It's a matter of faith: Researchers at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research (ISR) have found that while the number of adults who regularly attend religious services in the United States and other advanced industrialized nations is slipping, the percentage of people who think often about the purpose and meaning of life is on the rise.
"Generally speaking, economic modernization has propelled many societies toward secular attitudes and values, but cultural and religious heritage still matters a lot," says sociologist Wayne Baker, co-author of the study, which was published last month in the American Sociological Review. "We found that no matter how economically advanced a society is, you still can not disregard the cultural and religious effects."
Baker, along with political scientist Ronald Inglehart, analyzed data from three waves of the ISR's World Values Survey conducted in 1981, 1990-91, and 1995-98. A total of 165,594 people were interviewed using nationally representative samples from the adult populations of 65 countries, including industrialized nations, former communist countries and developing nations.
Among the 20 advanced nations surveyed, 16 showed declining rates of church attendance from 1981 to 1998. The largest dropswere found in Switzerland (18 percent), Spain (15 percent), Australia (15 percent), and East Germany (10 percent).
But during the same period, both Australia and East Germany posted increases in the number of people who say they "often" think about the meaning and purpose of life (10 percent and 7 percent, respectively).
West Germany, South Korea, Italy, and the Netherlands saw increases greater than 10 percent in that measure.
Back in the United States, attendance at religious services has seen less of a decline, down 5 percent since 1981, to 55 percent. We are, however, a nation of true believers. Fully 50 percent of Americans surveyed gave God a "10" in importance to their lives, more than any other nation. And 46 percent said that they think often about the meaning of life, a rate topped only by East Germany's 47 percent.
"The United States' heritage has always been based in religion," says Baker. "It wasn't that long ago that if you wanted to get a mortgage you had to have letter from your priest or rabbi. It's still a very religious society in many ways."
Former communist nations are turning to God as well. Five of the seven countries surveyed - Hungary, Latvia, Bulgaria, Belarus, and Russia - have more people in the pews today than in the 1980s. Hungary led the way with an 18 percent increase. And every ex-communist country saw growth in the number of respondents who felt God was important in their lives.
Baker says that this "retrograde movement" makes complete sense. "The societies that have experienced serious economic collapse as a result of the fall of the former Soviet Union have gone back to more traditional values. They need the physical security that traditional places offer them," he says.
But Inglehart adds that even in economically and politically sound countries like the United States, some form of spirituality will always play a role. "People have always sought answers to such questions as `Where do we come from?' `Where are we going?' `Why are we here?'" he says. "The need for answers may be especially acute in the face of disaster, but it does not die out in post-industrial society."
For more information, visit the World Values Surveys' Web site at wvs.isr.umich.edu or contact Diane Swanbrow at (734) 647-4416.