (80%), Tennessee (79%), Louisiana (78%), Arkansas (78%), Georgia (76%), North Carolina (76%), Oklahoma (75%), Kentucky (74%) and Texas (74%).

    The ten least religious states in America were: Vermont (42%), New Hampshire (46%), Maine (48%), Massachusetts (48%), Alaska (51%), Washington (52%), Oregon (53%), Rhode Island (53%), Nevada (54%) and Connecticut (55%).

    The entire Gallup poll can be found here,

    http://www.gallup.com/poll/114022/state-states-importance-religion.aspx

    It is interesting to compare the divorce rates of each state with the state’s degree of religious observance. What quickly becomes apparent is that more religious states do not have a lower divorce rate; in fact there is a slight trend in the other direction.

    In 2010 the Wall Street Journal published a table highlighting the number of divorced people in each state per thousand population. They used data from the U.S. Census Bureau published in 2009.

    The entire Wall Street Journal article can be found here,

    http://s.wsj.net/public/resources/documents/st_DIVORCE_20100813.html

    The following are the number of divorced people per thousand in the ten most religious states and the ten least religious states using the Gallup criteria:

    Most religious states: Mississippi (4.2 divorced people per thousand), Alabama (4.2), South Carolina (2.6), Tennessee (4.0), Louisiana (3.4), Arkansas (5.6), Georgia (3.2), North Carolina (3.9), Kentucky (4.6) and Texas (3.3)

    Least religious states: Vermont (3.3 per thousand), New Hampshire (3.7), Maine (4.3), Massachusetts (1.8), Alaska (4.4), Washington (4.0), Oregon (3.5), Rhode Island (3.2), Nevada (6.6), Connecticut (3.1)

    As this data makes clear, there is little support for Professor Mead’s contention that the more devout a couple claims to be, the more likely they are to “make and keep a lifelong commitment of fidelity and support and jointly raise any children that their union brings forth.”

    While correlation does not equal causation, it is quite a revelation how little religion and family values appear to be related; at least if you rely on facts rather than prejudice. While all this data is rather squishy, if Professor Mead has data to the contrary he should present it. Otherwise, it is hard to take seriously his conclusions about religious observance and the likelihood that strong family values lead to economic success.

    It is also interesting to note that Massachusetts, the bluest of blue states and one of the least religious states in the nation (and a state with mandatory health insurance for all) has the lowest divorce rate in the United States. It seems that all those terrible atheists in Massachusetts understand the importance of strong, two parent families, while practitioners of that old time religion in Mississippi haven’t quite got it figured out yet.

  • Luke Lea

    Unless you they are talking about the lumpen-proletariat, I very much doubt the conclusions of that research.

    In any event, when it comes to the belief in the Darwinian theory of evolution studies show our educated elites accept it in the abstract but deny it in practice, at least in so far as homo sapiens are concerned. They cannot come to grips with the accumulating scientific evidence that there has been a significant amount of natural selection (and sexual selection) since we came out of Africa some 50,000 years ago, never mind since the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago — to say nothing of the genetic and cultural consequences of endogamous vs. exogamous marriage patterns over the past 500 hundred years, which we are learning the hard way in Iraq and Afghanistan and now Libya

    With Christian fundamentalists it is just the other way around: they accept the realities of human difference, which are right in front of their noses, but deny the atheistic theory of the creation. Which is the more important? Well, if you believe, as I do, that realism is essential in order to be a morally responsible person in this multi-ethnic, multi-cultural world we live in, as opposed to the ideal world we wished, and have been taught to believe, we lived in, then it would appear the typical Christian fundamentalist is better equipped to face the moral challenges ahead than is the typical college-educated orthodox liberal in charge of designing government policy.

    A nice irony that, but also a tragic one. Nature cannot be fooled.

  • Kris

    In short, over a few decades, we’ve fostered among the less fortunate a dependency on the state while undercutting family, churches, and other traditional civic institutions. And now, as the “Blue state” model is unsustainable, we are pulling out the carpet of state support.
    But let’s pat ourselves on the back over our compassion.

  • Jokah Macpherson

    Concerning Wigwag’s state level analysis from the Wall Street Journal, I want to point out that the ASA study referenced in the post refers to religious attendance, not self-reported statements about level of belief or importance of religion. My spare time spent playing with the General Social Survey has taught me that belief in God has little or no correlation with divorce but church attendance does. The probability of divorcing for someone who attends church every week is about 10 percentage points lower than it is for someone who never attends. This doesn’t sound like much but when the likelihood is only, say, 30%, it makes a pretty big difference. I believe the reason for this is that church attendance is a sign of civic engagement, which means a person is more likely to seriously commit to other institutions such as a marriage.

    Also, in defense of the South, a large degree of the high divorce rate there is the result of the tragic collapse of the African-American nuclear family, which is well-documented in the field of sociology, and I doubt that this had anything to do with their theological stance.

  • dearieme

    Remember Gibbon on Roman religions? Something to the effect of: the philosophers found them equally false, the plebs equally true and the magistrates equally useful.

  • Nate

    First, let me say that this is one of my favorite blogs. Many with your views ignore poverty and race, and I appreciate your sincere concern.

    But I think that you sometimes do your readers a disservice by cherry-picking statistics that confirm your ideological predilections. For instance, church attendance rates clearly are an imperfect measurement of faith, and not even slightly a measurement of atheism. It’s troubling that you didn’t even acknowledge the limits of the evidence, and even worse that there is abundant evidence suggesting that the poor are far less likely to be atheist, even if they attend church less often.

