A Gallup poll out this week finds, among 100 nations surveyed, a very strong correlation between religiosity and poverty. As you might expect, the poorest countries (rated by average per-capita GDP) are the most religious (rated by the proportion of people who say “yes” to the question, “Is religion an important part of your daily life?”). Here’s a nice figure from the New York Times showing this correlation (click to enlarge):
Note that the United States is an outlier, far more religious (65% say “yes”) than its prosperity would suggest (average GDP about $46,000). If we were on the line, we’d be about as irreligious as Hong Kong (24% yeses). Of course the interpretation of the negative correlation isn’t clear. The Gallup folks say this:
Social scientists have put forth numerous possible explanations for the relationship between the religiosity of a population and its average income level. One theory is that religion plays a more functional role in the world’s poorest countries, helping many residents cope with a daily struggle to provide for themselves and their families. A previous Gallup analysis supports this idea, revealing that the relationship between religiosity and emotional wellbeing is stronger among poor countries than among those in the developed world.
Why is the U.S. an outlier? Also unclear. Greg Paul, of course, has suggested a modification of the theory mentioned above: religiosity is higher not just when average income is low, but when average life security is low. If you plot religiosity against what Paul calls the “successful societies scale,” which takes into account dysfunctionalities like corruption, suicide, marital stability, and so forth, the U.S. is no longer an outlier. We’re a rich society, but Paul’s metric shows that we’re not such a successful one.
The poll also affirms what most of us know: the U.S. is appreciably more religious than most other prosperous nations. Here’s the proportion of people in various countries who claim that religion is an important part of their daily lives:
But the figures hearten me somewhat. When people say, “Religion is here to stay,” I respond, “It didn’t stay in Denmark and England!”