June 16, 2004


'Under God': Michael Newdow is right. Atheists are outsiders in America. (SAMUEL P. HUNTINGTON, June 16, 2004, Wall Street Journal)

Only about 10% of Americans...espouse atheism, and most Americans do not approve of it. Although the willingness of Americans to vote for a presidential candidate from a minority group has increased dramatically--over 90% of those polled in 1999 said they would vote for a black, Jewish or female presidential candidate, while 59% were willing to vote for a homosexual--only 49% were willing to vote for an atheist. Americans seem to agree with the Founding Fathers that their republican government requires a religious base, and hence find it difficult to accept the explicit rejection of God.

These high levels of religiosity would be less significant if they were the norm for other countries. Americans differ dramatically, however, in their religiosity from the people of other economically developed countries. This religiosity is conclusively revealed in cross-national surveys. In general, the level of religious commitment of countries varies inversely with their level of economic development: People in poor countries are highly religious; those in rich countries are not. America is the glaring exception. One analysis found that if America were like most other countries at her level of economic development, only 5% of Americans would think religion very important, but in fact 51% do.

An International Social Survey Program questionnaire in 1991 asked people in 17 countries seven questions concerning their belief in God, life after death, heaven and other religious concepts. Reporting the results, George Bishop ranked the countries according to the percentage of their population that affirmed these religious beliefs. The U.S. was far ahead in its overall level of religiosity, ranking first on four questions, second on one, and third on two, for an average ranking of 1.7. According to this poll, Americans are more deeply religious than even the people of countries like Ireland and Poland, where religion has been the core of national identity differentiating them from their traditional British, German and Russian antagonists. [...]

[I]f increases in non-Christian membership haven't diluted Christianity in America, hasn't it been supplanted over time by a culture that is pervasively irreligious, if not antireligious? These terms describe segments of American intellectual, academic and media elites, but not the bulk of the American people. American religiosity could be high by absolute measures and high relative to that of comparable societies, yet the secularization thesis would still be valid if the commitment of Americans to religion declined over time. Little or no evidence exists of such a decline. The one significant shift that does appear to have occurred is a drop in the 1960s and '70s in the religious commitment of Catholics. This shift, however, brought Catholic attitudes on religion more into congruence with those of Protestants.

Over the course of American history, fluctuations did occur in levels of American religious commitment and religious involvement. There has not, however, been an overall downward trend in American religiosity. At the start of the 21st century, Americans are no less committed, and are quite possibly more committed, to their religious beliefs and their Christian identity than at any time in their history.

Tolerance means putting up with the Newdowish, not changing our culture to make them more comfortable. But one does have to wonder to what extent we should tolerate those who deny the self-evident truths that undergird the nation.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 16, 2004 5:34 PM

If 49% would be willing to vote for an athiest, then it is pretty much a 50-50 split as to whether Americans agree with the Founding Fathers that their republican government requires a religious base. I see a glass half full.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at June 16, 2004 6:09 PM

Robert -- Most of the people answering "yes" to those questions were lying.

Posted by: David Cohen at June 16, 2004 6:53 PM

That's for sure, David.

But there's a pretty obvious reason why US religiosity:prosperity does not correlate with other places with similar religiosity quotients.

The others don't have Article VI.

The genius of America is not, as Orrin would have it, that we are religious, but that we have been smart enough to avoid most of penalty for being so.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 16, 2004 7:29 PM

To what extent should they be tolerated? enough that we don't lock them up for denying those beliefs, but not so much that we end up denying them ourselves.

Posted by: MarkD at June 16, 2004 8:08 PM

I see from my paper this morning that the Baptists can't tolerate even each other.

Whereas even I can tolerate Baptists.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 16, 2004 8:52 PM


You're a Baptist?

Posted by: oj at June 16, 2004 9:08 PM

No, I despise them. But I can tolerate them.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 17, 2004 1:51 PM

So you and OJ agree on the definition of "tolerance"?

Posted by: David Cohen at June 17, 2004 3:31 PM


Yes, I can no longer figure out what Harry's saying half the time, especially when he makes my arguments for me.

Posted by: oj at June 17, 2004 3:40 PM

No, he doesn't.

When push comes to shove, atheists just sit back and shake their heads in amazement at the internicine fighting over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at June 17, 2004 7:52 PM

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Either all of them or none of them. Next question?

Posted by: David Cohen at June 17, 2004 8:11 PM


Now that you have that settled, perhaps you could explain whether God is three separate entities, or one entity in three forms. Thousands died fighting over that.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at June 18, 2004 5:33 AM

It's no trick to tolerate what you admire.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 18, 2004 2:33 PM


Yes, it is. They're near antonyms.

Posted by: oj at June 18, 2004 4:13 PM