  • Corlyss

    “To put these two observations together, it seems clear that American religious communities need to become much more deeply involved in the education of the children of the poor.”

    The problem with the education of poor children is that they are in thrall to a system run by lefty ideologues. It would be refreshing if the government stopped trying to produce equivocal, anti-religion, anti-American citizens and started, you know, educating them. The government has done a bang-up job in their goals. It’s just a shame that their goals don’t happen to produce useful citizens.

  • Soul

    My somewhat Jewish oldest nephew, or as we, his father in particular, likes to joke, he is “ish”, will be beginning Catholic school this year. He is coming to visit tomorrow for a few days before beginning the transition to the all nun run school. We’re not sure what to expect. The school’s academics are rated high. Religious studies play a major part of the teaching also. I guess that part will be a learning experience for us all in the family since most of us are generally non religious.

  • WigWag

    Another way to reflect on the accuracy of Professor Mead’s assertion in this post that religiosity and divorce rates are inversely related is to examine the difference in divorce rates between nations.

    Here’s some data that is fun to reflect on,

    http://www.darndivorce.com/divorce-rates-around-the-world/

    Interestingly, the relatively religious United States has a significantly higher divorce rate (54.8 percent of marriages end in divorce) then the far more secular United Kingdom (42.6 percent of marriages end in divorce), Norway (40.4), Germany (39.3), France (38.3), Netherlands (38.3) or Italy (10.0).

    In fact, few nations in highly secular Western Europe have divorce rates that even approach the spectacularly high divorce rates in the more religious United States.

    Care needs to be taken in analyzing this data because obviously causation and correlation are not the same thing. It could easily be that some other factor completely unrelated to the degree of religiosity is what influences divorce rates here and abroad.

    But what this data does suggest is that Professor Mead should be more modest in his assertion that religious people rather than secular people are more apt to understand the importance of a “lifelong commitment to fidelity.”

  • WigWag

    Jokah Macpherson (August 21, 2011 at 3:00 pm) makes an interesting point about church attendance and self-reported religiosity being two distinct phenomenon. Just as Gallup polled on how important religion was to individuals, they also polled on how regularly residents of different states attended religious services. The results of that poll can be found here,

    http://www.gallup.com/poll/125999/mississippians-go-church-most-vermonters-least.aspx

    Interestingly, the frequency of church (and presumably mosque and synagogue) attendance and self reported religiosity match up almost exactly. Of the ten states where people most often reported that “religion was important in their daily lives,” nine are also the states where church attendance is highest. The only outlier is Utah which was not on the top ten list for self-reported importance of religion but was on the top ten list for church attendance.

    The reality is that states with high church attendance simply do not have lower divorce rates and the more religious United States has significantly higher divorce rates than the more secular Western Europe.

    None of this actually proves anything; surely many factors influence divorce rates. My guess is that while religion plays a role, it is not dispositive.

    My only point is that Professor Mead’s assertion that there is a negative correlation between inattention to marital fidelity and religiosity does not appear to be well-founded.

    Perhaps the Professor just takes his view about this as a matter of faith.

  • http://class-factotum.blogspot.com/ class factotum

    states with high church attendance simply do not have lower divorce rates and the more religious United States has significantly higher divorce rates than the more secular Western Europe.

    I think non-religious people are not as likely to get married in the first place. That is, a religious couple will marry rather than just live together. Breakups of living-together couples are not included in those stats.

  • Jacob R

    Charles T Fraudner or whatever…
    you are [gratuitous disparagement omitted --ed] ! The last thing any of us need is more worthless snarky, pedantic, shallow trendy agnostics!

  • Mike

    Christianity might be helpful, but the problem is that Christianity is not literally true. If something’s not true, people aren’t going to believe it just because it is helpful.

  • http://edbrenegar.typepad.com Ed Brenegar

    Charles Murray in his upcoming book Coming Apart: The State of White America essentially says the same thing. Watch his AEI presentation – http://www.aei.org/event/100281.
    The Q&A is worth your time as well.

  • http://eternityroad.info Francis W. Porretto

    “It is the most scorching indictment of America’s religious communities I can think of that more has not been done to reach out to those most in need of both the spiritual and the social benefits of faith.”

    Are you quite certain that your “indictment” is warranted? It’s rather difficult to tell the difference between the consequences of a non-effort and the consequences of a failed or rejected effort. As a practicing Catholic intimately engaged with my parish’s charitable work, I could tell you a huge number of stories about beneficiaries of our material generosity who’ve demanded that we “just bring the groceries; leave Jesus outside the front door.”

    Christians really do believe in loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. But not all of our neighbors accept the most important of our gifts.

  • jaafar

    Funny coincidence…I’ve been thinking on this same subject for a while.

    My first conclusion is that (pace Dawkins and the Gang of Four) it doesn’t really matter that much whether your religion is 100 percent true or not (assuming you avoid devil worship and such). The benefits of a community which regularly attends church are not to be lightly tossed aside.

    First, you get to know your neighbors, and this in itself promotes a sense of community.

    Second, if you and your neighborhood need to organize something else (Neighborhood Watch?), a lot of the social relations are already in place.

