By Bryan Caplan
Sociologists have been saying funeral rites for religion for over a century. Either it’s already dying out, or its just about to have a heart attack – a claim known as the “secularization hypothesis.” My debating partner Larry Iannaccone and others have pointed out, however, that reports of the demise of religion are greatly exaggerated. On the one hand, the best data shows that people were not all that religious in the pre-modern period; on the other hand, by most measures religion is currently stable or gaining ground.
Overall, Iannaccone and other critics of the secularization hypothesis have the facts on their side, at least as far as the U.S. is concerned. But there are two confounding economic forces that, as far as I’ve seen, neither friend nor foe of the secularization hypothesis has taken into account.
1. Transportation costs. Suppose church attendance stayed flat over the past century. That seems like conclusive proof against the secularization hypothesis. However, what if the typical believer a hundred years ago had to travel two hours each way from his farm to his church, while the modern has only a twenty minute drive? For attendance to remain flat in the face of this massive decline in transportation costs strongly suggests a substantial downward shift in the demand for religion.
Put differently, what would happen to church attendance today if we made getting to church as inconvenient as it was a century ago? I would predict a steep decline, probably to historically low levels.
2. Increasing leisure. One of most obvious differences between life today and life a hundred years ago is that we have far more leisure. Even a hundred years ago, a farmer would be lucky to have twenty hours of free time per week. People today probably have three or four times as much. If the taste for religion were as strong today as it were a hundred years ago, then, you would expect that people would be spending much more time on religion.
In practice, however, most of the extra free time has been gobbled up by new activities like watching t.v. – an average of three hours per day according to the General Social Survey. And none of the leading channels offers a significant amount of religious programming. Indeed, they supply a ton of the sexy and violent entertainment that almost all religions preach against.
In any case, when I read debates about the secularization hypothesis, I get the impression that the participants greatly overestimate how much is at stake. Who ever said truth was popular? Even if religion is just the opiate of the masses, why should we expect them to lose their taste for opium? And even if Christianity is the absolute truth, religion could still be in a tailspin. Indeed, isn’t that just what the Book of Revelation predicts?