Why is religion stronger in economically unequal societies?

If, like many of us, you’d like to work toward weakening religion’s grip on the world, it behooves you to know why people are religious in the first place.  Increasing evidence suggests that religion is promoted by personal insecurity, including economic inequalities in one’s country, the availability of health care and welfare systems, the dysfunction of one’s society (e.g, the amount of crime), and so on.  What this means is that turning people away from faith involves more than just expounding the weaknesses and perniciousness of religion.  It also involves eliminating those social conditions that promote religion.  And that, indeed, may be a nobler goal.

The idea that economic inequality fosters faith is the subject of new paper by Frederick Solt, Philip Habel, and J. Tobin Grant in Social Science Quarterly: “Economic inequality, relative power, and religiosity.

The purpose of this study was threefold:

  1. To test the hypothesis that economic inequality among nations really is associated with increased religiosity.
  2. If such a relationship does exist, why does it exist?  Is it that in inegalitarian societies poor people increasingly embrace religion? Or is there another explanation?
  3. If such a relationship does exist, is it because economic inequality promotes religiosity, or because increased religiosity promotes economic inequality?

Unlike the paper of Nigel Barber I discussed recently, Solt et al. appear to have done the study correctly, using sophisticated statistics.  First, they used survey data from 76 different countries on both the degree of economic inequality (quantified by the Gini index that ranges between 0 for complete equality and 100 for complete inequality) and the degree of religiosity, using 12 different measures of the strength of faith (see figure below).

Their first finding is that every single measure of religiosity—and there are 12 of them—shows a highly significant positive correlation with economic inequality.  Here is Figure 1 from their paper, showing these correlations and (I think) the best-fit regression:

Then, using a sophisticated multilevel analysis of data from both countries themselves and individuals within in those countries, they found the following:

  1. There is a very strong relationship between how economically developed a country is and its religiosity:  less developed countries are significantly more religious.
  2. Muslim countries were considerably more religious (using a joint measure of religiosity involving the measures shown above) than other religious societies, and Catholic and Orthodox societies were more religious than Protestant ones.  The lowest religiosity was found among Communist or formerly Communist countries.
  3. Most important to the authors was their finding that “economic inequality is estimated to powerfully increase religiosity and to do so regardless of income.” (My italics).

In other words, in economically skewed societies, both the rich and the poor are more religious.  In fact, they found that, for nearly all of the measures of religiosity, when societies are more unequal, the richer people become more religious than the poorer people (this association was positive for all 12 measures of religiosity and was statistically significant for four).

This last finding is important because it bears on two hypotheses about why unequal societies are more religious.  The first, called the “deprivation theory,” is that in economically unequal societies, poorer folks turn to religion for reassurance and comfort.  This is certainly the hypothesis I believed before I read this paper.  The second hypothesis, which is the authors’ theory, is called the “relative power theory.”  This holds that as societies become more economically unequal, richer people become more religious so they can disseminate religion to those who aren’t so fortunate.  As the authors note:

. . . many wealthy individuals, rather than simply allowing redistribution to be decided through the democratic process as such median-voter models assume, respond to higher levels of inequality by adopting religious beliefs and spreading them among their poorer fellow citizens. Religion then works to discourage interest in mere material well-being in favor of eternal spiritual rewards, preserving the privileges of the rich and allowing unequal conditions to continue.

Their findings thus suggest that both the deprivation and relative power theories are needed to explain the data. In economically unequal societies, rich people promulgate religion to keep their own place in the hierarchy, and, rather than fighting for more equality, poor people accept religion as an easy form of solace. Granted, the relative power theory sounds a bit weird to me, but the deprivation theory can’t explain why the upper classes become more religious when their societies are more unequal.

The authors also note that the relative power theory explains why the U.S. is so religious despite the fact that its citizens are generally well off.  It is, they say, because the U.S. shows considerably more economic inequality than other developed countries (and that is true).

Finally, the authors sought to explain why there’s a positive relationship between economic inequality and religiosity.  Does the former promote the latter, or is it the reverse? (After all, perhaps religion could, as several commenters noted earlier, act to create inequitable societies.)

To answer this question, the authors did a time series analysis of religiosity in the U.S. from the mid-1950s to the present.  Over this period, as the figure below shows, religiosity showed big fluctuations in America.  They then analyzed these fluctuations with respect to similar fluctuations in income inequality (for statistical mavens, they used vector autogression, or VAR).  This method enables them to see how the present values of either religiosity or inequality affect subsequent measures of the other factor.  They also factored in general well being of the society (per-capita gross domestic product, or GDP).