    Third, and very important, is that you can establish a school for your church, which will be free from almost all the nonsense foisted on public schools by the closed-shop teachers’ union. Just think! You could teach American history (not Howard Zinn). You could throw out all the self-esteem nonsense. You could flunk students who don’t pass. You could teach economics!

    And, just by magic, control over your children’s education comes right back to where it belongs and always has been: the local community.

  • Byron

    WigWag: I wonder what the marriage rate is like in those other countries. Traditionally, the US has had a very high marriage rate, including re-marriage after divorce. It may be that we strongly believe in marriage, as long as it’s a relatively happy marriage.

  • bobby b

    “The problem, in my eyes, is that traditionally our morality has been based upon religion.”

    More likely, traditionally our religions have been based upon our morality.

    “For instance, church attendance rates clearly are an imperfect measurement of faith . . .”

    So perhaps the salient point is not a belief in a god, but a feeling of membership in a community that happens to be bound together by a moral structure enforced by the numinous.

  • Narby

    Just speculation, but divorce rates for states and countries I believe reflect more on the propensity of citizens to be married in the first place. If the people shack up, rather than marry, then there is no divorce when they separate.

    In any event, marriage and divorce rates don’t speak to the people’s participation in church social life, that in my observation helps people handle the pressures of living, completely aside from any belief in a deity.

  • Burke

    The data re: divorce rates doesn’t really reveal much unless you also include statistics about marriage rates and cohabitation. If a couple lives together for five or ten years, and then splits up, we have no record of it, even though it is the functional equivalent of a divorce. It seems quite possible to me (though I haven’t seen supporting data) that long term, unmarried relationships are more acceptable in a liberal place like Vermont than they are in Mississippi. Someone can go through a series of marriage-like relationships, and even have children, without ever showing up in divorce rate statistics.

  • Bob

    The religious need to become more involved in the education of the poor?

    What the heck are you talking about? Who do you think does most of the philanthropic heavy lifting in this country? Atheists? I get sick and tired of people questioning the church and demanding it do more. When criticizing the Katrina relief effort, Hollywood idiot Bradley Whitford demanded “where’s the Christianity”. I’ll tell you where it was. It was in New Orleans doing most of the work, unlike Bradley Whitford. Man this really ticks me off.
    A secular America is a dead America. One not worth defending.

  • JKB

    “Every member of a religious congregation in this country should be asking how he or she could be doing more.”

    Why?

    The “well-meaning liberals” as you say have worked hard to destroy religion in American life. So they win. So they destroy generations with their “well-meaning” intentions. The want an America without public religion, actually without Christianity at all, let them have it in a fashion. No more using religious charity as the basis for the constant plunder to support their secular welfare. No more calls on congregations to cover for the evil they do.

    No, congregations should standby, hunker down, let the “well-meaning” liberals have their ruin. Then, and only then, may we burn their false ideology from the human experience. Let their beliefs be revealed for what they are, the false logic of ungrounded fools who labor in the protected halls of academia where reality can’t easily reveal the lie to which they so desperately cling.

    Expect more of this, desperate calls to act before the evil of the “well-meaning” liberals is apparent all. Ignore them, their victims will suffer but it is the only way to end their ideology and save future generations.

  • Zuzu’s Petals

    The data on high religiousity/church attendance states vs. high divorce states is generalized to the point of being useless. It suggests polarity more than anything else, i.e. half the community being very religious while the other half very amoral or very badly situated socially or economically. Come to think of it, this describes the Deep South very accurately from what I’ve observed.

  • CatoRenasci

    It’s possible to maintain high moral standards without religious belief, but it takes incredible intellectual strength and force of character, an ‘overman’ or ‘superman’ so to speak – one of Nietzsche’s most important points that is rarely understood. This sort of individual is rare enough even at the highest levels of consciousness and intellectual development, and utterly unknown among the lower middle and lower classes.

    The fruits of the state replacing the voluntary institutions of civil society to maintain the fabric of society are rotten and, to mix metaphors, coming home to roost.

  • http://spinstrangenesscharm.wordpress.com New Class Traitor

    Re: divorce rates being lower in some secularized countries: has it occurred to anyone that you can only have a divorce if you married (rather than cohabited) in the first place?
    In fact, if a religious and a secular country have similar rates of relationship breakup due to long-term incompatibility, the religious one may well report a higher divorce rates as people would be much more likely to marry rather than just shack up.

  • Grimoire

    “The least educated have been consistently less religiously engaged than even the moderately educated”

    I find it interesting that the discussion here is focused on divorce rather than the meat of the ASA research.

    It’s tempting to make a blanket statement about the quality of debate I’ve experienced from atheists, but I think we should distinguish between education and general reasoning ability.

    “Education” is somewhat slippery. I recently attended a seminar by a highly educated expert in stats who deigned to lecture on Galileo’s single-handed rescue of science. This poor fellow was woefully misinformed on the subject, recycling the caricature we all know of poor Galileo against the evil forces of unreason, whereas today we (well, some of us) know that, ironically, the Church was being *more* scientific than Galileo, whose “proofs” for heliocentrism were actually wrong. This professor was educated, but wrongly; indoctrinated with a mythical history from a disgruntled Andrew White of 100 years ago.

    It’s a tragedy that most will be surprised to discover that, in fact, “the Church was the leading sponsor of the new science and Galileo himself was funded by the church. The leading astronomers of the time were Jesuit priests,” and that Bruno, the only scientist ever executed by the Church, was executed not for science, but for heresy.

