No Atheists in Foxholes

By Miller, Lisa | Newsweek, August 2, 2010 | Go to article overview

No Atheists in Foxholes


Miller, Lisa, Newsweek


Byline: Lisa Miller

And other myths of the recession.

Every day, the economist Daniel Hungerman looks at the graph that hangs above his desk at the University of Notre Dame. One jagged line goes down and up. This is America's gross domestic product since 1972. Another jagged line goes up and down. This is the religiosity of Americans over the same period, as measured by church attendance. The lines show an almost exact inverse correlation.

"You can see as clear as day a negative relationship in this picture," says Hungerman, who threw the chart together for fun. "When the business cycle goes up, religious attendance goes down, and vice versa. The good mystery is why."

Why indeed? The interplay between prosperity--and poverty--and religious observance has become a recent fascination of a small number of economists and other social scientists, for understanding these patterns can help us better predict the future. Do hard times produce more fundamentalists? Do prosperous times produce more do-gooders? Will a lengthy economic slump pull people into the pews to pray for jobs and ladle soup for needier neighbors? Or will it keep people at home on the couch, nursing psychic wounds and cursing their creator?

These questions are harder to answer than one might expect because in polls people tend to overstate their church attendance and because other aspects of religiosity--private prayer, for example--are impossible to measure. Intuitively, though, we think we can solve Hungerman's mystery. There are no atheists in foxholes, the saying goes. We assume that tough economic times, like war, prompt existential self-interest: in the unemployment line, even a master of the universe will pray. The people at Gallup tried to debunk this assumption recently, with new numbers showing that church attendance was rising with the economic recovery (to 43.1 percent from 42.8 percent over the last year), but few economists took the bait. "Oh, boy," says David Beckworth, an economist at Texas State University, "three data points makes it hard to conclude anything."

The Gallup data do raise the intriguing possibility that the conventional wisdom is wrong, and here Hungerman agrees. He gently discounts the "atheists in foxholes" hypothesis. While church attendance overall may rise and fall in inverse correlation to American economic health, he says, individuals' church attendance seems not to change at all based on income. …

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