Their two findings from this analysis are:

  1. “Increases in inequality in one year predict substantial gains in religiosity in the next,” while “past values of religiosity do not predict future values of inequality.” In other words, the correlation between religiosity and inequality is driven by the former responding to the latter, and not the other way around.  Unequal incomes lead to societies becoming more religious.
  2. “Holding inequality constant, gains in per-capita GDP are estimated to depress subsequent levels of aggregate religiosity.” In other words, increasing the average economic well being of people makes them less religious.

This seems to be a sound and thoroughly-researched study, although I have to say that I’m slightly uncomfortable with the “relative power” theory, perhaps because I just don’t notice rich people in America trying to spread religion among the poor.

An additional bonus of this study is Figure 4, which shows the “aggregate religiosity” of America—a measure that combines several different indices of faith—over a period from 1955 to 2005:

So much for the common claim that religion in America is here to stay!

_________

Solt, F., Habel, P. and Grant, J. T. (2011), Economic inequality, relative power, and religiosity. Social Science Quarterly, 92: 447–465. DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-6237.2011.00777.x

87 Comments

  1. Heleen
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 5:37 am | Permalink

    “including economic inequalities in one’s country, the availability of health care and welfare systems”
    inavailability? availability is possible word here, but sounds too positive between two negatives.

    The relative power theory seems to have been popular in Sunday school books given as presents to children around 1900-1920 (Europe). In those books, the rich persons in the book literally say that God has willed the present (unequal) social order. Propaganda against the rising tide of social democrats.

    As to rich people in America trying to spread religion among the poor, who owns those radio stations?

    • Posted July 21, 2011 at 6:08 am | Permalink

      “Who owns those radio stations.” Indeed.

      • Digitus Impudicus
        Posted July 21, 2011 at 7:21 am | Permalink

        Could it not be that there is a level of latent religiosity that becomes apparent when one becomes much richer than others, the “God must love me, because I certainly did not earn this through hard work” effect?

        • Heleen
          Posted July 21, 2011 at 8:39 am | Permalink

          I don’t think this sentiment can be general, as it doesn’t work in Europe. Moreover, rich people might think they earned it through hard work.

          • Posted July 21, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

            I find it quite present in Europe too. Rich people from rich families usually hold traditional values with high religiosity. That could be interpreted as an unconscious way of justifying their social status, and maybe that latent religiosity increases when they feel more surrounded by poor people (and thus feel their situation is more exceptional).

        • Rieux
          Posted July 21, 2011 at 8:44 am | Permalink

          That might be the case—but I also wonder if rich people in economically unequal societies aren’t often religious for one of the main reasons poor people are: fear.

          To my understanding,* economically unequal societies tend to be economically insecure societies as well—and as a result, the fact that I’m materially well-off today does not provide all that much confidence that I’ll be materially well-off tomorrow. Especially in times of economic upheaval (such as right now), plenty of folks go from rich to not-rich; couldn’t part of the explanation of rich-person religiosity be a fear of “losing it all” that way?

          * I certainly don’t have the economics or statistics knowledge base that the authors of the cited study do, nor that several other commenters on this website do.

          • Charles Jones
            Posted July 21, 2011 at 10:52 am | Permalink

            I like the “insecurity affects everyone” hypothesis: The greater the inequality, the more rich worry about losing it all. Perhaps it is analogous to walking a balance beam: Walking across a beam along the ground is easy. Walking across the same beam two stories up in the air provokes a lot of anxiety.

          • RN
            Posted February 19, 2012 at 6:17 am | Permalink

            We only need to study a little of Marx, Durkheim and Weber here.