    Richard Dawkins is somewhat educated, but even his fellow atheists despair of his lack of philosophical ability and historical knowledge: “It is not that the atheists are having a field day because of the brilliance and novelty of their thinking. Frankly – and I speak here as a nonbeliever myself, pretty atheistic about Christianity and skeptical about all theological claims – the material being churned out is second rate. And that is a euphemism for “downright awful.” [. . .] It is simply that it (and the other works, some of which I have gone after elsewhere) is not very good. For a start, Dawkins is brazen in his ignorance of philosophy and theology (not to mention the history of science). [. . .] Dawkins misunderstands the place of the proofs, but this is nothing to his treatment of the proofs themselves. This is a man truly out of his depth.” This is from atheist Michael Ruse. Yet I would wager that most atheists are clueless about Dawkins’ intellectual deficiencies, proudly displayed in his books and cheered on by his equally unknowing fellows.

    So, is “education” itself the problem? So it seems. V. Mangalwadi, in his book “The Book that Made Your World”, laments that “educated” Dr. Arun Shourie, while attacking Christianity, is blissfully unaware that his entire education was a blessing bequeathed by missionaries and Christian universities. So even these schools had failed to properly educate him in this regard.

    I would also wager most atheists regard Hitler as “right-wing” and are totally unaware that his program of extermination was inspired by Darwinism, as Darwinist Sir Arthur Keith lamented: “Hitler (was) an uncompromising evolutionist, and we must seek for an evolutionary explanation if we are to understand his action.”

    These are the sad fruits of our educational system.

  • lethalox

    @WigWag > Your comments on whether or not religion plays a factor in divorce headed in the right direction, but you don’t take the analysis far enough. IIRC, divorce rates are correlated with income levels. The higher the income the less likely to be divorced. Additionally marital and divorce rates vary significantly along racial lines. So in order to address Mead’s full we have to take those sociological variable into effect. The population of Mississippi looks very different than Vermont.

  • Joe

    Interesting article but I don’t agree with this point: “the increasing disconnect between many poor and poorly educated Americans and the values and ideas that make for success in this society is in part a consequence of efforts by well meaning liberals to keep religion out of schools.”

    If religion, and all of the values that usually follow from it, are taught at home but not at school, the values will still be learned and teaching them at school is unnecessary. If those values are not taught at home, teaching them at school is pointless. Put another way, while we can certainly rely on and expect schools to teach many things of importance to our children, the kinds of values that Mr. Mead sees as missing are not capable of being communicated by strangers in a classroom of thirty. (I suppose one could be even more cynical and put it yet another way — If the schools can’t teach reading and writing, how can they teach compassion and respect for one’s fellow man?)

  • billo

    WigWag writes “It is interesting to compare the divorce rates of each state with the state’s degree of religious observance. What quickly becomes apparent is that more religious states do not have a lower divorce rate; in fact there is a slight trend in the other direction.”

    If nobody bothers to get married, you are guaranteed a very low divorce rate. You claim is a little like saying that many more young military men drop out of SEAL training than elderly women. Thus, elderly women must be in better shape. People who make the effort will always have a higher failure rate than people who do not even try.

    This reminds me of a conversation I saw among liberal talking heads discussing the Wiener debacle. One of the liberal talking heads defended Wiener on the grounds that he made no pretense of having any sort of conventional morality. Thus, since he didn’t *claim* to have any moral standards, he was not being “hypocritical” by failing to live up to them. Accordingly, he should be given a pass.

    It struck me that this was the epitome of this kind of thinking. It is better to have no standards at all than to have high standards and fail to always achieve them.

  • observa

    Comparing the divorce rates amoung states should also take into account following major population and social factors:

    1) The average age of populations is lower in southern and western (more religious) states, i.e. divorce is more likely when young.

    2) Being married is self selecting factor. Unsuitable religious couples are likely to marry (and divorce) while atheists may just co-habitate and separate.

  • J. Knight

    The government has now done to white people what it did to black people a few generations ago. The bad results for the nation will be proportional to the size of the population affected. Another underclass dependant on the welfare state has been created at the exact time the welfare state is on the wane. What could go wrong?

  • http://ktcatspost.blogspot.com/ K T Cat

    WigWag, I’m afraid you are dead wrong. I highly recommend reading Bradley Wright’s Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths From the Secular and Christian Media. Brad’s excellent blog and bio can be found here. His analysis is thoroughly researched and his statistical analysis is impeccable.

    His book is worth reading for anyone who’s interested in seeing what the raw data really has to say about religion and behavior.

  • Eric Blair

    Regarding the divorce rate in Massachussetts, does that take into account those who cohabitate, but do not get married? If that relationship busts up, there’s no divorce, is there?

    Just a thought.

  • Michael Schwenk

    Scorching indictment? Oh, please! What do you expect when the regime elites tell the poor at every turn to ignore what those uptight Christian bores are telling them? Hey, shouldn’t EVERYBODY act like Charlie Sheen and snort coke and shack-up with porn stars? Forget that boring marriage and family stuff!

  • David

    Wigwag….

    If you adjust for age at the time of marriage, I’d wager the stats would favor the religious states. The states you mentioned, particularly in the South, have a cultural predilection for marrying young, and marrying young is a very large predictor for divorce. Combine this with previous observations above about not counting cohabitations in these stats, as well as the heavy proportion of African Americans in the South, with all that community’s welfare-induced family breakdown, and your very generalized stat doesn’t mean very much.

