Less religion = more religious activism?

Tom Rees:

It seems that when Christianity is popular, Christians are content with the idea of a firewall separating Church and State. It's only when Christianity begins to lose it's influence over the population at large that Christians begin to campaign for the State to adopt a Christian character.

Looking at survey data from 18 Western countries, they found:

-The fewer Christians in a country, the greater the support among Christians for a greater public role for religion (as shown in the graph).

-The polarization of views between Christians and non-religious on a public role for religion is greatest in countries where there are fewest Christians.

The relation is illustrated with a nice scatterplot:


Some of this can be attributed to specific factors in Europe relating to religious pluralism. Consider my coblogger Martin Rundkvist's reflections on carolling. Even if a society is very secular, if the dominant religious orientation is uniform, then its background assumptions suffuse one's daily life. One can therefore be a "cultural" Catholic or Lutheran, with an attachment to the exoteric forms associated with the religion, without being a believer. But when you have religious pluralism thrown into the mix people are going to disagree strenuously about exoteric forms. This applies even to the post-religious; an American atheist from a Jewish background may have a different attitude toward Christmas than an American atheist from a Catholic background. In other words, as European societies have become less Christian over the past generation, they've also had to face more religious pluralism. Christians will become more assertive and aggressive in direct response to Europe's growing Muslim community, which wishes to contest the tacit monopoly that Christianity has long had in Europe as the Faith.

But another issue which might be at work is that as nominal or marginal believers fall away, the set of individuals who remain committed Christians are more religious and exhibit more fidelity to their identity than before. This may result in a group of Christians who are much more cohesive and can engage in collective action out of proportion to their numbers. Whereas before more marginal and nominal members of the community might have served as a check on excessive activism, today those individuals may no longer be part of the Christianity community.

The power of an organized Christian community is clear in a society such as South Korea. Though only around 30% of the population is Christian, with almost half the population not having a religious affiliation at all, Christians have been over-represented in positions of power. The growth of the Christian religion has been rapid, but has slowed over the past 15 years. It seems possible that it may be nearing its "natural limit." But that does not mean that it won't influential in the years to come.

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The two regions with the lowest aspirations for religious influence appear to be Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. From my own experience of growing up in that part of the world I read something different into the result than the authors of this piece have deduced.
In Ireland there is a distinct difference between what the public considers 'Christian attitudes' and what it considers 'universal moral attitudes'. Many of the assumptions of universal moral norms are absolutely taken for granted in Ireland - things like morality requiring a religious element, having religious instruction in schools, having a Catholic bishop in charge of school districts.
Until fairly recently it was assumed that a law preventing individuals of every religion from having the right to divorce was reasonable (it was even written into the constitution of the state).
When these sorts of things are challenged they are not taken by the Irish public as an attack on Catholicism or Christianity per se but an attack on universal morals and are thus rejected. The idea of religious diversity in Ireland simply means different types of Christianity being permitted. That one needs to take other beliefs or non belief into consideration is beyond the pale of most public thinking. If you read the newspapers or listen to the main public broadcasters there is an overwhelming religious bias that fits in entirely with the idea of a God keeping an eye on us, influencing events and answering prayers. To even raise a question about this is considered the height of bad manners. Remember, this is a country where the leaders of the religious orders summoned the government minister in charge of dealing with the abuse inquiries and cut a deal releasing them from over 90% of the financial cost for compensating the abuse. There was zero political fallout despite the fact that this resulted in several billion dollars cost being imposed on the public taxpayers rather than the wealthy church who carried out the abuse.

In US history, at least, there was a time when "religious pluralism" included different Christian sects, esp. of course the major division of protestant v. catholic. In Colonial times in Boston, there were incidents of Catholics being hanged for witchcraft. I live not far from the site of a catholic convent school that was burned to the ground in 1836 by a mob of protestants who thought that satanic sacrifices were being held. At various times there was actual rioting in the streets over prayer in school (catholics didn't want to have to say protestant prayers). Religious minorities were quite aware that separation of church and state protected them against the WASP majority. "Christians" aren't a monolithic group.

It would be interesting to see how South Korea (a highly Christian country) would fall out on this plot.

as i mentioned in the post, south korea is a very secular country, and not high christian. south korea is about as christian as the netherlands, 30%.

That's still remarkably high for an Asian country though Razib. I'd call that highly Christian. But then I think most people still think of Europe including the Netherlands as Christian even if most people really aren't there. (And even those who self identify have a pretty lose connection to either beliefs or practice)

clark, well, good point. but since i was comparing to europe, i think it's not proper to culture-norm. in any case,

1) the phillipines is really very christian as an asian country

2) korea is still very secular compared to world averages. 30% of koreans consider themselves religious, 41% not religious, 29% convinced atheists, according to world values survey.