            It is well documented how Religion apparantly trades in ‘fear’ and that ‘fear’ is one of their products. ‘Hell fire and damnation’ and ‘you are not worthy’ are some of their phrases. ‘How a new born child can be classed as a ‘sinner’ is beyond me. Why do people go along with such teachings. At the same time of ‘trading in fear’ religion also supports and comforts, this is somehow conflicting and people bcome very confused. ‘Informal social control’ is visible in so far that approval from ‘others’ and the ‘church’is for ever sought through what is perceived as ‘good behaviour’, ‘sacrifice’ and ‘penance’. Bearing ones suffering because it is God’s will the promise of salvation motivates this. Religion is also in collusion with the state, The current 26 bishops in the Lords for example are not there as a result of the state and church being separate. Oh no, to the contrary. The state also rather pays state benefits to keep a large section of the population down, rather than educate them. This way church and state together work hard in the concept of social control. The elite continuious to go to church strutting their status and stuff not ‘for’, but ‘before’ the people to ensure traditional rituals keep things going as they are. The more isolated countries are, such as islands, the more control there is. Some European countries are economically more equal than others, The Netherlands for example have very little youth unemployment and people strife to develop themselves to their maximum potential. Churches, protestant and catholic have been closing since 1958 and more are closing every week. The buildings become youth centres or restaurants or make way for the ‘new’ such as housing. In the economically more equal societies a shift of power is taking place away from the church. Society in those countries becomes more self reliant and self sufficient. In those societies the church has less influence on everyday living practices, people are less oppressed and less subjective and become ‘actors’ in their own right.

        • Marella
          Posted July 21, 2011 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

          I have always thought that if I were the Queen I’d probably be religious too, because what other explanation could there be for being born into all that power and privilege? God must love me more than everyone else! It obviously isn’t due to hard work, just god’s love.

          • RN
            Posted February 19, 2012 at 6:24 am | Permalink

            The Queen is the head of the church is that not so? It is her business, The Firm, and it is her own firm that provides the rituals and traditions to bond people together. Is that not so?

  2. Claimthehighground
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 5:51 am | Permalink

    On an earlier thread I commented that the U.S. was viewing the death throes of the 2000 year old xian meme, and was rebuked for not seeing the obvious rise in fundieism. The U.S. aggregate religiosity chart seems to confirm the decline (but 80-85 appears to still be a high level on the chart and that’s a bit disconcerting). My view is that there is just a lot more noise & heat coming from fundie politicians & conservatives at present which makes them appear more numerous than they are, and that more and more in the U.S. are becoming lip-service theists. Then again the chart might skyrocket after 2005; if so, I’ll recant.

    • Digitus Impudicus
      Posted July 21, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink

      The reduction in religiosity could be having a “distilling” effect on the religious folks that are left. The least devoted are likely the first to leave and only the hardcore true believers remain.

      • Sajanas
        Posted July 21, 2011 at 11:05 am | Permalink

        The ability for clergy to speak to vast audiences certainly helps too. I’d imagine there would be plenty of fundamentalist minsters 150 years ago, but they wouldn’t have been able to reach and homogenize their audience in the same way that they can with TV, radio, and the Internet. And a lot of these people are perfectly happy to play their message even if no one is listening.

  3. Posted July 21, 2011 at 5:53 am | Permalink

    First, let’s not forget Seneca: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

    As to the rich pushing religion onto the poor…many of the charities in the States are run by wealthy churches and come with heavy-handed sermonizing. In the military, officers are well known to proselytize to the troops (never mind the Constitutional prohibitions). Prisoners are more likely to gain early release and other privileges if religious.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Ludo
      Posted July 21, 2011 at 6:53 am | Permalink

      Maybe the oldest and most successful working arrangement between the mighty and the churches: “You keep them dumb, we will keep them poor”.

    • Ray
      Posted July 21, 2011 at 7:26 am | Permalink

      FYI

      That quote appears to be misattributed to Seneca. It looks like it’s actually mutated paraphrase of Gibbon.

      http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:Seneca_the_Younger

      • Ralph
        Posted July 21, 2011 at 8:22 am | Permalink

        Yes, the quote seems to be misattributed but it’s a good one nonetheless.

        On an unrelated topic I enjoyed hearing Jerry at Evolution 2011!

  4. Greg Esres
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    I would argue that rich people value religion as a means of *justifying* to themselves why they have so much and everyone else has so little. Prosperity gospel and all that.

    • DV
      Posted July 21, 2011 at 6:53 am | Permalink

      This is what I think too. Religion allows the rich & powerful to wash their hands of responsibility to create an equal society. If God is there to take care of the poor, then it makes them sleep a little bit better at night. There are those who do use religious language and justification in social work (liberation theology), but they would be the exceptions.

      • Posted July 29, 2011 at 2:03 am | Permalink

        “If God is there to take care of the poor, then it makes them sleep a little bit better at night.”

        Completely agree.

        • RN
          Posted February 19, 2012 at 7:20 am | Permalink

          Is it not they the rich and powerful who play at being god?

