As I understand it, many of the early settlers from Europe to America were trying to escape religious persecution back home. In their countries of origin, people being from a non-aligned religious sect was frowned on, and led to persecution. This was under some government control of what was acceptable as a form of religion, in those countries back then.
So early settlers into America were religious, and wanted to keep governments from interfering with their religious identities. So they favoured the separation of the state, from legislating on matters within church and religion.
The religiousness of a country is correlated to its prosperity.
One explanation is that religion helps people to cope with fear and uncertainty in their lives.
Why then is a rich country like the USA so religious?
Perhaps because for a rich country, the USA doesn't provide that much security. There's a lot of economic inequality relative to social democracies like Sweden, which are very un-religious.
Also, the USA has a lot less gun control than many other countries, which means people are more in danger from crime.
Also the USA is a nation of immigrants. Most of these people come from poor, religious countries. So they bring a religion with them. Immigrants would tend to feel insecure because they're in an unfamiliar place. So people from the same country find cohesion in their religion.
But I saw a BBC documentary about food poverty which made me question the idea that the USA is so terrible at taking care of poor people. These poor people in the UK were actually getting a fair amount of money from the government. But many of them were actually very thin, because they couldn't afford to buy enough food! Most of the government assistance was going to pay the super-high interest on exploitative loans they'd been sucked into.
There aren't many people in the USA who are thin because they can't afford food. We have food stamps. Poor people are often malnourished because they buy cheap low-quality food, but they're much more often fat rather than too thin.
Also, loans are better regulated in the USA, so fewer poor people are in such an outrageous trap.
This problem with exploitative loans is probably not captured by statistics about wealth inequality.
Atheism is also correlated with education. The USA doesn't do very well at educating people for its wealth.
There are a bunch of different ideas about why the USA is so religious.
After thinking about it, you may be partially right. I think it's a little more complex than that but after thinking about it I do agree with you. There are so many different denominations it's hard to get a grasp on all the differences. People could be a member of one particular group that they agreed with the most. There were and are plenty of options. It gave them a sense of what I think is maybe most important, community.
I'm from Georgia and I'm currently in Texas for college so I know all about the bible belt in the US. Religion (specifically christianity) is a way of life, it's ingrained into the social fabric. It's a meeting place, a place to see your family and friends, talk about sports or current events. It's just something you do that somehow ties into jesus. It's pretty much assumed you're christian. They won't directly ask you how you feel about religion (I've never been directly asked my beliefs, yet) but they'll invite you to church or mention god, jesus, etc. as if it were just well known common knowledge.
That is exactly what does not happen in the United States. In the US, kids go to church on the weekends where they find ONLY people of the same faith. There is so little discussion and learning to be had when everyone around you has the same point of view.
This is most evident out in the country. As I said, it's a meeting place. It's a social center. People see each other more often at church then anywhere else unless they live next to each other or see them at work.They just live in the religious bubble and are taught from the beginning that jesus is the way and never have that challenged. It's really amazing. There's a sunday lunch rush from the church crowd out in the country. Traffic is worse out there after church than during the week for rush hour in cities. Want to eat out for lunch? Go before noon or you'll be waiting awhile. Even in cities it can be a problem.
What's interesting to me is that across the south wealth and education don't seem to deter religion. I grew up in a somewhat affluent suburb of Atlanta. Some kids had free or reduced lunch but nobody was poverty stricken, living on the streets. The worst off there were still better off than most in the city of Atlanta or other suburbs. Still, christianity was rampant. It was known as a top performing school in the Atlanta area (I know it's in GA but a top school in Atlanta is actually a good school) and plenty of people smarter than myself. The church was still a huge part of the community there. Often non-denominational. These are kids in homes worth half a million or more with no real financial worries, getting into Princeton, MIT, Brown, U Penn, Duke, UNC, Michigan, GA Tech and other good schools but religion is still part of their life. I see it at college too. Students already accepted into PhD programs for grad school that are much smarter than me but still are devout christians. More often than not. You'll see that the family has a lot to do with it. The most devout are often in highly religious families.
across the south wealth and education don't seem to deter religion.
