Understanding Why Americans Seem More Religious Than Other Western Powers

Huff Post: This article first appeared in Sacred Matters housed at Emory University.

Many Western Europeans think of Americans as hopelessly, bafflingly, and dangerously, religious. Many Americans think of Western Europeans as distressingly, inexplicably, and unrelentingly, secular. In 2009, the German sociologist Hans Joas observed that “it is widely accepted that the United States is far more religious than practically any comparable European state.” And he noted Western European puzzlement: “The more secularized large parts of Europe became, the more exotic the religiosity of the United States seemed to European observers.” So why are Americans, compared with Western Europeans, seemingly so religious? And are we as religious as we seem?

Sixty percent of Americans say that religion is “very important” to them; only 21 percent of Western Europeans say that. How did we get that way? How did they get that way? And how different are we?

Maybe everyone is religious. Maybe sports fans who live or die each week with the fortunes of Manchester United or the Pittsburgh Steelers are as religious, in their own way, as earnest participants in churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples. And maybe the Americans who look on with outrage when some mob “desecrates” the flag are as devoted to a civil religion as the Pope is to the Catholic faith. But the sixty percent of Americans who say religion is “very important” to them and the seventy-nine percent of Western Europeans who just can’t bring themselves to say that, probably mean something more traditional.


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