Friday, January 01, 2010

A choice between two religions

It's my impression that most people need a psychological connection to something much bigger than themselves. A libertarian worldview will never become popular because few people are attracted to atomism and isolation. So it's simply a matter of which collective becomes important for a person. One possibility is to feel tied to all of humanity, but such a vast number seems too remote.

Family is an obvious community, but since it's been stripped to a bare minimum--a nuclear or single parent type--it doesn't offer the bigness that people crave.

Some people are attached to their local community, but American society is so mobile, many aren't able to grow deep roots in one place. Plus, our gigantic, sprawling cities are not conducive to a sense of community. A large number of ethnic and racial minorities turn to their tribe for meaning, but that's not a respectable option for the majority.

It looks like the main options white folks have is either God or the State. Of course, a person could love Americans without loving the government, but many citizens seem to conflate the two. Empirically, there is something of a choice between two types of religion: the traditional type and the modern one with the Holy Trinity of Roosevelt, Kennedy, and King. (One has got to go to make room for Obama--I put my money on the dusty old white guy).

This table based on GSS data shows some support for this idea:


It shows that atheists are more than one standard deviation more liberal than Americans who say they know God exists. (Cohen's d is the difference between means as a propoertion of a standard deviation). That is a huge gap.

It looks like there is a tendency to substitute one form of bigness or crusade for another. Christians want to save souls; atheists want to save the planet.

You can see the same pattern with level of religious involvement (measured as church attendance):

Religious people tend to see government as the problem, not the solution, while the irreligious place their faith in it. Of course, there are exceptions: liberal Christians, for example. But there is a tendency among Americans today to place their deepest hopes in either a church or Washington. If we want a more conservative country, we need a more religious one.


  1. I'm glad to see you citing the SD, and interested to note that it decreases with increasing religiousness - implying that the religious are more homogeneous in their political views than the non-religious.

  2. Wouldn't it be great if people could hitch their faith to reality instead of some big myth or other?

  3. I wrote about atheists and liberalism here:

    Liberal Atheists and the State

  4. Nanonymous11:07 AM


    I noticed that the quality of bitmap graphics quality of your tables is consistently very poor. Sometimes even barely readable. Just a suggestion: this is because you use JPEGs; use GIF format and they will be as crisp as if they were text (and smaller in size). Jpeg excels at photographic pictures, GIF's best is in low complexity solid colors.

  5. dearieme2:45 PM

    "Roosevelt, Kennedy, and King": it's unnecessarily rude to the memory of King to classify him with those two twerps. As for "O"; oh dear!

  6. Nanonymous: Thanks. I redid Table 2, and I think it does look a little better. On my screen, they always look fine.

  7. Anonymous5:02 PM

    Of course, Internet and communications make community to some extent not linked to a place and practical and render these more compatible with the mobile and variegated structure of American society.

    However, that kind of community is stuck in a position where it has to compete with your "real life" or "work" community for your attention and time, and I don't think interactions through text and video can really compete with fleshy interaction for most emotionally normal people.

  8. Anonymous6:07 AM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. "Wouldn't it be great if people could hitch their faith to reality instead of some big myth or other?"

    You are going to die. Your consciousness will be expunged. All you have worked for will likely pass into nothingness as well. Your children will eventually forget you and die themselves, and your descendants will likely not even know you existed.

    You will have to spend most of your time doing something you don't like to pay the bills, with an uncaring employer who can discharge you and thus ruin your livelihood at any time ruling over you.

    Your wife can divorce you at any time to collect alimony. Your husband can beat you up at any time and if you try to escape, may kill you.

    I'm not religious, but I don't blame people who are.

  10. There's always the anarchist-atheist libertarian-atheist option (no gods, no masters), but nobody seems to take it. Probably, as you say, it is too bleak for most people.

    Another thing to consider is that churches often act as private welfare states--food drives, etc.

  11. @ SFG:

    Well thanks for that.

  12. I don't think it's that atheists need a religion-replacement so much as you have to be religious to align yourself with the Republican party.

    (Some exceptions for single-issue voters like gun nuts, flat taxers, etc.) I've never met an atheist Republican who wasn't either a gun nut or a flat tax advocate.

  13. Anonymous11:47 AM

    nice post. thanks.


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