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Differences in Religious belief between the United States and the United Kingdom 

Introduction

The United States (US) has a much larger religious demographic and a smaller atheist demographic when compared with other developed countries. In this paper I will compare religious belief in the United Kingdom (UK) with religious belief in the US and attempt to identify which factors are most likely responsible for the large discrepancy in religious affiliation between the two populations. Since the beginning of the 21st century, a huge amount of data has been gathered on religious belief and its correlates. One of the most striking connections that has been identified is the link between religious belief and poverty. Social scientists have come up with a number of theories to explain this correlation, and one of these theories is known as the existential security theory. According to this theory, religious belief is functional and is therefore more prominent in societies where its function is needed. If the primary function of religious belief is comfort and security, then it is not surprising that the countries in which comfort and security are the scarcest are also the most religious. It seems that a low level of per-capita income is one of the best indicators of this scarcity. The US is an exception among developed countries because it has both a high per-capita income and relatively high levels of religious belief. Nevertheless, the US exhibits unique levels of social dysfunction that seem to be related to higher levels of religious affiliation among its population.

The Belief Gap: The United States and the United Kingdom

There is a large gap between the US and other developed countries such as the UK regarding religious affiliation and belief in god generally. As of 2016, 53% of those polled in the UK said that they were not affiliated with any religion according to an ongoing survey conducted by the National Centre for Social Research (NCFSR, 2017). A religious landscape study conducted by Pew Research Center in 2015 found that 22% of Americans identified themselves as unaffiliated with any religion while an additional 8.8% said religion was unimportant to them. (Pew, 2015). This data shows that in the US a larger percentage of the population is affiliated with organized religion compared to the UK and other developed countries, especially those in Western Europe.

The data on atheism further demonstrates the disparity between belief systems in the US and the UK. The religious landscape study conducted by Pew also found that 3.1% of Americans are convinced atheists while another study conducted by Gallup International found that convinced atheists comprised 13% of the UK population. (Gallup International, 2015). Convinced atheists are those for which a lack of religious affiliation is the same as a lack of belief in god generally. If we compare the percentage of non-religious people in the UK with those who are also atheists we see that not only is the total percentage of atheists higher in the UK than in the US, but also that the proportion of non-religious people who are atheists is higher in the UK (24.5%) than in the US (10%). In other words, atheists make up a larger slice of the non-religious pie in the UK.

The above studies clearly demonstrate a belief gap between the US and UK. The US has higher rates of religious affiliation and lower rates of atheism, and atheists make up a much smaller proportion of non-religious people in the US. The UK is not alone in this comparison. The US is an outlier among developed countries in regard to its religiosity, and the question is, why?

Religious Belief and Existential Security

Curve graph showing relationship between national wealth and religion

Figure 1 Taken from: http://www.pewresearch.org

In 2009, Gallup conducted an international survey about the importance of religion. The results of the survey were published in an article with the title “Religiosity highest in world’s poorest nations”. 114 countries were involved in the survey but one country, the US, was featured in the article’s subtitle which read “The United States is among the rich countries that bucks the trend”. (Gallup, 2010)

When the question “Is religion an important part of your daily life?” was asked to Americans, 65% answered yes and only 34% answered no as opposed to citizens in theUK who answered 27% yes and 73% no. The results show that the US has a much larger religious demographic than other developed countries including the UK. According to the survey, there is a strong correlation between religiosity and per-capita income. As the title of the article suggests, the wealthier a country is the less important religion becomes in the lives of its citizens. The median survey response in countries at or above a per-capita income level of 25,001 was 47% yes and 52% no. Pew Research Center came to a similar conclusion after conducting a global attitudes survey in 2007. (Pew, 2007). Figure 1 demonstrates the correlation between per-capita income on the horizontal axis and religiosity on the vertical access. For a country as rich as the US its levels of religius affileation are suprisingly high.

One attempt to explain the connection between religiosity and wealth was proposed by Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris in their book Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide (Inglehart and Norris, 2011). Their theory, which is often referred to as the existential security theory, suggests that religious belief plays a more functional role in poorer nations because people use religion to cope with difficulties and are less likely to need it when they feel secure. On this view, “security is the driver of secularization” (Inglehart and Norris, 2014 pg. 16) and impoverished countries, which are generally less secure than wealthy ones, will have higher levels of religiosity. A Gallup poll conducted in 2008 supports the idea that the emotional utility of religious belief decreases as security and wealth increase. Figures 2 and 3, suggest that religious belief offers less emotional benefits to people in more developed countries. (Gallup, 2009).

