Why did church attendance drop in Western Europe during the 20th century?
An agnostic/atheist-type like me might speculate that increases in income, education, and urbanization made it easier for people to think and act for themselves and break away from the authority of the church.
But then why did religiosity in the U.S. -- which saw similar increases in income, education, and urbanization -- stay flat over the 20th century? And what explains this recent finding: educated people are more likely to attend church.
It turns out that economic development per se might not have much of an effect on religious observance. In a new paper, Raphaël Franck and Laurence Iannaccone provide some evidence that the secularization of Western Europe had much more to do with the growth of social insurance programs. That's because higher public spending
allowed individuals to become secular since they could obtain from the welfare state the health-, old-age and education-related services, which they previously received from the churches.
Using data on church attendance for 10 Western European countries and the U.S. between 1920 and 1990, Franck and Iannaccone find little evidence that attendance dropped as a result of economic progress. Instead, greater government support for education and old-age programs "led to a decline in religiosity."
If true, Franck and Iannaccone's results have a very interesting implication: Perhaps the best way the new Iraqi and Afghan governments can fight Islamist extermism is not with force but by improving their welfare states.