  • David

    Mike…

    I believe the intellectual and philosophical case for belief in God is much stronger than the case for nonbelief. I also think the historical and theological claims of Christianity are compelling, and I’m quite comfortable with coming to the conclusion that it is true.

    There has been a revolution in Christian apologetic philosophy in the past few decades which many are only slowly becoming aware of, but people like William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga are getting the better of the argument, in my opinion.

  • http://ai.mee.nu Pixy Misa

    The unstated problem here is that no matter what correlations there may be between religious belief and desirable patterns of behaviour, this doesn’t necessarily – and rationally, shouldn’t – affect whether people believe or not.

    The social network offered by a particular religion may well be beneficial. That does not make that religion true. If churches want to reach out to the secular community, their only viable option is to drop the religious aspect and concentrate on the social one.

    At which point they stop being churches and start being secular humanist societies, but I can’t see any downside there.

  • Government Drone

    @Pixy Misa:
    “The social network offered by a particular religion may well be beneficial. That does not make that religion true. If churches want to reach out to the secular community, their only viable option is to drop the religious aspect and concentrate on the social one.

    At which point they stop being churches and start being secular humanist societies, but I can’t see any downside there.”

    Look at mainline Protestantism. It’s going that way, & at the same time fading in membership. Turning a church into a secular humanist society seems to be a good way to make the church go extinct entirely.

    Why is this so? Perhaps the secularists are more apt to consider the state the proper institution to carry on those tasks churches used to do: education, poverty relief, hospitals, etc. You certainly see much more support for government-run social programs among the Episcopalians than among the Southern Baptists, for instance.

    At any rate, a secularization of a church simply appears to lead to the church fading away, & many of its social tasks taken over by government — which seems to be viewed as a dubious development, even among the nonreligious commenters here.

  • WigWag

    For those who have pointed out that the proclivity towards divorce in the United States may be greater than in other nations because the proclivity to marry is greater; there is some truth to your argument.

    Marriage rates for many different nations can be found here,

    http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/peo_mar_rat-people-marriage-rate

    Of course this presents the interesting question about whether it is better for society for couples to marry early and often only to divorce or to delay marriage or not marry at all. It also raises the interesting question about whether religion is a motivating factor in causing people to marry early. If so, the importance people attach to religious beliefs facilitates divorce.

    Examining the data for marriage rates between different U.S. states is even more interesting.

    Data for several years terminating in 2009 can be found here,

    http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvss/marriage_rates_90_95_99-09.pdf

    The marriage rates per thousand population for the 10 most religious states versus the 10 least religious states are:

    Most religious states: Mississippi (4.8 per thousand), Alabama (8.3), South Carolina (7.4), Tennessee (8.4), Louisiana (7.1), Arkansas (10.7), Georgia (6.5), North Carolina (6.7), Oklahoma (6.9), Kentucky (7.6) and Texas (7.1)

    Least religious states: Vermont (8.7 per thousand), New Hampshire (6.4), Maine (7.2), Massachusetts (5.5), Alaska (7.8), Washington (6.0), Oregon (6.6), Rhode Island (5.9), Nevada (40.9), Connecticut (5.9)

    Obviously Nevada is an outlier because it is a Mecca for both marriage and divorce. Once you eliminate it, marriage rates do seem to be modestly higher in the more religious states although there are exceptions. The least religious state in the United States, Vermont, has both a very high marriage rate and a very low divorce rate. While the marriage rate in relatively secular Massachusetts is somewhat lower than in most religious states, the divorce rate in Massachusetts is dramatically lower than in any of the top ten religious states. This suggests that while the modestly lower marriage rate accounts for some of the dramatically lower divorce rate Massachusetts experiences, other factors must be involved. The most religious state in the United States (according to the Gallup survey), Mississippi, has both low marriage rates and high divorce rates.

    As entertaining as it is to speculate about what these statistics mean, what I think we can say with confidence is that Professor Mead’s assertion that religion promotes marital fidelity and stable families is not supported by the data. If Professor Mead does have data to support his thesis, he should present it so it can be scrutinized.

    One other thing; in response to David (August 22, 2011 at 11:46 am) you make the very interesting point that adjusting for the age at marriage might change the way these statistics are interpreted. You go on to say,

    “The states you mentioned, particularly in the South, have a cultural predilection for marrying young, and marrying young is a very large predictor for divorce.”

    Has it occurred to you that the “cultural predilection” you are referring to may very well have, at least in part, a religious basis?

    If religious people tend to marry younger and thus divorce at higher rates, doesn’t this contradict Professor Mead’s assertion that religion enhances marital fidelity and stable two parent families?

  • Jay

    Re: #12 WigWag says

    The US is also unique in subsidizing divorce through a variety of methods, including no fault divorce, equal property division, and endless alimony payments. Also welfare programs that give greater benefits to unmarried mother over married ones.
    Most divorces in the US are initiated by women, and the process all but guarantees that a significant portion of the man’s assets will be transferred to her regardless of her culpability.

    When you subsidize something you get more of it.

    Other commenters have pointed out that the European nations you cite have a lower rate of marriage. I would add the Europeans also have much lower rates of childbearing, with some countries below replacement level, and one of the main stressors on a marriage is children. I would be interested to see data for the religious Muslim populations in Europe, who seem to marry early and have many children. My guess is divorce is rare among them.