Figure showing frequency of a variety of feelings based on religious involvement and country's wealth

Figure 2 Taken from: http://www.pewglobal.org

Figure showing frequency of a variety of feelings based on religious involvement and country's wealth

Figure 3 Taken from: http://www.pewglobal.org

Existential security theory may help explain the difference in religiosity between the US and other developed countries like the UK. Security involves more than per-capita income. According to a study conducted by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime that analyzed homicide rates in 34 OECD countries, the US ranked in the top three with a homicide rate of 3.82 per 100,000 compared 0.96 in the UK. (UNOCD, 2013) With the exception of Estonia (16% religious affiliation) the countries with the highest homicide rates tended to be the most religious on average; Mexico (73%), Turkey (82%), The US (65%), and Chile (70%). If we were to examine the homicide rates of countries that scored over 90%, most of which are located in Africa, it is reasonable to assume that the trend would continue.

A study on the relationship between social dysfunction and religiosity, published in the journal of Religion and Society, further suggests that the existential security theory is on the right track. The study states: “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies.” (Paul 2005, pg. 7). According to the study, the high per-capita income level enjoyed by the US has not translated into higher levels of wellbeing.

The US healthcare system is an example of a possible source of insecurity not shared by other developed democracies. Because of the US system, thousands of Americans are forced to undergo medical bankruptcy in the US each year compared with zero in the UK. This is one example of social dysfunction that may contribute to overall levels of insecurity in the US.

It is not clear whether existential insecurity is caused by high levels of religious belief or is the cause of the high levels. It is possible, for example, that high levels of homicides contribute to an overall feeling of insecurity within a population resulting in higher levels of religiosity. On the other hand, a phenomenon such as high teen pregnancy rates is likely a consequence of poor sex education in many US states, which is a direct result of religious opinion in those states. Because it is difficult to clearly identify the cause and effect of the phenomena, the link between existential security and religious belief in a population is not fully understood. Regardless, the existential security theory is most likely the best explanation for the belief gap between the US and other developed countries such as the UK. It seems to be the case that the US is more religious, and its citizens are less secure than those in the UK. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the two conditions are related and that the link has causal significance.

 Works Cited

  1. British Social Attitudes: Record number of Brits with no religion. (n.d.). Retrieved March 07, 2018, from http://natcen.ac.uk/news-media/press-releases/2017/september/british-social-attitudes-record-number-of-brits-with-no-religion/
  2. Wormald, B. (2015, May 11). Religious Landscape Study. Retrieved March 07, 2018, from http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/
  3. Losing Our Religion? Two Thirds of People Still Claim to Be Religious. Retrieved March 07, 2018, from http://gallup-international.bg/en/Publications/2015/223-Losing-Our-Religion-Two-Thirds-of-People-Still-Claim-to-Be-Religious
  4. Gallup, I., & Crabtree, S. (2010, August 31). Religiosity Highest in World’s Poorest Nations. Retrieved March 07, 2018, from http://news.gallup.com/poll/142727/religiosity-highest-world-poorest-nations.aspx
  5. World Publics Welcome Global Trade – But Not Immigration. (2007, October 04). Retrieved March 07, 2018, from http://www.pewglobal.org/2007/10/04/world-publics-welcome-global-trade-but-not-immigration/
  6. Norris, P., & Inglehart, R. (2011). Sacred and secular: religion and politics worldwide. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Norris, P., & Inglehart, R. (2014). Are High Levels of Existential Security Conducive to Secularization? A Response to Our Critics. The Changing World Religion Map,3389-3408. doi:10.1007/978-94-017-9376-6_177
  8. Crabtree, S., & Pelham, B. (2009, March 06). Religion Provides Emotional Boost to World’s Poor. Retrieved March 07, 2018, from http://news.gallup.com/poll/116449/Religion-Provides-Emotional-Boost-World-Poor.aspx
  9. Kiersz, A. (2015, June 18). Obama was right when he said ‘this type of mass violence does not happen in other developed countries’. Retrieved March 08, 2018, from http://www.businessinsider.com/oecd-homicide-rates-chart-2015-6
  10. Paul, G. S. (2005). Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies. Journal of Religion & Society,7. Retrieved March 7, 2018.

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