Political Sciences: American Religion

The significance of the month of December, 1620 is omnipresent in the American religious culture. This is because the pilgrims, who arrived in Massachusetts, found religious freedom for the very first time. Since the announcement of the first amendment to the U.S. constitution, there have been prohibitions to “the making of any law impeding the free exercise of religion”1. It is apparent that American people have the right to decide their religious inheritances independently, which has a notable contribution to the American’s religious pluralism. In “a mixing bowl”, Putnam and Campbell suggest that the status of religion in the United States contains frequent switches in religious beliefs, large proportions of intermarriage and the advent of religiously unaffiliated non-believers, under the moderately high level of tolerance.2

These new phenomena can be employed in Mill’s theory of “exchanging error for truth” and Hirschman’s exit notion. However, the description in American Grace seems to be more acceptable in Mill’s philosophy on freedom of thought and discussion, because there is no indication of a downtrend in American religious groups to follow in Hirschman’s footsteps. To address this argument, this essay below will explain the reason why Mill is more inclined to understand the outcomes. First, the definition of both theories will be discussed. Then this paper will compare the similar explanations and contrast the differences in the perspectives by adopting two notions to illuminate the results from Putnam and Campbell’s survey.

Mill, in his book On Liberty, coins the phrase “exchanging error for truth”, which tends to confirm the positive effects of free discussion basing on his theory of utilitarianism. He argues that in order to pursue the truth, it should be open to debate. By confronting challenging opinions, due to the fallible nature of human beings, we will be given two beneficial options. “Exchanging error for truth” works in case the unorthodox opinions are relatively closer to the truth. Otherwise, the original idea will be understood profoundly through the processes of discussion. Nonetheless, instead of opening the facts for discussion, silencing the ideas expressed would be regarded as a heinous crime or a violation of human rights.

The theory of exit explained by Hirschman clearly means leave. For instance, if the customer is not satisfied with the products, he/she may directly abandon the company. Moreover, another option referred to as voice can be used to resolve problematic situations. This option is more ambiguously involved in direct communication and offers fairly censorious comments openly opinionated to the organisations.3 As a result, exit would be more approving than voice and would also possibly deteriorate prospects of using the voice. Loyalty, however, can increase the likelihood of voice, and reduce the chance of exit. It would redress the balance between exit and voice. Hirschman, through analysing the historical and social aspects, concludes that American people have a preference on exit.

Although there is little evidence that the divergent philosophy of Mill and Hirschman possesses some substantial similarities, the foundations of their ideas are both exhibited in the light of liberty. It is apparent from the title of the book, On Liberty, that Mill appeals to the freedom of thought and discussion to rectify the mistakes not only through experience but also by discussing, challenging, and debating dissent ideas in order to “exchange error for truth”4 or to learn deeper. Under the force of his view, it was, perhaps, inevitable that the opinions that are held should pass from the status of being regarded as being of infallible worth (because although it might be reasonable and sound, it is still optimally the partial truth) to the status of being wholly questioned.

Through open discussion, people have more chances of getting information about religions, which could be better for themselves than being submissive to the family tradition. Furthermore, the religions have become open and allow ingress of true believers. An increasing number of people is beginning to realise that religion is neither inborn nor as the god words described- “a fixed, inherited trait”.5 According to Putnam and Campbell, it happens that most American people, about fifty per cent of the white Americans, deserted their family religions for another faith or atheism. And, roughly, one-third of Americans have switched religions at some point in their lives.

In spite of the fact that the ‘Faith Matter’ panel survey shows that the general big picture of the religious position in American people is relatively stable in the course of one year, there are remarkable changes in individual religious beliefs and practices throughout one’s life. In the United States, plenty of freedom has been given to people to pursue their individual perspectives, referring to the unalienable rights in the declaration of independence; freedom is “the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”6 People should have the rights to express themselves, hence, their opinions.

Possibly, some may feel that they are being infringed on their opinions amid shouts of dissent, though this is not the case. Freedom of changing religious identity is just about understanding freedom in the declaration of Independence.

According to Mill, if one suppresses these disagreements from others, it would be considered an encroachment upon their freedom. Aware of harm to others, people focus more on individual ideas, and relish the thoughts of being free to choose religious beliefs. They are free to take up baptism in church, to listen to sermons, or to keep their distance from religion. There might be some criticism upon the personal decisions which should be taken into consideration rather than ignored. As a consequence, their decisions will benefit from discussion by rectifying or enhancing and people will gain confidence about their decisions.