  5. Posted July 21, 2011 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    “I have to say that I’m slightly uncomfortable with the “relative power” theory, perhaps because I just don’t notice rich people in America trying to spread religion among the poor.”

    Besides Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar, et. al., you mean?

    • Posted July 21, 2011 at 7:15 am | Permalink

      The Prosperity Gospel, while horrendous in its cynicism and effects on those who fall for it, is (I think) a small part of the overall picture. I see the public religiosity of prominent Republican plutocrats — who also oppose universal healthcare, effective regulation of corporations, in short equalizing policies in general — and its trickle-down to grass-roots such as the Tea Partiers, as constituting the important component of this “relative power” mechanism.

      • Posted July 24, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

        When I read Jerry’s closing remarks (quoted above) I immediately thought of prosperity gospel televangelists, and Tea Party virtues as well. The religious “wrong” have succeeded (to some extent) in introducing a moral component to every policy position.. not only regarding social issues (like gay marriage and abortion), but in broader policy issues as well (like taxes and deregulation).

        Folks from previous generations have benefited greatly from government services (subsidized home loans, student loans, public education). But in this generation those who have benefited in the past may feel like “I’ve got mine, but too bad for you.” Or, they might mistakenly attribute their success to God’s favor rather than the benefits provided by those government services received. Religious ideology provides the rationale for depriving others of similar services. (“My generation deserved to receive those services because we were God-fearing believers , but today’s young people DO NOT deserve them.” (whether they be atheists, immigrants, single mothers, or drug addicts).

        Does that make sense?

    • astrosmash
      Posted July 21, 2011 at 7:33 am | Permalink

      They only constitute a small percentage of the rich. I suspect that the religiousity of the rich stems from the recognition of the unfairness and the need to not feel like an obscene dirt-bag (hyperbole…sorry. The idea that everyone is equal in heaven could help them (the non-sociopaths) swallow that inequality

  6. Posted July 21, 2011 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    That’s fascinating. But it does look like the deprivation theory (which I also believed, on the basis of my experience with VERY poor people in Ecuador) is still true, according to the conclusion you quote at the end of their article. There is just an additional layer on top of it…

  7. vel
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    I’d say that it’s because religion is a great tool in keeping societies economically unequal. Most, if not all, religions say to not want wealth, to obey ruler set in place by whatever god, etc. They promise something better “after” you are dead and say that trying to better yourself is worthless.

  8. Sidd
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    I would be interested in seeing the same data separated by countries with/without a state religion.

    One of the theories I found interesting (by Dennett?) was that in the absence of an official state religion, religions (and denominations thereof) become stronger due to a memetic arms race to attract followers. This would be a possible explanation for the United States being an outlier in comparison to European countries.

  9. Posted July 21, 2011 at 6:39 am | Permalink

    Jerry Coyne wrote:
    -snip-
    “This seems to be a sound and thoroughly-researched study, although I have to say that I’m slightly uncomfortable with the “relative power” theory, perhaps because I just don’t notice rich people in America trying to spread religion among the poor.”

    John Templeton and the Templeton Foundation?

    They’ve done a lot to promote religious faith and the Templetons are rich.

  10. Posted July 21, 2011 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    Albeit informally, Upton Sinclair was on to that angle when he wrote The Profits of Religion (ca. 1920), scornfully quoting this passage from a sermon by Wilbur Wilberforce:

    “That their more lowly path has been allotted to them by the hand of God; that it is their part faithfully to discharge its duties, and contentedly to bear its inconveniences; that the objects about which worldly men conflict so eagerly are not worth the contest; that the peace of mind, which Religion offers indiscriminately to all ranks, affords more true satisfaction than all the expensive pleasures which are beyond the poor man’s reach; that in this view the poor have the advantage; that if their superiors enjoy more abundant comforts, they are also exposed to many temptations from which the inferior classes are happily exempted; that, “having food and raiment, they should be therewith content,” since their situation in life, with all its evils, is better than they have deserved at the hand of God; and finally that all human distinctions will soon be done away, and the true followers of Christ will all, as children of the same Father, be alike admitted to the possession of the same heavenly inheritance. Such, are the blessed effects of Christianity on the temporal well-being of political communities.”

  11. Insightful Ape
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    I find the idea that in unequal societies, the rich become more religious hard to believe. It may be true in instances where religion itself is the source of wealth, as in some catholic and muslim nations where the clergy and their families happen to be the richest, but it doesn’t hold true across the board. There are numerous examples of the reverse actually being true: in the US for example, the black and Hispanic minorities that are economically underprivileged happen to be the most religious. Lastly, to say that rich people become more religious is dubious if the last conclusion is valid, that is, if changes in wealth distribution have a rather immediate impact on religiosity.

