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America Versus the Godless Civilized World: Why Are We So Exceptional?

EXCEPTIONAL HAS TWO DIFFERENT MEANINGS—“highly unusual” or “unusually good.” America is both. But this book is about a set of ways in which we are peculiar. We are very different from the two or three dozen “advanced” countries that are otherwise like the United States, the most economically developed nations that aren’t on the Persian Gulf, the societies mainly in Europe or created by Europeans that we used to call the civilized world or the First World and now call the Global North.

Americans invented and built and dominate the fantasy-industrial complex that mixed fiction and reality until they became indistinguishable. People get surgically fictionalized everywhere, for instance, but we’re third in cosmetic surgeries per capita (behind only Colombia and South Korea), and our boob-job rate (third to Venezuela and Brazil) is twice that of Canada and the U.K. Other developed countries have ascendant political movements driven by fantastical belief in conspiracies and a wish to go back in time, but we have given ours the national government to run. People in other developed countries have superstitious beliefs and practice every brand of religion and quasi-religion. But Americans invented and scaled all the most extravagant new species, and most believers in other affluent countries are irrelevant minorities or else quiet true traditionalists, such as pious Italians and Poles still attending mass and making confession.

The big, undeniable piece of American exceptionalism that helped launch this inquiry is our religiosity. One of the two developed countries that even come close is Israel, a religious state. The other, South Korea, has gone from being one of the poorest countries to one of the richest in just two or three generations, which makes the residue there of magic and superstition less surprising. It’s thanks to the United States that the nation exists and that so many South Koreans are Protestant in our unusual fashion. A missionary who’d been present at the founding of Pentecostalism in Los Angeles planted an early church in Seoul, and then in the 1950s a U.S. Army chaplain imported teams of Pentecostal missionaries to start more churches.*1 Today about a tenth of South Koreans are Pentecostals or charismatics, an extraordinarily large fraction in the developed world and in East Asia—but a far distant second to the United States.

We’ve always been different in this way. A century after Tocqueville was struck by the religious enthusiasm he found here, a reporter asked New York’s Catholic cardinal if Americans are more religious than Europeans. “We are certainly not less so,” he carefully replied. At the time, the new Soviet Union was radically secularizing life there and later attempted the same in Eastern Europe.*2 But people in the rest of modern Europe were abandoning Christianity and supernaturalism voluntarily, absent any persecution by atheistic Communist regimes. According to a Gallup Poll in 1968, only 5 percent to 14 percent of Scandinavians said they attended church every week, as opposed to 43 percent of Americans at the time. And religious commitment in most of Europe has continued plummeting ever since. In the U.K. in 1985, for instance, a third of people said they had no religion at all; by 2012 it was up to half. Unlike the Earth’s other moderns, we have rushed headlong back toward magic and miracles, crazifying some legacy churches, filling up the already-crazy ones, inventing all kinds of crazy new ones.

The loosest measure of religiosity doesn’t require any particular belief in the impossible. Does religion play a very important role in your life? is a survey question Pew asks respondents in dozens of countries. At the top of the rankings are African and Muslim and Latin American countries, as well as India and the Philippines—places where between 61 percent and 97 percent of the people say religion is very important in their lives. In the developed world, the percentages range from 11 percent in France to 33 percent in Britain—except, of course, for the United States, where it’s 59 percent, right between Turkey and Lebanon.

The results are the same again and again, no matter how or where the questions are posed.

A majority of Americans tell Pew they pray every day; in the rest of the developed world, those fractions are one-tenth or one-fifth. Elsewhere in the developed world around half the people never pray; only one in nine Americans admit they never pray.*3

Among the citizens of twenty-three countries surveyed in 2011 by the international research firm Ipsos, people in only three—Indonesia, South Africa, and Turkey—believe in Heaven and Hell more than Americans do. Our faith in an afterlife is greater, for instance, than that of Mexicans, Brazilians, and Saudi Arabians. While a majority of Americans think the devil is in some sense real, in nearly all other predominantly Christian countries, even the Philippines, devil believers are small minorities.