People influence each other a great deal, so people's religiousness is influenced by the religiousness of their family and the other people around them.
So when sociologists try to explain how religious a nation is, they're looking at the statistical info about the people in the society - their average prosperity, average education, economic inequality in the society, etc. They aren't trying to predict what happens to individuals. And the effects they're talking about happen over large time scales as well - trying to explain why societies change in religiousness over decades, etc.
True and while I did only point out a few individuals, I assure you they are the rule and not the exception. Go to any McMansion neighborhood in Atlanta and the story is the same. As a whole Georgia is one the poorer and more religious states in the US. I get looking at the averages but if you were to look at smaller groups' averages you'd still find high religiosity.
It isn't just about averages, it's about the interactions between one person and another, between a person and the environment. And it's long-lasting. People's religious training in childhood, what they're surrounded by as children, tends to stay with them.
If you used a "virus" analogy, it would be a virus that isn't very contagious but is long-lasting (i.e. nonreligiousness isn't very contagious either). You can catch it by being exposed for long periods as a child. The people in rich enclaves in Atlanta weren't all brought up by rich, educated people, they are exposed to the general culture by TV and newspapers, and by people they encounter at work, out shopping, etc. Subcultures that are good at preserving themselves tend to arrange things so people work inside the subculture, do business inside the subculture. (Like ultraconservative Jews, Amish, etc.)
Sociologists have probably tried to model religiousness on a group level, with differential equations including diffusion of religion over space and into the future. And the internet is changing those equations, although some subcultures try to preserve themselves by limiting access to it.
I'm not sure how much things that happened centuries ago, like the USA being colonized by refugees from religious persecution, are still affecting religiosity today. After all, was Sweden (quite nonreligious today) a secure or educated society centuries ago? Sociologists could do a best fit of their parameters by looking at the history of a society and how its religiousness changed over time.
In the United States the rivalry between intellect and emotion in religion was—early on in our history—resolved in favor of emotion by the two "great awakenings" of 1730-1755 and 1790-1840. Protestant evangelicals tilted the tension toward enthusiasm. That suited a population that was largely rural and has created a tradition that includes everything from snake handling to megachurches preaching the prosperity gospel.
A small addition to this discussion—a book published two years ago by anthropologist Tanya Luhrman, called When God Talks Back, investigates the direct experience of God that many evangelicals feel after training themselves in intense prayer. Here are two reviews that summarize the book:
And here is a blog by the author herself:
People who engage in this practice convince themselves that mental images and voices they experience are in fact actual contacts with God. Naturally people who have this experience and repeat it over time are not open to rational arguments against it.
Thanks for the links, they were interesting.
From the author:
Prayer changed the way people used their imagination and it changed the quality of their imagination, so that what they imagined felt more real to them. They became able to feel God beside then as they walked. They experienced God as talking back. They needed to use a new "theory of mind" to do this -- they needed to be taught that what happened in their imaginations could be real.
I've had perceptions of God but I wasn't brought up religious, so I didn't have that religious "theory of mind", I didn't frame the perceptions as being about the creator of the universe or the Holy Spirit. I didn't experience God as talking to me or walking beside me though - it was somewhat personlike but not that much so. My perceptions were of something very nonverbal.
It seems much less real, much more like just kidding oneself, to have conversations with an imaginary being.
It's an unfamiliar experience to me, but it seems quite real to others. It reminds me of the words to the hymn In The Garden, which is all about talking to Jesus:
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.
That refrain always seemed quite neurotic to me—downright creepy in fact—but the congregation in our church sang it joyfully. Some probably thought it beautiful.
Whatever the reason is,I believe it makes the US look stupid in the eyes of a lot of countries. It's embarrassing.