It is clear that the liberty on discussion and thought is valuable for human society, especially for those who are not confirmed. These are those who are standing between the secular and religiously fuzzy dividing lines and are a large number in each major religion. They have not realised that the shaping influences of their own beliefs would be easy and involuntarily if they keep themselves in the title of “liminals”. In the intermediate region, their possible condition is in the process of being discussed, seeking for truth. When they get their answers, by “exchanging error for truth”, they will intimate their intention and either forsake or pray.

“Half in and half out”; about ten per cent of each religious community is made of those people. According to the description in American Grace, the religious behaviours of this group do not establish whether they belong to the group of “none” or “certain”.7 These people are free to exit in the sense that they are in the condition of not being entirely in the church and will inevitably fall into the situation of Hirschman’s exploration of personal choices in a spirit of disinterested inquiry, in which the uncertain ones, neither secular nor religious in a substantial number, will be of meaningful significance, and with the chances for a distinctive contribution to humanistic understanding. This is a contribution that might be an important influence against being trammelled by its regulations, its principles, and even its prejudices in the society.

From the view of Hirschman, though not being mentioned literally, the freedom is apparent through the way Hirschman analyses it into the three concepts: exit, voice and loyalty. It is vital to note that either exit or voice are based on personal choices, which are indubitably related to the liberty of individual opinions. People have the right to make a decision on exiting the religion and because of the Americans preference of exit, the remaining populace stays at the same one (luminal). In fact, approximately fifty per cent of white Americans have done that: they are either changing or leaving their churches.

The freedom of choices is emphasised and presented in depth by Hirschman by presenting and illustrating the options of exit or voice for people to choose. In addition, when they choose exit, they just simply leave neatly without too much barriers and enter another social group.8 Individuality and freedom, which embody in the work of Mill and Hirschman’s ideal and fundamental principles for every human being, argue in different ways, the freedom of thoughts and personal choices in organisations, to understand the unpredictable changes in American religion.

However, Hirschman’s weakness derived from his apparent inability to find evidence to clarify the conditions of these religious groups and from his failure to explain the complicated situation, which is quite diverse religious, is polarized and relatively tolerant. Some of “the religious communities” mentioned by Hirschman, belonging to some traditional human groups, such as tribe, family, religion and state, have the power to violate free choices, in which members are not able to assert their rights to escape the severe penalties for their exit.

These punishments could be death, exile or exclusion from the organisations in the span of their whole lives. Yet, it seems unlikely to happen in the American dynamic religion society because America’s most ceremonious groups are generally more tolerant than those Hirschman mentions. They are more vigorous than backwater, which allows people to have the chance to exit without outrageous consequences. The high price for exit would threaten people and either force them to keep silent or erupt into protests. Nevertheless, as Mill suggested rather than the suppression of dissents, controlling of public opinions and stifling free debate are illegal, it would be better to listen to them.

No matter how ridiculous the different ideas are, both of them would improve to some extent, by communication on the controversial topics. Generational changes would bring ideological changes, as demonstrated by Putnam and Campbell. They asserted that the new generations become more flexible in terms of religion heritage. Exit or not, it all depends on individuals or the absolute human rights written in the declaration of independence. It should not be linked to the high price of exit or mute in voice but their true beliefs. Therefore, the exit-preferred ideology allows departure from the religious communities without verbose repugnancy over that. Besides, in this case, there is little evidence to show that the religions are declining to apply Hirschman’s viewpoint.

Additionally, the US and American society are all based on exit and rejection from somewhere else. Acquiesce from the new paradise with the excellent choice of “exit over voice” is quite precious; it is easy to build a high level of loyalty. Consequently, when it comes to voice, the majority of American people believe that voice is criticism. The reality is that America becomes extraordinarily tolerant. The tolerance contributes a lot to the increase of intermarriage rate in most American religions because more than a half of the Americans have a different religious partner.

A substantial decline in the use of voice would be the result of this high degree of loyalty and tolerance. Moreover, with the peerless prosperity of America, the exit option has high opportunity costs since one cannot predict what is going to happen. As a result, the voice option becomes the only solution. It is truly possible with the case in “basic social groups” such as family, state or church. Because of the family influence and highly tolerant personalities, some of the Americans have a strong link with their churches, the loyalty to both the family and their god. What handicaps them from the religion is the durable connection.

Subsequently, staying in the original religion still regarded as their best solution before leave. Thus, we can see from Putnam and Campbell’s survey that there are still some prayerfully people who keep their beliefs such as “ethnic minorities” who are regarded as “the most devoutly religious families”.9

The balance between exit and voice partially depends on the loyalty.