  • KarenT

    #40 Pixy Misa: Two potential downsides to a church becoming secular humanist society dedicated to promoting desirable patterns of behavior, just off the top of my head:
    1) People could quickly lose interest in such an organization, because its mission had been made completely secular. How many organizations of this type currently exist without any connection to government, and how effective are they?
    2) It could easily become tyrannical in its promotion of “desirable patterns of behavior”, since the relative desirability of various behaviors, as well as methods used to promote behaviors believed to be most desirable, would be based on the ideas of ordinary people, without any reference to “a higher authority”.

  • David

    I live in the South. Among those I know who have married young, the reason has tended much more to the socioeconomic than the religious. It is indeed a cultural thing. Now, I’m sure religion plays a part in some cases – notably in cases where people become pregnant and opt to get married young rather than abort the baby. This honorable cultural tradition to choose life over the convenience of disposing of an unplanned baby no doubt has religious roots. And it probably leads to more divorces in such cases. But adding to the divorce rate because of this practice is far preferable to adding to the number of abortions. If you don’t believe me just ask somebody that was the result of a shotgun wedding if they’d have rather been murdered by their parents than been born.

  • Bonfire of the Idiocies

    “We have been broadcasting a clear message to two generations of young people that religion doesn’t matter.”

    And that a person’s character itself doesn’t matter. To mention an the role an individual’s character (or lack of same) plays in the way his life unfolds is now somehow “racist” or “blaming the victim.” The truth is that nothing matters MORE.

  • Mike C

    Martin Luther understood all this back in the 16th century.

    The hope, as usual, lies with the much-maligned middle class, whom well-meaning liberals are trying desperately to turn into clients of the State.

    God help us all if they succeed.

  • heathermc

    #46: actually, we have been broadcasting, not that religion doesn’t matter, but rather, that religion is (a) the cause of all war ie, the Crusades BAD; (b) the cause of hypocrisy, ie Elmer Gantry; (c) the mark of ignorance and superstition, ie Monkey Trial; (d) lower class and nasty and stupid; (e) populated by paedophiles and sadists, ie, Witch Trials and Catholic Church baddies.

    It really is a result of “the treason of the intellectuals.”

  • Michael

    People who go to church and get into marital difficulties can go to a clergy person for free counseling. Sadly, this counseling is provided according to the model set in secular colleges/graduate programs, which, for many decades, advocated divorce in marriages in conflict.

    Now, after so many decades of family-destruction, it is recognized that marriages without benefit of counseling to tell them to divorce, just rock along and work things out. So, church-goers had as high or an even higher divorce rate. Over the past few years, groups of ministers have made a commitment to encourage reconciliation over divorce. Watch for some correction, therefore, over the next few years.

  • http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/ M. Simon

    If they aren’t smart enough to do science and math what makes you think you can teach them religion?

    And if these folks aren’t getting religion isn’t it a failure of religion?

    Personally I never liked organized religion of any kind. Talking directly with the Head Office has served me well though. I heard there was some kind of breakthrough with that in the 60s. Suppressed by Government and the Churches. You know how middlemen hate it when you cut them out of a deal.

    What are we to think of a country that has declared war on 5% to 10% of its citizens on account of they have habits which some others find distasteful? I must admit however to not beginning completely conversant with Christian Civilization.

    I failed to notice Jesus saying,”First we get a hold of government and then we can do what we want to people we don’t like.” But then again I’m not too familiar with the Christian canon.

  • http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/ M. Simon

    heathermc,

    I’d rather ascribe it to the Treason of the Churches. Organized religion is about Power and Control. God is strictly incidental. People notice.

  • chemman

    The data of religious belief vs. state vs. divorce rate neither disproves nor proves Russel Mead’s post. When the divorce rate is 8 per thousand (.8 per hundred) and the rate of religious belief is 85 per hundred. The divorces could very well be clustered in the 15 per hundred that aren’t religious. While this is an extreme example of using stats it demonstrates that we need far more information to draw a conclusion on those studies by making correlations to prove our points.

  • http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/ M. Simon

    David August 22, 2011 at 11:53 am

    Christianity might have worked out better in the long run had its core theology remained Jewish instead of turning Pagan.

    But it may just be me. I’m more attracted to Buddhism than to the Hindu Pantheon.

    As a Jewish friend once said to me, “It would be easier for me to become a Buddhist than to become a Christian.” I agreed with him.

  • http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/ M. Simon

    The more chiseling you have to do to make it the worse the spiritual environment. The USSR/Russia is a prime example and America is becoming the USSR. We have our secret police (we call them “undercover” in America – it has a better ring) and we have a class of widely desired prohibited goods.

    Now consider the 40% or so who have tried those goods. They have practice chiseling. And the 5% to 10% who chisel every day? As you might imagine their moral condition is not too good.

  • Mr. G

    I have encountered personally(mercifully few) people who consider themselves atheists and/or agnostics though I’ve heard the crudest (and most arrogant) among them on the radio and what I have found is that what atheism is to these people is a form of “magical thinking” and is far less sophisticated than any religious thinking.

    The impetus behind their “cause” is that somehow the world will be better off if it takes off its religious blinders and yet very little if anything atheists offer can back up that assertion. Believing that there is no higher being or creator is not a philosophy or even starting point for one. It is simply asserting something as a fact. The opposite of religion is not socialism, universal healthcare, enlightenment, etc.

