The Sciences

The unpredictability of cultural norms

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanOct 18, 2012 4:28 AM

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I do pay for The New York Times, but as you may know I get frustrated with the lack of context for international stories. Most Americans are not particularly informed about world affairs, so fact without frame can confuse. For example today a story came into my feed, Uruguay Senate Approves First-Trimester Abortions. Naturally the article alludes to Latin America's Roman Catholicism, but I also happen to know that aside from Cuba Uruguay has long been Latin America's most secular nation. The chart from the left is from Uruguay's household survey. I don't know Spanish, but even to me it's clear that 17.2 percent of Uruguay's population identifies as atheist or agnostic, about three times the similar number in the United States (being generous). Fully 42 percent of the nation's population is non-Christian, with 40 percent disavowing any religion. This is all relevant because most readers of The New York Times are going to see Uruguay, a Latin American country where the Catholic religion is the dominant confession, and make some inferences of the weakening of the power of the church. But in Uruguay the church has been weak for 100 years! So why has Uruguay had strict abortion laws like its more religious neighbors? Because it is a small nation surrounded by influential neighbors, who no doubt effect its mores and norms. It reminds us of the power of cultural inertia and peer effects.

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