58% of the American population now say that God’s importance in their lives ranks 10/10. Church attendance is up.
Good news? Hardly. For one thing, while spending more time sitting in church we are still electrocuting retarded black teenagers and killing Iraqi civilians with smart bombs. And much of the increased interest in things spiritual is frittered away listening to lectures in buildings with stained glass windows or dabbling in ESP, UFO’s, astrology, or yoga.
On a related note, in 2001 59% of all Americans said they were deeply interested in the meaning and purpose of life—a higher percentage than other societies, and up from 46% in 1995. What accounts for this fixation? In his new book, America’s Crisis of Values: Reality and Perception, Wayne Baker presents a novel theory: we are desperately trying to resolve the contradiction between the traditional and the self-expressive.
A contradiction which is uniquely American, as the fascinating World Values Survey shows. According to the four surveys carried out in 80 countries over the last 25 years, the USA ranks below zero on the traditional vs. secular/rational scale—far below our industrialized sister countries and at the same level as Poland. (Japan is tops here.) At the same time, America falls on the high end of the survival vs. self-expression scale, which you would expect given its level of economic development. The chart below shows this in the form of the so-called Inglehart Values Map.
Baker is saying, in other words, Americans’ fixation on meaning and purpose is pathological, a desperate, misguided, and ultimately futile attempt to bridge the gap between an almost medieval religious traditionalism and the self-expressive possibilities of modern society.