Prevalence of pre-modern values across the world

In a previous post, I described my use of the World Values Survey (WVS) and European Values Study (EVS) to develop a measure of pre-modern religious values (approximately corresponding to “fundamentalism”). I have used this to calculate the prevalence of pre-modern religious values using data from waves 5-7 of the surveys, covering the period 2005-2020, but with most results relating to the recent decade 2010-2020. I somewhat arbitrarily chose a cutpoint of 6.45 on the religious values scale to classify people as having pre-modern values (<6.45) versus modern values (>=6.45). The value 6.45 was chosen as the point where the distribution of scores for individuals 2 and 3 (described in the  previous post) crossed over.

The following graph shows the prevalence of pre-modern values (as % of adult population) for countries in waves 5-7, ranked from lowest (Denmark at 13% and Sweden at 14%) to highest (Bangladesh, Myanmar and Qatar at 100%).

Note that Canada, Japan and the USA are the first three countries for which the prevalence of pre-modern values exceeds 50%.  Its tempting to see the US prevalence of 59% as going some way towards explaining why almost half US voters voted for a would-be fascist President openly saying he would only accept the vote if he was winning, and if he did not, would fight to overturn the result. But that would be too simplistic, as I discuss below its not just Trump cultists who have fascist tendencies.

The following graph shows the average prevalences for the 10 culture zones that I’ve used for previous analyses of WVS/EVS. The reformed West (European countries most influenced by the Reformation, plus Australia and New Zealand) has the lowest prevalence of premodern values at 28%, half that of North America, the Old West and Returned West, and much lower than for the other culture zones. The Indic East, sub-Saharan Africa and the Islamic East have the highest prevalences, above 90%.

The next graph shows the prevalence of pre-modern values by reported religious affiliation. I have included separate averages for developed countries and developing countries, as well as for the whole world.

*Developed countries approximated by the following group of culture zones: Reformed West, Old West, Returned West, Orthodox East, North America.

The prevalence of pre-modern religious values is lowest for people reporting no religion, and who are non-religious, and for Protestants. This prevalence is almost the same for these two groups in developed countries at 30%. Buddhists in developed countries also have relatively low prevalence of pre-modern values. The prevalence of pre-modern values is higher in developing countries than developed countries for all groups, and the difference is largest for Protestants and smallest for Muslims.

In my previous post, I discussed how fundamentalist values were essentially authoritarian and met most of the criteria for fascism. However, this should not be taken to mean that the proportion of people classified as having “modern values” can be assumed to be non-authoritarian or non-fascist. As my analysis of WVS/EVS shows, the general culture plays an important role in values. For example, non-religious people and Protestants in developing regions have a much higher prevalence of pre-modern values than in developed regions. In particular, so-called progressives (to use a US term) can be as authoritarian as fundamentalists. I give an example below.

A recent book “Irreversible damage” by Abigail Shrier argues that some teenage girls identifying as transgender may be confused and later come to regret decisions to block puberty and surgically alter their bodies. This book was banned by Target (though that was later reversed) and although it is available on Amazon, Amazon will not allow ads to promote the book (see here). Referencing the reaction to Shrier’s book, a number of newspapers have run articles arguing that progressives are no longer defenders of free speech, and totalitarian censorship and bookburning are becoming part of their modus operandi (see here and here). They quote University of California at Berkeley professor Grace Lavery, who was so outraged by the book, that she advocated burning Shrier’s book. She tweeted, “I do encourage followers to steal Abigail Shrier’s book and burn it on a pyre.” The American Civil Liberties Union has historically been a defender of unpopular free speech. But Chase Strangio, the ACLU’s deputy director for transgender justice tweeted regarding Chrier’s book that “Stopping the circulation of this book and these ideas is 100% a hill I will die on.”

A feminist discussion of Shrier’s book has compared the silencing of opposing perspectives to blasphemy laws. The cancel culture operates as a set of sanctions for blasphemy, unilaterally decided and implemented by the woke. Jordan Peterson is another author who has experienced an authoritarian reaction seeking to stop publication of his recent book. Peterson was accused of “white supremacy,” “hate speech” and “transphobia.” Is this so different to the bogeyman phrases of earlier generations: witch, heretic, communist…..?

What this means is that the transition in values from pre-modern “survival and safety” values (to use Maslow’s terms) to modern (“self-actualization”) values occurs in all cultural groups, and some “progressives” have reached Kohlberg’s 3rd level of postconventional morals, and others remain at the conventional level where it is seen as good to enforce conformity. At lower stages of moral development, the “other” group is not seen to deserve the same rights as “us” and tends to become seen as the cause of the problems that prevent the society returning to its ideal state. The “other” becomes see as not deserving of humane treatment or even life. The “other” might be infidels, Jews, migrants, homosexuals, socialists, women, intellectuals…..depending on time and place. But equally the “other” might also be seen as transphobics, white privileged, or simply not thinking the right way.

Returning to the estimates of prevalence of pre-modern values, these numbers should be seen as a very rough proxy for a lower bound on the true numbers. Unfortunately, the values questions in the WVS/EVS are fairly broad and not really designed to be specific enough to truly identify pre-modern values. In particular, there is little that is quite specific on free speech and blasphemy. Questions relating to whether religious laws should inform societal laws could be interpreted as relevant, but they are not specific enough. To take a somewhat extreme example, perhaps the respondent thinks the important religious laws relate to the golden rule, tolerance and compassion. But we do tend to think more of the religious laws that spring from pre-modern values.

I am reminded of a conversation I overheard between my sons when they were quite young. The younger one asked the older, “What are Christians” and the older explained that they were “those haters in America”. Of course, I understand that there are many Christians focused on helping others less fortunate etc, and that the media love to focus on the “haters”, both Christianists and Islamists, because it generates clicks and dollars. Those at the preconventional and conventional moral stages, tend to understand their religion to mean, at least in part as enforcing religious codes of conduct as they understand them. That’s religious authoritarianism, and it’s essentially a form of fascism. The irony is that Christian authoritarianism tends to ignore the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament, which contain little authoritarianism and tend to focus on principles charity, love, neighbourliness, and salvation. I hope that religious people who are looking forwards rather than backwards will join non-religious people in defending modern values and pushing back hard against authoritarian agendas and against those who would align religious groups with fascist political movements.

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