    • Posted July 21, 2011 at 6:54 am | Permalink

      It doesn’t necessarily have to be the case that the rich actually believe any more than otherwise. It may well be that the same kinds of factors that cause societies to become unequal also tend to cause more of the rich to be the type of person to agree with Seneca.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Rieux
        Posted July 21, 2011 at 8:46 am | Permalink

        Okay.

        So in societies that are both unequal and religious, being religious makes you more likely to “get ahead” financially?

        • Gabrielle Guichard
          Posted July 21, 2011 at 9:52 am | Permalink

          I understood it worked the other way round: when you are in good financial position, you act as a religious person.
          Could it be a way of giving lessons to the poor? Look, despite my wealth, I’m humble, etc.

      • Linda Grilli Calhoun
        Posted July 21, 2011 at 11:31 am | Permalink

        I agree, so much.

        There is no means of determining the sincerity of anyone who is outwardly religious, beyond observing their behavior.

        When there is a big disparity between what someone says s/he believes, and his or her actions, that ought to tell you something. L

  12. Posted July 21, 2011 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    “…richer people become more religious so they can disseminate religion to those who aren’t so fortunate.”

    There is no better way to justify and perpetuate disenfranchisement.

    There also exists a dynamic of self-righteousness among the privileged pious akin to the trope “I’m so blessed.”

    • Posted July 21, 2011 at 7:13 am | Permalink

      One must remember, the fine-tuning argument works best when you’re driving a Bentley.

  13. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    You realise that, however well meaning, priests, pastors, imams and rabbis are facilitating inequality?

    As to the relative power theory – it may not be so obvious in America (gated estates, exclusive clubs?) but think of all the cultures where ‘class’ creates (or used to create) boundaries between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’.

  14. lylebot
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    I think you should ignore the “spreading [religious beliefs] among their poorer fellow citizens” part and focus on the meat of the hypothesis, which is

    Religion then works to discourage interest in mere material well-being in favor of eternal spiritual rewards, preserving the privileges of the rich and allowing unequal conditions to continue.

    I don’t find that hard to believe at all (although it’s still a little too specific for my tastes). Religion is a tool that the privileged use to maintain their privilege. It has always been so.

    I’d say this is the biggest distinction between a “cult” and a “religion”: a cult becomes a religion once it becomes institutionalized, which means the powerful have adapted it to their own ends.

  15. Posted July 21, 2011 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    JAC: I just don’t notice rich people in America trying to spread religion among the poor.

    Isn’t this what the Republican party does? They certainly make religion front-and-center of just about everything, second only to cutting taxes for rich people.

    If people feel their leaders are right with the Lord, they don’t mind getting fleeced. (except us goddam atheists)

  16. Neil
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    Interesting findings. However, contrary to the main hypothesis, income and wealth inequality have risen significantly in the United States since 1960 even though their aggregate religiosity index declined 30%.

    • Paul W.
      Posted July 21, 2011 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      It would be interesting to see statistics looking at inequality and religiosity among rich people in particular, vs. among poorer people.

      On average, poor people associate with poor people, and rich people associate with rich people, and both groups tend to bracket their expectations by reference to the people they associate with, especially people they associate with as peers in some sense.

      (If your neighbor has a gardener and a maid, and you don’t, that might make you feel well-off, because you’re richer than the gardener and the maid—but it’s more likely to make you feel worse off, because you can’t afford a gardener and a maid.)

      Keeping up with the Joneses is not mostly about keeping up with the average in your country, but about keeping up with your neighbors, business associates, people you go to church with, etc.

      Consider a steep linear distribution of wealth vs. an exponential one. The division of wealth between rich and poor people may be the same, for some given cutoff, but the the local slopes will be very different.

      In the linear case, there will be near equality among the rich. In the exponential case, there will be striking inequality even among the rich. (And less among the poor.)

      If inequality drives insecurity, and insecurity drives religiosity, we shouldn’t be surprised to find rather more religiosity among rich people if they associate with some people who are a lot richer than them.

      Unfortunately, a single crude number like the GINI Index doesn’t tell you much about that. (And to get meaningful numbers, you need more and more precise statistics.)

