American Religiosity – Viewed from Britain

Much has been written about the perceived contrasts between a secularizing Western Europe and a continuingly religious United States. One example is the book by Peter Berger, Grace Davie and Effie Fokas on Religious America, Secular Europe? (Ashgate, 2008), synthesizing a range of evidence.

More specific, based on the International Social Survey Program 2008, is David Voas and Rodney Ling, ‘Religion in Britain and the United States’, British Social Attitudes: The 26th Report, edited by Alison Park, John Curtice, Katarina Thomson, Miranda Phillips, Elizabeth Clery and Sarah Butt (Sage, 2010), pp. 65-86.

But what is the judgment of the court of public opinion? Do the people consider that America is religious? Some new insights into this topic are available in the latest report from the Pew Global Attitudes Project, released on 17 June and available for download at:

Fieldwork was undertaken in 22 nations, one of them Great Britain, where 750 telephone interviews were conducted with adults aged 18 and over between 15 April and 2 May 2010 under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International. Contact was made with households with both landline and mobile only telephony.

Respondents were asked the simple question: ‘Is the US too religious a country or not religious enough?’

In Britain 47% claimed that the US is too religious, 21% not religious enough, with 14% stating that the balance is about right and 18% don’t knows. The trend is for Britons to see the US as too religious (the May 2003 figure being 33% and May 2005 39%), with a decline in those saying it is not religious enough (35% in 2003 and 27% in 2005).

The proportion of Britons thinking that the US is too religious was the second highest among all the nations covered in the survey, only being exceeded by France (71%), with Germany on 46% and Japan on 42%. At the other end of the scale, countries with Muslim majority populations recorded by far the lowest figures, including Turkey (8%), Egypt (8%), Pakistan (6%), Lebanon (3%) and Jordan (1%). 

The percentage of Britons stating that the US is not religious enough was the smallest of all the 22 countries. At 21% it was just one-third of the number of Americans holding this opinion (64%, up from 58% in 2005). Even higher figures than in the US were recorded in Jordan (89%), Egypt (81%) and Indonesia (67%). In all, majorities or pluralities in 18 nations said the US is insufficiently religious.

So, in general, Americans decidedly think that the US could do with more religion while the British increasingly feel that the US has more than enough already. This finding cannot be dismissed as a manifestation of anti-Americanism in general since 65% of Britons entertain a favourable view of the US and 73% of the American people. It either reflects the long-standing British discomfort about wearing religion on the sleeve or is yet another indicator that faith is being squeezed out of the public square in Britain.

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