Is the Bible “the actual word of God…to be taken literally, word for word”? Although more than a quarter of Americans think so, in the rest of the rich world, the actual-word-of-God populations range from 4 percent to 10 percent.*4 Did God create humans in finished form at the start? Among people in thirty-four more-developed countries asked whether they accept evolution, the United States is second from the bottom, ahead only of Turkey.*5 On a different list of two dozen countries ranked by belief in evolution, Americans’ disbelief is exceeded only by that of people in South Africa, Brazil, and three Muslim countries.*6

Although the United States is by far the largest importer of things, we have become the world’s great net exporter of fantasy. For the last century, we have created, defined, and dominated the ever-expanding, increasingly global culture industry—from advertising to movies to recorded music to television and digital games. Alongside the shiny pop-cultural fantasies, we’re also phenomenally successful exporters of exciting fantasy religion. The market is the Third World, and we are saturating it. A century ago, right after Americans invented Pentecostalism, no more than one-tenth of one percent of earthlings were Pentecostals and charismatics. Today it’s 10 percent, one hundred times as many, more than half a billion Christians—including a large majority of the world’s Protestants—who believe they’re routinely speaking in a mystical holy language, curing illness by laying on hands, hearing personally from God.*7 Since the 1960s, thanks to us, a third of Central Americans have become Protestants of the charismatic and Pentecostal kind.*8America was always the modern country, the practical country, the country that solved problems, that inspired and pushed the rest of the world to cast off vestigial folk customs in favor of rational, sensible approaches to organizing society and life. Life and history are full of ironies, but this one’s as big as they get.

WHY ARE WE so peculiar? Why did Americans keep inventing religions and maintain so many beliefs that people in other affluent countries never took up or else abandoned?

The Protestants of capitalist Europe and Canada and Australia continued to do as Max Weber’s sociology said they were doing—retain the work ethic but mostly remove the training wheels of religion. Why in America have we hung on to the magical beliefs as well as the industriousness and money love and individualism that our founding religion encouraged?*9

Some of the standard scholarly explanations seem correct as far as they go, but they’re all limited by the scope and tools of their particular disciplines. They also tend to construct explanations that flatter Americans. Legalists focus on the Constitution and especially the First Amendment—that government wasn’t permitted to mess around in religion, which made religion flourish and attracted persecuted believers from elsewhere. Other historians attribute it to our frontier past, where wilderness folk, untethered from social control, were more inclined and free to dream up new religions: they could, so they did.

But none that I’ve seen convincingly explains the persistence or extravagance of supernatural belief, or why during the last century and particularly the last half-century our divergence from the norm has grown so extreme. They don’t look at our religions and spirituality in the context of the larger American predisposition to feel special and think magically. They don’t register the connections between our religion and the rest of our giddy, uncertain grip on reality, the free-range wishfulness, the great American all of it. They try to be polite.

Europeans had highly developed regional and national cultures and societies before they bolted on Protestantism. America, on the other hand, was half-created by Protestant extremists to be a Protestant society. American academics accept the idea of American exceptionalism in one of its meanings—that our peculiar founding circumstances shaped us. “The position of the Americans,” Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, “is…quite exceptional,” by which he meant the Puritanism, the commercialism, the freedom of religion, the individualism, “a thousand special causes.”

The professoriate rejects exceptionalism in today’s right-wing sense, that the United States is superior to all other nations, with a God-given mission. And they also resist the third meaning, the idea that a law of human behavior doesn’t apply here—scholars of religion insist that explanations of religious behavior must be universal.

The latest scholarly consensus about America’s exceptional religiosity is an economic theory. Because all forms of religion are products in a marketplace, they say, our exceptional free marketism has produced more supply and therefore generated more demand. Along with universal human needs for physical sustenance and security, there’s also such a need for existential explanations, for why and how the world came to be. Sellers of religion emerge offering explanations. From the start, religions tended to be state monopolies—as they were in the colonies, the Puritans in Massachusetts and the Church of England in the South. After that original American duopoly was dismantled and the government prohibited official churches, religious entrepreneurs rushed into the market, Methodists and Baptists and Mormons and all the others. European countries, meanwhile, kept their state-subsidized religions, Protestant or Catholic—and so in an economic sense those churches became lazy monopolies.*10 In America, according to the market theorists, each religion competes with all the others to acquire and keep customers. Americans, presented with all this fantastic choice, can’t resist buying. We’re so religious for the same reason we’re so fat.

There is no doubt some truth in this. But I don’t think it’s anything close to the whole truth. You know how everything looks like a nail to somebody with a hammer? These rational-choice economists, calculating their input ratios and solving their equations, begin with a belief that individuals weigh the costs and benefits of this or that theology and choose the optimal one, deciding among the rapture and speaking in tongues and a six-thousand-year-old Earth the way they decide among makes of cars and types of pornography or potato chips.