      • jay
        Posted July 22, 2011 at 6:31 am | Permalink

        It is a mistake to place too much importance on the GINI index because that does not measure insecurity, nor, since it’s a snapshot, does it measure economic mobility.

        Indeed I would argue that more of a person’s sense of well being is their personal level of economic improvement rather than their absolute economic ranking.

        Speculations as to the religious motives of rich people (this study doesn’t measure relative religiousness of rich people) is rather specious. A lot of rich people have a social religiousness, many do not. Assuming anything (‘they need to feel justified for their wealth’ or ‘they are trying to keep the poor under control’) is just speculation ans possibly projection.

  17. Vincent Vega
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    “Religion keeps the poor from murdering the rich.”

    Napoleon Bonaparte

  18. Heleen
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.
    It is the opium of the people.”

    Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction (1843)

  19. Brent
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Why does everyone consistently believe the rich to be more rational and cunning than everyone else? I don’t buy the hypothesis that rich people spread religion purposefully because they see it as “useful”. If the behavior is purely utilitarian, why would they necessarily exhibit more religious beliefs? Are they lying to the pollsters? If it were the case that they were promoting religious belief because it was useful, I would expect the rich to “invest” in religion but they would not necessarily become more religious.

    The finding that the rich become more religious in more unequal societies suggests to me that the wealthy may equally be victims of societal inequality: in the absence of a social safety net (in addition to other concerns, like property crime and revolution), they may feel they are also in a precarious situation. In short, they are vulnerable and, accordingly, adopt beliefs consistent with that vulnerability. The bigger they are, the harder they fall?

    I agree with many of the comments, that the rich do play a critical role as “vectors” for religious beliefs. However, I think it is a result of their increased opportunity to do so, rather than a perceived, rational interpretation of their own self-interest.

    • Rieux
      Posted July 21, 2011 at 9:36 am | Permalink

      In short, they are vulnerable and, accordingly, adopt beliefs consistent with that vulnerability.

      Yes, that’s the guess I posted upthread as well. I wonder if Solt et al. addressed this.

  20. Kevin Meredith
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    The brain evolved not as a truth gathering device, according to evolutionary psychologists, but as an argument-winning device that is strategically equipped with self-delusion. Therefore, we probably aren’t going to find many instances where the rich are consciously disseminating religion to maintain power. More common I would expect are instances where a religious tenet is adopted because it just seems true to its wealthy believers, but where that tenet also happens to support economic hierarchy.

    • Amanita
      Posted July 21, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      I also thing that an unconscious element is at work here and that those rich that promote religion generally aren’t consciously intending to use religion to maintain power.

      A lack of education in the natural sciences, and particularly in biology, is a huge factor in increased religiosity, and the rich and highly educated haven’t necessarily been exposed to it.

  21. MadScientist
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    “Increasing evidence suggests that religion is promoted by personal insecurity …”

    Is it? Has anyone really determined causes?

    From the quote about the study:
    “If such a relationship [correlation] does exist, is it because economic inequality promotes religiosity, or because increased religiosity promotes economic inequality?”

    That’s a false dichotomy. The study is also fatally flawed because it does not consider anything but religiosity and economic inequality. It is not demonstrated, for example, in the study or in any other studies that religiosity and economic inequality are not merely incidentally correlated. How does science education and religion relate, and in turn how does science education and income inequality relate? Throw in the science and we have a genuine multivariate problem then and it should be possible to measure the relative relations of science, religion, and income inequality. Other factors which may be related should also be thrown into the mix and be shown to have weak to no relation before we can even consider accepting the religion-income inequality link as anything more that mere correlation.

    • Gabrielle Guichard
      Posted July 21, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      Egalitarian education, not only science education, tends to improve the wealth level of the whole society: the middle class becomes bigger, the religiosity becomes smaller.

    • Karen
      Posted July 21, 2011 at 10:09 am | Permalink

      Science education? What science education? This is the U.S.!

  22. MadScientist
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    “Unequal incomes lead to societies becoming more religious.”

    I think that should be “income inequality leads to societies having higher religiosity”. For me a more religious society = larger percentage of religious people, whereas religiosity is simply an indicator of how much (primarily the religious) people think some god may be affecting their lives.

    • Miles
      Posted July 21, 2011 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      Inequality is correlated with all 12 factors of religiosity according to the article.

  23. Helena Constantine
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    There is nothing here (except those cute graphs) that wasn’t already explained by Freud in Civilization and its Discontents.

