Retrospective questions from recent surveys let us estimate rates of church attendance among children and their parents in ten Western democracies throughout most of the 20th century. We combine these time series with standard sources to test competing theories of religious change. Although our attendance estimates affirm the prevalence of religious decline, our statistical tests offer no support for traditional theories of secularization (which link decline to changes in income, education, industrialization, urbanization, and family life). Nor can we attribute much of the observed decline to growth in the welfare state. But increased school spending by governments does reduce church attendance, and this effect is not the result of greater educational attainment. In shaping the content of schooling, governments may strongly influence long-run religious trends.
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José Casanova (1994: 17) has noted that “secularization may be the only theory which was able to attain a truly paradigmatic status within the modern social sciences … shared by all the founding fathers: from Karl Marx to John Stuart Mill, from Auguste Comte to Herbert Spencer, from E.B. Tylor to James Frazer, from Ferdinand Toennies to Georg Simmel, from Émile Durkheim to Max Weber, from Wihelm Wundt to Sigmund Freud, from Lester Ward to William G. Summer, from Robert Park to George H. Mead.”
Finke (1990) and Finke and Stark (1988, 1992) published their path-breaking work on religious economies and deregulation around the same time that Iannaccone (1988, 1990, 1991, 1992b) began writing about religious markets and rational choice as a “new paradigm” for religious research. Finke and Iannaccone’s (1993) “supply-side” account of American religious history and Warner’s (1993) much-cited analysis of the new paradigm literature strongly shaped the language of subsequent debate.
In the first paper to apply the “supply” versus “demand” distinction, Finke and Iannaccone (1993: 27–28) likewise argued that
“the most significant changes in American religion … derive from changes in the incentives and opportunities facing religious producers, not some sudden shift in the material or psychological state of the populace. Of course, religious markets respond to the equilibrating forces of both supply and demand, but, as a matter of historical fact, religious demand proves much more stable than religious supply … because the underlying determinants of religious demand—people’s tastes, beliefs, socialization, and so forth—are rooted in fundamental human needs, whereas religious supply is strongly affected by government policy.”
The emphasis on religion as a source of “existential security” is also quite closely related to “deprivation” theories of religion popular among sociologists in the 1950s through 1970s, which lost currency as more and more surveys found little or no evidence of reduced religiosity among individuals with greater income, more education, or better health (Stark and Bainbridge 1985).
As Hout and Greeley (1987) explain, the situation is only slightly better in the United States, where Gallop polls provide spotty data on church attendance rates stretching back to the 1940s, but reliable repeated surveys with good religious and demographic items begin with the National Election Surveys of the 1960s and the General Social Surveys of the 1970s.
Questions of this form first appear in a 1963 National Opinion Research Center (NORC) study of American Catholics conducted by Greeley et al. (1976), and we owe to Andrew Greeley that they appear also in special years of the General Social Surveys and ISSP. But Greeley and others used the responses solely to capture the influence of personal background.
For one last “sanity check” on the method, readers might consider their own ability to recall their religious identity and church attendance around age 11 or 12.
During the twentieth century, these ten countries obtain a positive score on the democracy index in the Polity IV dataset (see Marshall and Jaggers 2009). Still, it must be noted that four countries in our sample, i.e., Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Norway, came under the occupation of Nazi Germany between 1940 and 1944 and were governed during those years by puppet regimes. However, none of these governments, and not even the Vichy regime in France which had extensive ties to parts of the French Catholic clergy, launched major campaigns to either encourage or discourage church attendance. Therefore, we consider that these four countries were democratic regimes throughout the twentieth century.
Though in principle we might have tried including non-Western, less-developed, or non-Christian nations, the number of such nations in the ISSP was too small to warrant the necessary additional fixed effects (as for the one Jewish nation, Israel, or the one Latin American nation, Chile, or the non-Western, Shinto-Buddhist nation of Japan).
Rollet (1958) likewise notes that the “social doctrine” of the 1891 papal encyclical De Rerum Novarum specifically encouraged Catholics to alleviate workers’ hardships in the new industrial era.
Government spending on education is, in fact, negatively correlated with both Secondary Education (ρ=−0.20) and Post-Secondary Education (ρ=−0.080) over time—in part because educational attainment rose most rapidly in the early to mid 20th-century, whereas government expenditures on education rose most rapidly from the century’s middle to its end.
These estimates are similar in magnitude to those computed by Gill and Lundsgaarde (2004). Their 1995 cross-section of 16 to 33 countries implied that a 1 % increase in the share of GDP devoted to welfare spending decreases church attendance by about 0.28 % to 0.63 %.
Most nations set a single minimum school leaving age, but minimums varied somewhat across Canadian provinces, Swiss cantons and American states. For each of these countries, we used the average of their minimums.
We made no attempt to create instruments for health, family, or old age spending because these variables had little impact on attendance. We also made no attempt to employ instruments for industrialization and urbanization because we could find no scholarly tradition claiming that decreased religiosity induced urbanization or industrialization.
Much as we would like to examine the different strands of Protestantism as other research highlights the importance of the ‘liberal-to-conservative’ denominational spectrum (Iannaccone 1998; Finke and Stark 1992), our samples are too small to offer any insight into Protestant denominational differences. In Denmark, Norway, and Sweden nearly all Protestants are members of the historically “established” church. And in Canada and the United States, where no one Protestant denomination predominates, the ISSP denominational samples are too small to be of use and, worse yet, the character of these denominations (such as Baptists) varies greatly across nations.
We exclude from our subsampled attendance series any estimates from a five-year interval with fewer than 50 retrospective observations. Ireland thus supplies no estimates of Protestant attendance for any five-year interval, the Scandinavian countries provide no Catholic estimates, and other countries are missing estimates for various subgroups in the earliest or latest years of our sample.
They often also mandated religious observance, as when King Louis XIV (1638–1715) threatened to jail Parisians who failed to attend Sunday mass (Bluche 1990) or the courts of Colonial Virginia required Anglicans to attend their parish church at least once per month, and failure could be punished by a fine of 5 shillings, 50 pounds of tobacco, or a whipping of ten lashes (http://score.rims.k12.ca.us/score_lessons/colonial_court/html/colonial.html).
Governments can secularize schools in many ways, not merely in the adversarial manner of the French Republicans, who in 1881 made state-funded primary schooling “public, secular, and mandatory” in order to undermine the power of the Catholic Church (Franck and Johnson 2013), or in the “neutral” manner of the US Supreme Court, which declared mandatory school prayers and Bible reading unconstitutional in 1963, but even by providing explicit religious instruction after the manner of England and Germany, which may inadvertently undermine the authority of any particular tradition by portraying all traditions as equally true (Glenn 2004).
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Raphaël Franck gratefully acknowledges financial support from the Adar Foundation of the Economics Department at Bar Ilan University, and Laurence R. Iannaccone gratefully acknowledges financial support from the John Templeton Foundation and the Metanexus Institute. We also thank Leonid Azarnert, Samia Costa, Guillaume Daudin, Dror Goldberg, Jonathan Gruber, Daniel Hungerman, Miriam Krausz, Michael Makowsky, Rachel McCleary, Vai-Lam Mui, Jared Rubin, and Peter Temin as well as participants in seminars and conferences at the University of Haifa, Bar Ilan University, ASREC, and the NBER. Previous drafts of this article were circulated as “Why did Religiosity Decrease in the Western World during the Twentieth Century?”.
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Franck, R., Iannaccone, L.R. Religious decline in the 20th century West: testing alternative explanations. Public Choice 159, 385–414 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11127-013-0103-9
- Economics of religion