    Evolutionary theory is extremely important to these people but again this is just “magical thinking”. Evolutionary theory provides almost no tools for the average individual in their daily life. Medicine, mathematics,biology, engineering, chemistry and physics are far broader than evolutionary theory and far more likely to beused by a scientific professional in their daily life (and very often one who regularly attends a religious institution)and none of these sciences conflict with religious belief. A squared plus b squared equals c squared is as logical, scientific and provable as evolution (actually even more so) but atheists don’t obsess over geometry. Evolutionary theory is given some sort of intellectual primacy only because it seems to point a dagger at a religious belief. Evolution as used by atheists is simply a talking point and not a scientific proof of anything substantial (certainly not that extremely intelligent people in all walks of life are purposely blinding themselves to an objective reality).

  • teapartydoc

    OK. I’ll admit I didn’t read the article. I just want to comment. My comment is in the form of a statement: I believe that if God said he created the world in six days who am I, or any other jerk for that matter, to gainsay him? That said, I will go on to tell you that I am a surgical sub-specialist whose undergraduate was a double major in biology and chemistry in the days before they had biochemistry degrees. I got an A+ in Evolutionary Biology. Is the above headline news to me? Take a guess.

  • http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/ M. Simon

    I believe that if God said he created the world in six days who am I, or any other jerk for that matter, to gainsay him?

    I never heard him say that. But maybe he tells me different things than he tells you.

    And that my friend in a nut shell is the problem with organized religion.

  • Stan

    People who are always (pseudo-rebelling) opposing religion are just simply followers of fashion. in a different era they would have been the most fervent Christians. This “doubting” is all about feeling rebellious without incurring any wrath. Te just want to be cool.

  • http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/ M. Simon

    I’m all for getting religion back in schools. As long as it is Judaism.

    Bring back the old time religion. If it was good enough for Jesus it is good enough for me.

    Any one have a problem with that?

  • http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/ M. Simon

    People who are always (pseudo-rebelling) opposing religion are just simply followers of fashion.

    The Church in America is corrupt. Totally. Are they healing the afflicted or calling for war on them (the Drug War to be precise)?

    People notice. And if they have any innate moral base at all they are repelled by such an obvious reversal of what used to be a central church mission.

  • demz taters

    Maybe the problem is the same as it was in Jesus’ day – the wealthy and powerful being hypocritical moral scolds as they steal disproportionate resources and force the poor into more desperate and exploitable situations. M. Simon @ 54 makes an excellent point about the results of that. The thing is, we don’t have to wonder what Jesus thought about the poor – he spent the bulk of his ministry on the subject. How much scorn and correction did Jesus heap upon the Samaritan woman at the well? The adulterous woman who was about to be stoned? The wealthy? The religious leaders? Think about it.

  • dollared

    This post is the ignorance and bigotry of the right wing in all its glory. First a gratuitous swipe at the President, assuming facts not in evidence about what is in his mind. Then an assertion without evidence that nonparticipation in organized religion is atheism. Then a bunch of statistically unproven stuff about how poor people have weak moral character and so therefor deserve their lot.

    It’s odd to see a post on the value of religion from a social darwinist. But with the virtual monopoly on hypocrisy held and practiced by the right wing, it is not much of a surprise.

    Perhaps our noble and disciplined author would like to spend a few years living the life or our hardworking working poor in the US. A day job in a nonunion factory and a night job as a nonunion security guard, and of course the constant threat of homelessness due to any health issues, might help him understand why many of the 80 million working poor and 25 million unemployed poor don’t have time for organized religion and struggle to raise their children.

    And then he might have some perspective on the value of the MBAs and Born Wealthies who have made the life of our working class so miserable while they kept all the benefits of a capitalist society to themselves.

  • Ogg Thork

    I’m all for getting religion back in schools. As long as it is shaman animism.

    Bring back the old time religion. If it was good enough for Cro Magnon it is good enough for me.

    Any one have a problem with that?

  • ice9

    What an ignoramus you are.

    The secular are still better educated than the religious. See YOUR OWN CITATION.

    The change is in the rate at which people are dropping out of church. Poorer folks are leaving at a greater rate than rich folks. That might mean that so many dummies have become ‘unchurched’ that the vast red-eyed horde of secularists has become dumber than the church folk, through a process of dilutation. But it doesn’t mean that, because well-educated, smart folk are still leaving churches, too, just at a much lower rate than before.

    You have half a point, because well-educated folk are joining churches at a greater rate then poor folk. Except that rate is a fraction of the rate of loss. You may have half another point, because the change in education over time will increase the statistical incidence of education among the ‘churched.’

    But. There’s a lot of buts, and the hurt.

    1. The character and quality of education matters. A substantial number of your educated ‘churched’ are actually veterans of church education. Only a tiny fraction of the people who graduate from Christianist colleges leave all churches (though many of them bounce around within them.) A high number of people educated in Christianist high schools do leave the churches, by the way. Hmm.
    Those folks educated at Christianist colleges are very faithful attenders, and make up an increasing core of the educated churchers you are so fond of. The loyalty of those folks is proportional to the quality of their educations, in an inverse relationship. Graduations from Christianist colleges are increasing dramatically–congrats–and those folks will stay in church. But the quality of those educations measured by the (admittedly Satanic) rates of accreditation and success in wider fields is inversely proportional to their church loyalty. In other words, these folks have college degrees but doubt evolution and climate change and think that our judicial system should be Bible-guided.