    The measure of religiosity given above isn’t very useful since its needs to go back further in time. In the nineteenth century, open atheists like Lincoln had no problem being elected president because most people did not concern themselves about other people’s religion. Then, beginning in the 1890s and especially after WWI (fundamentalism didn’t really exist before then) you get a large fundamentalist voting block who made a point of opposing those of the ‘wrong’ religion and certainly would vote and even work against open atheists, making such an election difficult, then impossible.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 22, 2011 at 12:15 am | Permalink

      Nothing here, except of course data driven hypothesis testing which makes us accept the result and trust the research.

      While old Freud was an old fraud; he can’t be trusted and did no research in the modern meaning. What he did, as much as I know about it, doesn’t “explain” but amounts to story telling. Which of course can never explain anything in the empirical sense.

      The measure of religiosity given above isn’t very useful since its needs to go back further in time.

      It was useful to put up and test the hypothesis.

      The hypothesis isn’t likely to be falsified by mere adding data since it looks robust, but any such effort would be welcome. Please do that, and publish your findings! Otherwise you look like, say, poor Freud.

      Even better would be to give an alternative, more predictive hypothesis that replaces the old one.

      Oh, and a nitpick:

      “fundamentalism didn’t really exist before then”.

      This implies that you are using the historical definition, but fundamentalism as regards religion is usually “strict adherence to dogma” or something similar. It has always existed.

      And the size of fundamentalist population is a better measure for religion than a set of specific theological beliefs, say “fundamentalism”. Which goes back to the paper, it combines several measures according to Coyne, instead of some obscure made-up-as-you-go.

  24. Posted July 21, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Upton Sinclair!

    Loved his book co-op!

  25. Insightful Ape
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Rieux says:
    July 21, 2011 at 8:46 am
    Okay.

    So in societies that are both unequal and religious, being religious makes you more likely to “get ahead” financially?

    In many of them. I have no problem naming many people getting ahead in their lives by being religious, or at least pretending that. In Islamic countries, for example, people who have performed the pilgrimage ritual in Mecca desire to be called using the title “Hajj”, as if it were an academic degree. It confers respect, and often beneficial social connections. Needless to say, it takes money to go on such a journey, and in this mostly poor nations not everyone can afford it. This is a clear example of the rich becoming more religious, or at least pretending, with an eye on the benefits it brings.
    On the other hand, the hypothesis promoted by the authors, that the rich in these scoieties feel inspired to be evangelists (as a way to show their appreciation to the god who loved them so much and made them rich?) sounds implausible to say the least. I can’t even think of one individual fitting this description.

  26. yesmyliege
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    I have difficulty seeing how the U.S. fits into this algorithm. We have an extremely high disparity of wealth distribution in this country. The top 1% have a lot more than the next 4%, and the bottom 95% are not even close to the upper 5%.

    So stratified is the situation, in fact, that I think it is fair to say that the truly wealthy don’t even interact with the general public at all. These people have their own private estates, institutions, airports, health care, etc.

    To a large degree, the religious poor in the U.S. are in the Bible belt, which bears more than a passing resemblance to a map of the slave states. All of which score very low on education, health, and income indices.

    I have always been curious about the geographical distribution of religiosity, even at the local level. Why some areas in a given state remain religious, vote Republican, etc while districts not far removed maintain an opposite orientation.

  27. Grania
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Things are looking up. Well, down. In an up sort of way.

  28. Papalinton
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    “As the authors note:

    . . . many wealthy individuals, rather than simply allowing redistribution to be decided through the democratic process as such median-voter models assume, respond to higher levels of inequality by adopting religious beliefs and spreading them among their poorer fellow citizens. Religion then works to discourage interest in mere material well-being in favor of eternal spiritual rewards, preserving the privileges of the rich and allowing unequal conditions to continue.”

    This would account in large part to the success of mega-churches and the unequal distribution of wealth between the comparatively poor attendees and their very rich Pastors.

  29. Posted July 21, 2011 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    I think the idea that poor and insecure people tend to religion has been seat-of-the-pants knowledge for a long time. Cynically (which I am), I think this is why religious conservatives tend to oppose social welfare policies — they (correctly, IMO) see state power as being in competition with church power, and so prefer to have the masses dependent on the latter.

    OTOH: This may be a recent phenomenon. My impression is that previous generations of Christian social activists tended to advocate government intervention to aid the poor and otherwise improve society. Eg: Tommy Douglas and the CCF.

