What does autonomy mean to you?

Specifically, does autonomy mean low taxes, even if you feel you must engage in associations you’d rather not? Or does it mean the freedom to avoid unwanted associations, but at the cost of increased taxes?

A (now year-old) study tries to explain the decline of attendance at religious services in the industrialized world. Does it correlate with the increase in income? Education? Better comedians on Saturday Night Live, making it hard to get up on a Sunday morning?

Best explanatory variable seems to be … the rise of the welfare state. Apparently, in places where government provides a better social safety net people don’t feel the need to join churches.

Good news? Bad news? No news?

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Another ?related observation

Americans are religious and, relative to the rest of the world, libertarian.

Europeans are much less religious but support larger central govts.

Americans believe a giant man in the sky; Euros believe in a benign uncorrupted monopoly on violence to solve social problems.

Conclusion: most people like to believe in fantasies.

Perhaps. Or....

I read the study to cast doubt on the suggestion that Americans actually believe in the Giant Man in the Sky more than Europeans do. Americans just have a greater incentive to SAY they do.

The hypothesis is that Americans feel more vulnerable. They experience more violence. And they've seen their neighbors having to host neighborhood spaghetti dinners and raffles in order to raise the funds for Tiffany's cancer treatment. If you're an American, therefore, you have a greater incentive to spend resources maintaining larger social networks just in case your own little Brittany finds a lump in her breast. And if you have to swallow beliefs about the Giant Man in the Sky to maintain that network, hey, all forms of insurance have their price.

In contrast, Europeans write a check for their social insurance and skip the Giant Man in the Sky meetings. As a consequence, they live with less anxiety, less social cohesion (How often do Belgians say a pledge of allegiance?), greater autonomy, and greater anomie.

Each system has its degree of fantasy, no doubt. Which seems more desirable?

Specifically, does autonomy

Specifically, does autonomy mean low taxes, even if you feel you must engage in associations you’d rather not? Or does it mean the freedom to avoid unwanted associations, but at the cost of increased

taxes?

I'll take both low taxes and not engaging in associations I'd rather not - together. There is no "must" here, there is only a correlation and a hypothesized causal connection. If the causal connection is as hypothesized, it is only probabilistic, not necessary. You can have both kinds of autonomy if you choose. You can be an atheist in a welfare-less state.

As a consequence, they live with less anxiety, less social cohesion (How often do Belgians say a pledge of allegiance?), greater autonomy, and greater anomie.

Each system has its degree of fantasy, no doubt. Which seems more desirable?

You've only listed a few (supposed) consequences of the welfare state. Some other consequences:

President Johnson proposed his "Great Society" and his "war on poverty" which was designed to spend poverty into oblivion. Far from banishing poverty from the face of America it broke out like a bad case of acne into perpetual poverty, rising crime, lower education standards, rising illegitimacy and a glass ceiling beyond which the poor seemed unable to rise.

...The welfare state so carefully built up in the 1960s and 1970s created a system of disincentives for people to better their own lives. By paying welfare mothers to have children out of wedlock into a poor home, more of these births were encouraged. By doling out dollars at a rate that could not be matched by the economy, the system encouraged the poor to stay home. By lowering the value of learning, it was discouraged. By lowering the punishment for criminal activity (which was deemed to be society's fault and not the perpetrator - who was seen as a victim) it encouraged more criminal activity and longer criminal records.

Welfare is a social catastrophe. We would be better off without. However, the United States is still a massive welfare state.