Belief and the American Way

One of the most interesting (and potentially controversial, but that’s how I like it) classes I’m taking this semester requires a term paper to be handed in at the end of the class. After a brief struggle with a slew of random topics, I finally hit on one after a chance phrase that fell from my professor, in class: “America is this one country that’s obsessed with religion.”

And the evidence seems to bear this out. On an international scale of religiosity vs. GDP per capita, America stands out like a sore thumb all the way at the top right hand corner: high religiosity and high GDP per capita. And this appears to be , at first glance, a particularly anomalous thing amongst developing countries – although a second look apparently shows no correlation between increasing GDP and decreasing religiosity.

The trend of intense religiosity is nothing new, and it’s been noted now for many decades. But what’s really interesting is why America persists in being so believing. None of the studies I’ve come across have been particularly convincing as to why this is so -which means my term paper will be even more exciting!

Religion and Spirituality

There’s an important thing to clarify here, though: religion and spirituality are vastly different, and may have nothing to do with each other at all. Religion refers to a set of beliefs and practices, possible a culture or way of life, that some adherent espouses. It’s formed around some kind of sacred text or religious leader, and there are certain things you can and can’t do – not eat meat, or worship at a particular place, or marry outside that religion. But spirituality is a far more nebulous concept, and it seems to have something to do with a general belief in a higher power that isn’t tied to any particular religion. Spiritual people might, in face, have trouble joining a religious group that discriminates against other religions because theirs is a far more genial and all-encompassing concept of god that doesn’t think it’s the only right answer. Spiritual people seem far more relaxed about accepting multiple ways of reaching god, in general.

Also, if you’re overtly religious – and if your brand of religion is more about following the rules and rituals – you’d fall under the “extrinsic” religious designation. Whereas if you were a private believer, like someone who was more spiritual than religious, then you’d fall under the “intrinsic” religious designation. One of the most fascinating things about America was that even though much of the country is extrinsically religious, there is a very high proportion of people who answered yes to more “spiritual” questions about whether they believed in a higher power, a benign universe, and the like. And that’s what’s really fascinating to me.

The Theories

One of the theories I read was more of a general possibility than a concrete hypothesis: that since America was a place where freedom of religion was so celebrated, and since there is no national church (like the Church of England or the Catholic churches of South America), people could join any denomination and practice their religion any way they wanted to. To me, this is further proof of America’s insane individualistic behavior – but I’ll come back to that later. The main point to take away from this is that lack of persecution doesn’t necessarily equate to a flourishing of religion. What could be the case is that a national religion or church leads to some amount of apathy, but a lack of something that homogeneous in America has resulted in the formation of what we could almost call sects, of various church denominations.

A far more interesting study was a comparison between religiosity in Canada and America, to find out the cultural-religious differences between the two countries. The author, Reimer, had an interesting methodology: he decided to ask a set of extrinsic and intrinsic questions to Americans and Canadians, and compared the two types of answers. For the Canadians, he discovered that those who responded in a particular pattern for the extrinsic questions replied in the same manner to the intrinsic questions, showing a strong correlation between external behavior and internal belief. The Americans were a different story, though, because the correlation was significantly lower. What this mean was that Americans were going to church and saying grace, but not necessarily believing what they were doing.

I find this study incomplete when it comes to my thesis as well, however, because of the type of questions asked. The extrinsic scale asked questions like “do you believe in God?” and “do you believe in an afterlife?”, positive answers to which are standard, basic tenets of any religion. But then the intrinsic scale asked slightly bizarre questions, like “do you feel close to people who are far away?” and “do you see events happening at a great distance?” which are questions that are far removed from normal religious experience and fall deeply into the category of the spiritual.

In short, the religious culture that Reimer was observing was straight-laced Christianity in America, to whom spiritual questions and crop-circle theories are the world of kooks. Concentrating on a religious demographic doesn’t mean that you can get the information about the highly spiritual demographic in America – and the two need not be alike at all. Reimer therefore concludes that Americans are “religious frauds”, and that extrinsic religion is tied far more to the “American way of life” than it is to actual inner belief. But he’s missing the point: what about spiritual America?

Spirituality and Random Crazy Things

I just read an article which talks about a poll conducted amongst Americans, 92% of whom apparently profess a belief in a higher power – God or a universal spirit. Now recall that the number of Americans who say they belong to a particular religion is between 60% to 85%. So where did that extra 7% come from?

I believe that it’s from people who identify as “spiritual but not religious”. No rigorous study in the US, to my knowledge (or my prof’s I think), has questioned Americans about their spiritual beliefs separate from their religious ones. But I think that this anomaly, this strange 7%, is what’s really contributing to the idea of America as a religion/God obsessed country.

It’s basically an idea that Americans are far more willing to believe, to have faith. I think that quality is in evidence everywhere – as my prof and I discussed, this is the single country that I’ve come across that is so willing to discuss things like aliens and crop circles and UFOs. I really don’t think I’ve seen this fondness for the extraordinary elsewhere.

“I think it’s to do with the immigrants,” said the prof thoughtfully, and then grinned. “I think – to be able to travel like that, to an unknown place, in the 17th century – you had to be a little mad. You had to be willing to take an enormous risk.”

I’d almost reached the same conclusion myself, because what else is America but a land of immigrants? The question was how to define that quality. “My grandparents were cracked,” said Prof D. decidedly. “My grandmother was seven months pregnant, with three children already, and she left to come here with no idea of what she was going to do. Cracked!”

“I think it’s the ability to believe in the unknown,” I said suddenly, and then we shared a moment of “omg eureka”.

And it really is. I’ve never heard of a more ideologically open, optimistic, completely individualistic, partially insane society than America. The more I stay in this country, the more I am convinced that it’s some kind of unique psychological quirk, and now I’m dying to investigate it.


What would be interesting is investigating immigrants in general. You did need to be a little mad to leave your home in the 17th to 19th centuries, when you knew nothing about anything except your town and your home. What would be particularly interesting would be to track immigration in around the same time period as the initial American wave, and see the kind of societies that exist in those places.

Now that I’ve identified what I want to do I’m extremely excited. My professor actually thinks it’s a great idea – exploration of the American psyche in relation to high rates of religiosity, that is – and it might even become my thesis. Time to do cartloads of research and shore up my argument. Thankfully the draft due date’s been pushed back, but in between programming Tetris and wrestling with probability, this is going to be pretty tough.

But yay  for college!

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