    2 As poor people leave the church, any sensible evaluation would credit them with an increase in education and intelligence. After all, they are exchanging superstition, badly impaired reading and interpretive skills, jaundiced views of every academic and intellectual endeavor (including theology), and a coddled, evidence-, logic-, and tax-free community for a real world where science and history are binding systems and hypocrisy is discouraged. I’d call that a significant demonstration of practical know-how.

    3. You haven’t factored in the question of why these people are leaving. The primary reason is a combo of 1 and 2: Churches have grown more strident, more political, and more hostile to the average person’s inherent moral intelligence and traditional understanding of America and the human condition. Therefore a more complete and fundamental indoctrination into the tortured arguments of modern American far-right Christianism is required. To belong to, say, Rick Warren’s megachurch requires an active embrace of weapons-grade cognitive dissonance. Jesus wants me to be rich, and in fact says I will become rich. Despite all the business about giving away tunics and hugging tax collectors. Jesus wants me to hate fags, despite the “love they neighbor” stuff. Jesus wants me to hiss at sluts and fear the fun of sex, despite the fact that I’m kind of interested in sluts and, well, sex is fun. Jesus wants me to vote Republican even though the Republicans hate me and apparently want to ruin the economy, do vicious things to people I know and respect, gut the public schools, and help the wealthy grow geometrically more wealthy while I have to use food stamps occasionally (and therefore hate myself as a sponger).

    You forgot to do two things: you forgot to undertake that arcane mathematical practice known as “subtraction”, no doubt a liberal concoction to obscure the truth and promote various knavish tricks. Also, you forgot to entertain the possibility that your first, most primitive and tribal impulse, that first ganglionic inkling, wasn’t true.

    ice9

  • http://www.GoToHell.com GodIHateTheDeists

    “Oh, and if somehow you booze and flirt your way through college and don’t pick up any useful skills, don’t worry. You won’t have any student loans to repay and Daddy will make sure that you find something to do.”

    I do not see the need for this gratuitous slur against former President Bush.

    “Second, the increasing disconnect between many poor and poorly educated Americans and the values and ideas that make for success in this society is in part a consequence of efforts by well meaning liberals to keep religion out of schools.”

    You want to teach Islam in our public schools??? What the hell is wrong with you? Now I understand why you denigrate a great man like President Bush. You are just another low-rent Sharia-loving IslamoFacsist terrorist.

  • William Gibson

    Yeah,Paris Hilton, Rush Limbaugh, Ted Nugent and I were recently discussing how depraved and decadent these worthless poor Americans are becoming.

  • John E

    Maybe the author has got the reasoning backwards…maybe the churches are turning their backs on the poor.

    Poor people don’t contribute much in the way of tithing and churches today are big business.

  • Terry

    “Someone can go through a series of marriage-like relationships, and even have children, without ever showing up in divorce rate statistics.”

    Yeah, like my (white, religious) gun-toting nephew in Florida who has 4 kids with three women, none of whom he married, and who is a TPer of the worst sort.

    You guys are one of the most closed intellectual bubbles I have ever seen. And I visit 1,500+ websites a day. Wow.

  • Mel

    Christ had plenty to say about those who dined on golden plates while berating the poor. If the pulpit preaches the Prosperity Gospel, it’s no wonder those left out no longer feel welcome.

  • Rich

    I was enjoying the (mostly) elevated, reasoned and thoughtful discussions surrounding Walter Russell Meade’s blog when, sure enough, the ultra right-wing christian fundamentalists began to rant about a godless society and those who believe that the public school system is bereft of any moral instruction (translation: any Christian bible story hours) cast their stones. We are all diminished by this drivel.

  • Matt

    Yes, of course, religion is the answer! That’s why the society of the Talliban was so wonderful and egalitarian. That’s why people in the middle ages were so much better off than we are now. Yeah. Right. Good reasoning there. Irrational and superstitious belief will save us.

  • http://girlcartridge.wordpress.com/ girlcartridge

    We already subsidize religion in this country on a monsterous scale. Religious institutions do not pay taxes and are an extremely profitable organization. If the church wanted to, they could easily set up youth outreach programs in the projects with all that money lining their pockets. And as to the a point you made earlier, it is a well-documented fact that atheists and agnostics are, on average, more intelligent than the bible-banging ingrates from the south who are brainwashed from infancy to pray to a false god for more and more guns, snakes, food stamps, and bibles.

    Religion is a joke, it doesn’t matter anymore, it should never be taught in schools. That’s what churches are for. Who wrote this article for god’s sake.

    And HELLO, Jesus preached poverty, he would be proud of these dirt-poor southerners.

  • paisley

    The article you use as a basis for your writing never mentions atheists or evaluates religiosity. All it does is measure church attendance, and only that of white people. Further more the reasons it proposes for the decrease in church attendance relate to changing social concerns and economic situations. What this change in attendance might reflect in terms of religiosity is not addressed at all.

    So why don’t you grow up and put on your long pants before deciding to declare an invasions of poor ignorant atheists are ruining the country.

  • http://www.sdhotlimos.com Drew

    It’s really sad if your belief in cosmic, non-earthly beings actually make us better people is ridiculous. If people desperately need to believe in something why not believe in yourself. You are the maker of your destiny. If some supreme being actually cares about your puny existence than why shouldn’t you care about all the micro-organisms that are beneath you? Either way it’s a stupid discussion. Morals and ethics are in our nature and are taught to us. Take some responsibility people for your own actions.