Reading Minds: Religiosity Explained


August 19, 2012 18:13 EDT

By Yuna Rault-D’Inca and Kira O’Sullivan

There is a whole range of complicated personal and group motives for religious belief and national differences therein. Different factors may explain the different levels of religiosity observed around the world.

In Quest of Identity: religion yes, but how much do we need the institution?

Life is a quest for identity for most people. This is also true of personal belief.  A breach with traditional religion has become more and more common. Religious pluralism has also played a key role in this. The traditional churches of the western world are forced to scramble for new believers and to retain their faithful, who are constantly confronted with a number of new religious movements, yoga groups, or psychics who offer alternative spiritual paths. As for church affiliation, religious belief needs to be coupled with a certain level of trust in the institution representing it. The traditional churches in modern societies are often not able to offer the spiritual guidance expected by some, in a time when the values they profess are simply out of date and do not keep up with the development of society’s living reality.

On another level, believers tend to be more critical when disappointed by the moral behaviour of the religious institution they belong to. Just think of the recent scandals in the Vatican, an institution regarded by some as a purely political, but very secret, force. People also have less confidence in the behaviour of the elite, which may explain why a certain dismay for any kind of institution, be it religious or political, is to be noted. Instead, many people simply foster their own personal relationship with God. We should not forget that religion may offer comfort in difficult times and some psychologists have drawn a direct link between recovering from serious illnesses and belief, for instance. Others argue that even in the most rational of humans, something in our brains seems to predestine belief.

For many, the spiritual side of religion is what attracts them to believe. The complexity of more traditional religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) has led to debate as to how relevant the rules of each religion are today, and indeed, what the rules are. Issues such as: matrilineal descent in Judaism; the rules of the Catholic church regarding contraception; and for Muslims, how one should live in order to call oneself a Muslim, are all difficult to address. These religions are all based on ancient books which are subject to interpretation, but interpretations are ever-changing; linguistic changes make religious interpretation all the more challenging. Furthermore, religions stretch across borders and different legal systems, resulting in disparity between religious rules and state law for many; particularly for religious minority groups. Many feel that the complex web of beliefs and strong religious politics dominates the spiritual side of religion and for this reason spiritual guidance cannot be given by mainstream religions.

The Economics of Religiosity

Social studies help us to understand why societies are more or less religious. They advocate theories such as the “socialisation mechanism”, which explains that people who have religious parents or enjoyed religious education may be more inclined to practise a religion than those who do not. This family centred approach is overestimated, however. In fact, a significant number of young people that claim to be genuinely religious state that religion did not matter in their childhood and that they only became interested in religion on their own as young adults – and vice versa. Some also argue that religious or secular culture can be “produced”. Here the variables of availability of leisure, media, science and education – provided predominantly either by the church or the secular state – play an important role concerning the view society has of religion.

However, when it comes to explaining religiosity, one may be surprised to see that the most important models are closely linked to economic parameters. In fact, these concepts regard religiosity as just another good subject for studying supply and demand, and thus consider it more or less desirable depending on the circumstances. The “deprivation model” argues that deprivation of any kind will lead people to religiosity. The more an individual feels materially or socially disadvantaged, the more he will be inclined to turn towards religion, offering explanations, hopes, or even material aid. Here the idea of “cultural and ethnic assertion of identity” also offers further explanation for the fact that minority groups within a society, or immigrants, tend to be more religious. They cling to their ancestral culture in opposition to the otherness of their immediate environment, especially if the latter influences their status negatively.

Secularisation Through Economic Development?

The most prominent example in this vein is the “secularisation hypothesis”, which has a fatalist touch to it. It draws a direct link between economic growth and drop in religiosity and posits that the more a society develops economically, the less its people will believe in and practice religious cults. Starting with Auguste Comte, a number of important sociologists predicted this demise. Pew Global analyzed data which showed that a high GDP is tantamount to low religiosity. However where some expect a development towards western normalcy” in the future, this assumption is debatable and could be rightfully criticised as euro-centric. Some even say that western Europe is the true exception as other countries enter a post-secular age or never really reach secularity in spite of modernisation.

It is indeed remarkable that in spite of an ever-rising GDP since the beginning of the 90s, secularisation has not taken place as predicted. Religion can become an emblem of national identification. Indeed new forms of nationalism, rooted in religious and cultural traditions, are challenging the western European model of the secular state in eastern Europe and in other parts of the world, such as the Middle East and South Asia. This alternative model, which is gaining more ground as the flourishing of religious right-wing parties in the USA and other western democracies, or that of Islamist movements indicate, may best be described as a religious version of the modern nation-state. Secularization may thus not be the only solution for modernity as it was long believed to be. What comes out of it, only future history will show.

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