Why Are Human Beings Religious? The Vulnerable Religious Demand Tendency.

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Sociologist of religion Christian Smith presents what he calls “The Vulnerable Religious Demand Tendency” (VRDT) to account for the religiosity of persons. According to the VRDT, people will usually,

“[E]xhibit greater religiousness in personal and social contexts of greater misfortune and crisis—whether feared, anticipated, or actual—in which the need for superhuman blessings, protection, deliverance, and abilities to cope are more intensely felt. This expectation extends the logic of my definition of religion by one step, suggesting that humans generally tend to be more religious the more they perceive the need for the help that religion promises” (1).

According to this view, the demand for religion increases when the problems that religion exists to address are believed to be greater. Problems need to register within people as being cognitively and emotionally significant in order for them to influence religiosity. For the two categories of age and gender Smith maintains that there is empirical evidence supporting this view. Regarding age, the VRDT can partially account for religious age effects, such as, for example, that in many social settings, younger adults practice religion less intensely than older adults; Smith writes,

“The young—who are apt to be healthier, further away from death, less damaged by life so far, and prone toward more hopeful, forward-looking outlooks—generally feel less vulnerable than older adults to the kinds of difficulties for which humans sometimes seek superhuman help. And so younger people tend to practice religion less” (2).

The same seems to be the case for gender as evidence suggests that almost universally women are more religious than men. Why this is the case is a matter of debate, although Smith offers his interpretation of the evidence,

“My account suggests that women are more likely than men both to be aware of their vulnerabilities and to be prepared to seek help beyond their own resources, including those of superhuman powers, to address those vulnerabilities. Women’s greater awareness is rooted both in the dependencies of the biology of motherhood and in the socially structured vulnerabilities of commonly male-dominated social systems that most women confront. Consequently, as the Vulnerable Religious Demand tendency explicates it, women are predisposed in most settings to be more religious than men” (3).

Moreover, the VRDT accounts for empirical evidence of cross-national studies showing religion to be practiced more intensely in socioeconomic situations of greater risk, as well as by those living at lower levels of material well-being (4). Under such conditions, persons feel a greater need to rely on the blessings and the help of superhuman powers and therefore tend to be more religious. Smith claims that when socioeconomic situations improve it results in the reduction of people’s religiousness over time.

Humans who face a greater risk of illness and deprivation and who suffer lower levels of material well-being will normally feel the need to rely on the blessings and help of superhuman powers. So they tend to be more religious. When socioeconomic conditions improve and provide greater security and well-being for people, the dynamics of the Default Religious Laxity tendency exert greater causal influence and over time reduce people’s religiousness.

References

1. Smith, Christian. 2017. “Why Are Humans Religious?” In Religion: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters, 190-233. Princeton University Press. p. 200.

2. Smith, Christian. 2017. Ibid. p. 200.

3. Smith, Christian. 2017. Ibid. p. 200.

4. Norris, Pippa., and Inglehart, Roland. 2004. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge University Press; Christian Smith. 2006. “Review of Sacred and Secular.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 45: 623-624.

5. Smith, Christian. 2017. Ibid. p. 201-202.

3 comments

  1. What does Smith say (if he does) in regards to religion in a country where those who qualify under the VRDT aren’t as prevalent, say Sweden?

    • He doesn’t speak about them but because the VRDT is a universal phenomenon (I believe it is but I need to look at more studies than the 13 we looked at in the other article) it will reflect in the religious population in Sweden too. Remember it’s a religious population he is studying,so the unaffiliated demographic which is quite high in Sweden is not relevant. You’ll probably also find that the unaffiliated hold to all sorts of Christian inspired beliefs but just don’t identify with the church. You’d also probably find the VRDT would apply in some sense to them too.

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