April 3, 2009

American Religion in the Recession

45th Street, Manhattan, New York City from lef...Image via Wikipedia
Conventional wisdom would suggest that there should be an inverse relationship between prosperity and religiosity (i.e., the more dire economic circumstances become, the greater the religiosity of the affected populace). To the degree that religion provides comfort, one would expect it to become more popular in those times where comfort is more likely to be needed. And yet, there has been little increase in religiosity in the U.S. during the last 15 months. Before we conclude that prosperity and religiosity have no relationship, there are a few more issues to consider.

Although it is true that there has not been a measurable increase in Americans' religiosity over the past 15 months, one should remember that it is difficult for something already so high to show much of an increase. This is what is often referred to as a ceiling effect. Essentially, the fact that American religiosity is already quite high makes it less likely that additional increases will occur. Imagine a sponge that is already quite wet. It probably isn't going to absorb much more water because it is already so saturated.

In addition, while it makes sense that church attendance (an extremely common measure of religiosity) might decline as people have less money to spend on transportation, the importance one attributes to religion or to one's god may be less susceptible to economic trends. Thus, the precise manner in which religiosity is measured is likely to be quite important.

Gallup notes,
It is not an unreasonable conjecture that the current recession would cause Americans to increasingly turn to religion as a surcease from their economic or personal sorrow. But that does not appear to be the case.
Perhaps Americans are finding comfort elsewhere. Of course, these data do not suggest any sort of decline in religiosity over the last 15 months either.

To the degree that it makes sense to view religious faith as delusional, one would expect precisely the results obtained by Gallup: religiosity is somewhat immune to reality. In times of prosperity, the religious will be religious. In times of distress, the religious will be religious. The self-maintaining nature of the belief system may come from the manner in which it is relatively impervious to reality.