A conclusion of some rational-choice theorists is that because we’ve had such a free religious marketplace for so long, and American Christianity is now so evangelical and charismatic, religion naturally “wants” to be more primitive, miraculous, and amazing. As two of the leading theorists have written, new sects emerge to “take the places of those withered denominations that lost their sense of the supernatural.” But why only in America (and the Third World)? “The heart of our position is…that faced with American-style churches,” one of those coauthors has written, “Europeans would respond as Americans do.” But if Europe and the rest of the rich and open world constitute such a massive untapped market opportunity, why aren’t religious entrepreneurs starting up more American-style churches abroad? In fact, there are charismatic and Pentecostal churches in Europe and Canada and elsewhere, just very few of them. And it’s not because institutions like the withered Church of Norway are such hardball monopolists. It’s because in the rich world, except America, the product doesn’t sell.

What’s more, if monopolistic state religions discourage religiosity, then how does one explain the higher rates of church attendance and prayer in Catholic countries and the thriving religiosity in officially Islamic countries? If it’s the lack of government persecution that allows religious fires to burn freely, how to account for the powerful persistence of Catholicism in Communist Poland, or the success of Mormons during their difficult founding American century?

A different tack for explaining away America’s exceptionalism is to compare the U.S. apple to a world of oranges. Peter Berger, coauthor of The Social Construction of Reality in 1966, took for granted the “widespread collapse of the plausibility of traditional religious definitions of reality.” When those reports of religion’s death turned out to be premature, he had an apostasy: “ ‘secularization theory,’ ” he’d decided by the 1990s, “is essentially mistaken,” given that “the world today…is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever.” His revised view makes unbelieving Europe the global exception. But of course, it’s not just Europe—it’s also Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the whole modern world including China that has secularized. By treating all countries as one big data set, instead of dividing them among the several dozen economically advanced and the 150 less developed, this argument ignores the glaring and interesting deviation: America is the freak.

The economists also don’t have much of an answer to a very specifically economic conundrum: the fact that, country by country, prosperity and a sense of security correlate with less religious belief almost everywhere—except America. As the political scientists Pippa Norris of Harvard and Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan explain in Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, “religiosity persists most strongly among vulnerable populations, especially in poorer nations and in failed states. Conversely, a systematic erosion of religious practices, values, and beliefs has occurred among the more prosperous strata in rich nations.”

Most of the scholars examining this question, because they’re scholars and thus are expected to stay in their lanes and suppress tendentious speculations and hunches, exclude the X-factor, our peculiar and multifaceted American credulity that is the subject of this book.

Tocqueville’s archetypal American in the 1830s stopped his frenzied making and selling to think impractical thoughts only when “his religion…bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven.” Over the next two centuries, as we ran out of New World forests and frontiers to clear and settle, as life kept getting easier (and for many of the least fortunate during the last couple of decades, gloomier), we’ve extended those occasional glances toward Heaven into a fixed and frenzied stare.

*1 The South Koreans also have the U.S. military partly to thank for their phenomenally fervent embrace of cosmetic surgery. Right after the Korean War, the U.S. Marine Corps’ chief plastic surgeon, in addition to work mending war wounds, introduced the blepharoplasty, which makes Asian eyelids look more Occidental. “It was indeed,” he wrote later, “a plastic surgeon’s paradise.”

*2 Marx famously called religion the opium of the people, and when Lenin founded the Soviet Union, he agreed, saying it was “used for the…stupefaction of the working class.” But neither man had ever been to the United States, to see that for Americans it was as much or more a stimulant and hallucinogen than a stupefying opiate.

*3 2008 Pew surveys; 2012 WIN Gallup International survey.

*4 1998 ISSP surveys and 2014 General Social Survey.

*5 2006 metastudy by Jon D. Miller of Michigan State University.

*6 2013 Pew surveys.

*7 2011 Pew surveys.

*8 World Christian Database; 2013 and 2014 Pew surveys.

*9 The way other Protestant countries have retained the practical legacies and jettisoned the other bits is analogous to what China did with its founding quasi-religion of Communism: they’ve kept the useful authoritarian part but jettisoned the economic utopianism.

*10 Incidentally, the premise that the contemporary United States has nothing like state churches isn’t entirely true. By the logic of the free-market theorists, shouldn’t religious exemptions from U.S. taxes—state subsidy by other means—breed complacency and laziness among the leaders of every American church?

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