Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Changes in the importance of religion by country over time

In the comments to a previous post looking at changes in positions on social behaviors over time across several countries participating in the WVS, Ed Tom Kowalsky wrote:
I wonder if one could similarly track global views on immigration, religion, crime (in general) and the United States.
I thought we'd be 2 for 4, but it turns out the question on immigration policy wasn't asked in the survey's earlier years, so religion is the only additional variable the WVS provides insight into on this front. Ah well, .250 isn't terrible in baseball, so we won't complain about the survey's restrictions too much.

Parenthetically, one question related to perceptions of the United States was posed to Iraqis in the fifth wave (2005-2008) asking how much confidence they had in American troops. A staggering 88% responded with "none at all" (n = 2,577). That's what our blood, sweat, and tears got us. Awesome!

There are 26 countries that participated in the WVS during both the 1990-1991 and 2005-2008 periods, but Argentina is excluded because the question about the importance of religion in the respondent's life was not asked in the earlier take and Slovenia is excluded because the data for that country are apparently corrupt.

In the following table, a religious importance index is computed for the countries listed based on respondents' answers to the question asking how important religion is in their lives. There are four possible responses, ranging from "very important" to "not at all important". The former is assigned a multiplier of 3, the latter of 0, the "somewhat important" response of 2, and the "not too important" of 1. The percentages of respondents giving each answer are then multiplied correspondingly, and the total for each country is divided by 3 to create an index scale of 0-100, with 0 indicating that the entire population says religion is not at all important, and a 100 indicating that the entire population says it is very important.

Religious importance index scores are shown for both periods, and the column furthest to the right shows the change in score from the end of the Cold War to today:

Religious importance90-9105-08Change
Great Britain47.2
South Africa83.685.92.3
South Korea55.849.9(5.9)
United States

Without pretending to be an amateur historian, the shifts over time initially to appear to be pretty straightforward to me. In the former Soviet Union, people had lived for four decades in a society in which the elimination of religion was an official state goal and every good citizen claimed to be an atheist. Religious property was confiscated and the orthodox church was subjugated. It's not surprising that as the iron curtain was lifted and the masses were free to rediscover religion again, it made a comeback. The uptick in religious importance in China over the 15 year period presumably has a similar though less rigid explanation, as the mainland is now comparable to Japan in its self-described religiosity.

In the table above, Turkey's results also tracks well with that country's recent history. Ataturk's republic was to be a secular one, and through most of the last century, Turkey has consistently been described as the most modern, moderate Islamic country in the MENA. More recently though, Turkey has been becoming more accommodating towards pious Muslim sensibilities. Erdogan, prime minister since 2003, has overseen a shift away from secularism in the country. That's what Western media report anyway, and the WVS lends credence to it.

Hindus are holding the line. Good for them.

So are South Africans. Running a few more of those unbelieving Dutch devils out since apartheid ended couldn't have hurt the cause!

The US, along with Catholic Poland and to a lesser extent Italy, are still far more overtly religious than the rest of western Europe is, with Canada falling in between, but in the Occident and its offshoots, the story has been one of gentle and steady decline at roughly equal rates across countries.

Being a good American, I don't know much about the cultural happenings in distant Mexico, choosing instead to focus my attention on places that are of greater relevance to me like Israel and Afghanistan. Consequently, the fairly substantial increase in religious importance to my south isn't something I'm easily able to account for. I think the ruling National Action party is more socially conservative and religious than the other two major parties in Mexico are, and it's held the presidency since 2000, so maybe the two are related. Or perhaps the increasing violence and instability that has characterized the country over the last several years as its government fights with drug cartels has pushed people towards greater spirituality, as I think Agnostic would predict.

WVS variables used: V9, V146ZA


Peter said...

It's easy to overlook, as the ending score is still low, but take note of what is happening in China.

Jokah Macpherson said...

Yeah, wow, China is definitely the big story from this table.

Ed Tom Kowalsky said...

Yes, China is becoming more religious, but it's interesting to note that east Asia seems to be every bit as secular as northern Europe, and that's really saying something.

Noah172 said...

The trend in Finland is encouraging for Christians. There are dissident Lutheran groups there who have above-average fertility. Secularism in Sweden appears to have stabilized (and even inched back). I wonder how the growth of Islam in western Europe will affect the relationship of the natives to their historic churches (or perhaps new evangelical churches that spring up).

Steve N. said...

Looks like a typo in Turkey's change: 17.8 versus 7.8. Significant only in that it puts them a close second to China, which had an exceedingly low baseline.

Audacious Epigone said...


Thanks, fixed it.