Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

American Exceptionalism, Part 2

While the view that our political culture places less value on equity justice than that of other nations is widely shared, it is largely a qualitative argument rather than a hard fact. However, survey research and hard statistics clearly show another difference between the U.S. and the other wealthy countries: we are by far the most religious. I draw on James A. Haught, "Fading Faith" in the new Free Inquiry for the following facts.

A recent poll finds that only 15% of Europeans go to church. On an average Sunday, fewer than 5% of Danes or Swedes are in church. Irish churches are mostly vacant. In 1900, more than half of British children attended Sunday School. Today, the figure is 4%. In Canada, only 20% of adults attend church regularly and in 20001 43% reported they had not been in a church for the past 12 months. 45% of Australians were regular worshipers in 1950, but only 20% in 2000. And so on. Large majorities of people in these countries accept the theory of evolution and are essentially secular in their outlook, though they may identify with one or another religion as a heritage or ethnic label.

In the U.S., however, 90% of those polled say they believe in God, heaven, hell angels and so on. 80% of Americans say they believe Jesus was born of a virgin and half think he will return to earth. 45% of Americans reject the theory of evolution (compared with 7% of Britons and even fewer elsewhere in Europe), and half of the rest believe it happened with divine guidance. Americans donate $100 billion per year to their churches. While mainline protestant denominations are rapidly shrinking, people are flocking to evangelical and pentecostal churches in growing numbers.

As we all know, these growing fundamentalist congregations are the bedrock of Republican and conservative politics in the U.S. They donate money, turn out and volunteer, and above all turn out and vote for politicians who promise to do the work of Jesus, which includes eliminating environmental regulations, social welfare programs, and taxes on wealthy people; a bullying foreign policy backed up by military aggression; consigning perceived enemies to secret dungeons for torture; proclaiming zygotes to be human babies (just like it says in the Bible); and establishing Christian theocratic dominion over the nation and the world.

In this version of Christianity, the only form of justice is punishment and ostracism of people whose sexual behavior does not conform to Christian standards, second class citizenship for those who fail to worship the correct deity in the correct manner, and vengeance against any group of people who challenge Christian supremacy.

The good news is that there is a countervailing movement away from religion in the U.S. More Americans than ever before -- about 20% now -- say they are not religious. I would say that our only hope is for that number to grow to something like 100%.