In addition, it is also possible that the case when applying the concept of “cognitive dissonance”, which are the high costs of the exit from Europe, translate to the higher costs for entering the US. The high costs would make American people emphasise on the happiness automatically to rationalise the high entry costs. Hirschman suggests that the consequences in this case are unpredictable through the voice and exit theories. Most likely, they will use voice to improve the situation for the value of the entrance.

Thus, exit now seems to be unreasonable i.e., leaving the country, while it still happens a lot in the church, for example, the steady escalation of the number of non-believers and intermarriage stated in the Faith Matter research. The perspective on those traditional groups is linked with the stance taken by Putnam and Campbell, which states that they believed the social and family, to some extent, had an influence on people’s choice of religion. The influence can be societal intolerance as suggested by Mill, which is one of the barriers that hamper people articulating their attitudes. Similarly, in Hirschman’s theory, churches belong to the organisations without the option of exit.

It also can be the penalties on people who are able to exercise their freedom without any hindrance of any sort as listed by Hirschman. Likewise, the outcomes in Putnam and Campbell’s research fail to cohere with the proverb “as the twig is bent” of family influence, that parents may have on their children. They realize that there has been less impact from both their parents and their spouses who have hardly been considered when choosing their faith.

Meanwhile, it can also be uncovered by Mill’s “exchange error for truth” theory which is based on liberty of thoughts and discussion. His justification for the approach is based on the grounds of utility on either a personal or societal level and also on the idea that we are looking for the truth. The truth of the belief is related to the value partially. Therefore, the faith should be the most desirable and valuable belief for people to chase rather than the one that was accorded through ancestry unless it is relatively more appropriate. Once the discussion is applied actively, the immobilization in religious beliefs can be viewed as the outcome of more desirable values of original ones with a profound conviction. Those who may have switched beliefs might discover that the new one is more suited to them, and it may offer them the opportunity to “exchange error for truth”.10

Furthermore, discussions may improve people’s understanding to maintain the “living power” as the conviction to their god. A spell without being conferred on would be unworkable unlike what it was considered, which was true about personal beliefs in religion. As Mill exemplifies on Christianity, if they are not being challenged, the beliefs cannot reflect on their conduct and lose their significance. In other words, it would imply that people are just saying it rather than meaning it. Mill, therefore, is correct in this assertion that religion does not end with affiliation, rather, it should go with discussion.

Everything, possibly religious beliefs, which may be regarded as canon, might later turn out to be preposterously hidden and vice versa. Confrontation of disagreements enables one to face the vicissitudes through free discussion. The protean feature of religion identity has been put under examination by increasing the number of people, especially those who believe in it as an axiom, “become less inherited and fixed”.

To sum up, as a highly diverse religious country, America has experienced remarkable changes in religious affiliations especially on personal levels. Meanwhile, the surging up in interfaith marriage rate has become noticeable as well as the new group of “liminals” who are between the non-believers and the religious believers. From the survey, individual independence becomes more relatively significant than before especially in religious choices. The personal freedom has been highlighted in Mill’s work, which better explains the situation of the current picture of the American religion. People enjoy the unalienable freedom, thereby being eligible for a discretionary grant for spiritual inheritance.

Although it is also partially adaptable in Hirschman’s notion of exit, there are no results to show that the religious groups are declining in prerequisite of exit. Homage should be paid to the partial truth that is obtained in the broad language of the First Amendment11. It strongly advocates that its framers were proposing to write the constitution’s specific human rights as well as a principle of freedom citizenship that forbids anyone being infringed upon their rights, including religious option.


Hirschman A, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Harvard University Press, London, 1970.

Mill J, ‘of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion’ in On Liberty. Elizabeth Rapaport (eds), Hackett Publishing, Cambridge, 1978.

Putnam R and Campbell D. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Simon and Schuster, New York, 2012.


  1. Hirschman, op. cit., p.33.
  2. R Putnam and D Campbell. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Simon and Schuster, New York, 2012, p.54.
  3. A Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Harvard University Press, London, 1970, p.11.
  4. Mill, op. cit., p.12.
  5. Hirschman op. cit., p.23.
  6. Putnam and Campbell. op. cit., p.92.
  7. Mill, op. cit., p. 20.
  8. R Putnam and D Campbell. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Simon and Schuster, New York, 2012, p.100.
  9. Hirschman, op. cit., p.85.
  10. Mill, op. cit., p.24.
  11. J Mill, ‘of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion’ in On Liberty. Elizabeth Rapaport (eds), Hackett Publishing, Cambridge, 1978, p.24.

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1. DemoEssays. "Political Sciences: American Religion." December 30, 2022. https://demoessays.com/political-sciences-american-religion/.


DemoEssays. "Political Sciences: American Religion." December 30, 2022. https://demoessays.com/political-sciences-american-religion/.