Sunday, June 11, 2006


Free-market Religion or Ignorance?
By Thomas Riggins

Eduardo Porter, writing in the Sunday (11/21/04) New York Times "Week In Review" section seeks to explain the theory that religion is so popular in the US due to supply-side economics. Just like any commodity competition the commodity of religion is so wide spread due to the competition between its suppliers. This is a new view, Porter says, replacing, perhaps, the older view that the more educated the more secular a country becomes.

The US, Porter maintains, is an exception to this rule which applies to Europe and Japan rather than to us. Studies show that for 80% of Germans, 88% of Japanese, and 89% of French people religion doesn’t play a very important part in their lives. As for the Dutch – 25% describe themselves as atheists. Porter quotes David Voas (University of Manchester) as saying, "If you take the United Nations’ Human Development Index and look at the top 20 countries 19 of those are very secular. We must be the 20th – with only 40% of Americans not thinking of religion as very important.

The question Porter asks is "Why is the United States, the world’s most prosperous and educated democracy, so religious?" I’m not even going to go into the "free-market" theory because there is, I think, a fundamental problem with the assumptions of the question itself.

The idea that the US is the most "educated" democracy is ludicrous. Compared to other developed countries, the American educational system is a sorry joke.

I want to consider the following facts, all from the Chapter "The Sorry State of Education" in Valdas Anelauskas’ Discovering America As It Is (Atlanta, Clarity Press, 2003). Valdas points out that a baby born in the US has a 20% chance of ending as an illiterate adult. This means a fifth of American adults can’t read! The US ranks 49th in adult literacy among the world’s countries

Also note that when American students are compared to students in other countries in the developed world they usually end up at the bottom of the barrel. "Americans are at or near the bottom in most international surveys measuring educational achievement." Even our best students come well behind those of the top ten countries when test scores are compared. We come in around 16th.

What this reflects is the appalling poverty rates for children in this country coupled with a blatant disregard by national, state, and local governments of the needs of schools and students. Valdas refers to studies by Richard Jaeger at the University of North Carolina that revealed "America’s rising childhood poverty rate, breakdown of families and all other social problems account for all of the disparity between American and foreign students’ achievement." So we are not only not the most "educated" we are not the most "prosperous" either.

Here is how "educated" our kids are. Number of forth graders who think the world is FLAT: 40% Number of sixth graders who can’t find the USA on a map: 20% Number of high school seniors lacking the most basic knowledge of American history (forget world history): 57%. Number of seventeen year old students who don’t know when the Civil War took place: 66% – 33% didn’t know who Abraham Lincoln was!

There is one encouraging result here, and that is that 25% of college seniors think that the slogan "from each according to his ability to each according to his need" is from the Constitution. This is no doubt due to effective campus propaganda by the Young Communist League.

Who benefits from the bad education given to American students? And its really bad. The US ranks 28th out of the 29 counties in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (we beat out Mexico) in the number of students who graduate from school (72%, compare Germany at 91%). The beneficiaries of this education system are the forces on the right and the religious fundamentalists who thrive in conditions of educational deficiency.

I therefore conclude that the "old-school" sociology, as Porter calls it, was correct in holding "that as nations become more prosperous, healthy, and educated, demand for the support that religion provides declines." The fact that so many of our citizens are religious is a mark of how backward the US is. So I’ll end with another quote from Anelauskas’ book, from a gentleman even more obscure than Abraham Lincoln, namely Maximilien Robespierre: "The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant."

--Thomas Riggins writes a weekly column for this web site and can be reached at

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