    • Digitus Impudicus
      Posted July 21, 2011 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      A number of social conservatives have blatantly said that they see state power being in competition with church power. I think even Ron Paul said something to that effect.

    • Miles
      Posted July 21, 2011 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      Previous generations were a lot more religious on all sides of politics.

  30. frank sellout
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Growing up I always thought that there was a correalation between poverty and religion. Glad that there has been some good work so show this. Armed with ancedotal evidence only it has seemed to me that religious leaders always do their best to keep poeple poor. Most churches try to block any progressive legislation. How many fundies in the U.S. think of Obama’s attempts to bring public health care to the country as a Socialist Plot?

  31. frank sellout
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    @28 and Tommy Douglas was thrown out of the Baptist Church as soon as ran as a Socialist.

  32. frank sellout
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    I just found this Tommy Douglas quote on Wikipedia, classic- “[T]he Bible is like a bull fiddle”, he said, “you can play almost any tune you want on it.”

  33. Miles
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    In light of this study, would attacking inequality and insecurity be more effective at secularizing the population?

    • Insightful Ape
      Posted July 21, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

      It is the ONLY method that has ever worked.

      • Miles
        Posted July 21, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

        What about vocal atheism?

        Surely there’s some noise in the data. Economic conditions can’t account for all the variation.

        • Ceef
          Posted July 22, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

          Yes, I think you are correct. I’ve used “insecurity leads to religion” for some time as a working hypothesis. The most efficacious course of action is, then, to reduce insecurity. However, once one realizes that religion conveniently becomes a prop to insecurity, it becomes clear that eroding religion will contribute to reducing insecurity. It all comes back to the “Opium of the masses” definition of religion.

          In other words, they are mutually supportive, and it makes sense to attack both. Some you reach from one side and some from the other.

  34. JBlilie
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Nice trend in that last graph!

    I am reading Society Without God by Phil Zuckerman right now, which I can highly recommend. He talks about how Scandinavia is so equitable, stable and secure, religion has just faded away.

    Denmark looks like a paradise to the non-believer. (Ignore that weather! ;^) )

    • Papalinton
      Posted July 21, 2011 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

      Zuckerman’s book.
      Excellent

      Ditto on recommendation as a good read.

  35. Thanny
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    The “relative power” bit sounds like complete bunk to me.

    The reason rich and poor are religious in unequal societies is the same reason rich and poor people get sick in an epidemic – the pathogen is just going around, and whether you’re one of the lucky ones that gets rich, or the unlucky ones that stays poor, you’re still infected.

    • Papalinton
      Posted July 21, 2011 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

      So religion is a pathogen?

  36. Thomas
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    This study is absurd.
    I don’t debate its findings. I think they’re actually accurate. But that’s ONLY because I “feel” them to be true.

    As far as scientific relevance though? Are you kidding me?

    Watch this… here’s MY conjecture:
    “countries with easy access to breakfast cereals are less religious then countries without easy access.”

    I’ll lay a sum of money down right now that casually states this paper’s economic inequality data, and my breakfast cereal data match nearly 1:1.

    He took a SINGLE indicator and declared them to be in concert with each other.
    This is AT BEST, weak science, and at worse, a deliberate attempt to misconstrue facts.

    Does this team even have a degree?
    I would be embarrassed if my office released a report this shoddy.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 22, 2011 at 12:30 am | Permalink

      I’m not sure I understand.

      This hypothesis has been made earlier and tested various times, which is why Coyne refers to “increasing evidence”. Go to that link for more refs.

      A predictive hypothesis is predictive whether it misses factors, so it would be fine anyway. However I read it as an attempt to build on previous results and *clarify* them. Then it would be less effective if it includes confusing indicators.

      It is true that if you want to *compare* hypotheses it is less valuable if you can’t show that the result is robust. But it feels like we are passed that stage.

  37. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

    _Highly_ interesting!

    I have to read it, but off hand the “relative power theory” doesn’t pass a smell test. If rich people disseminate religion, it would couple back and start drive inequality by mechanisms such as worsened education. It sounds like it would take finetuning to get the result they got.

    Instead I can believe, and add to, some reasons given for why it looks like “relative power theory”. Rich people becomes more insecure too; they want to conform more; and my idea is that they would want to relieve themselves of responsibility and moral anxiety by accepting religion.

  38. MikeN
    Posted July 22, 2011 at 2:12 am | Permalink

    “The rich man in his castle
    The poor man at his gate
    He made them high and lowly
    He created their estate”

    [He being God, of course]

    Original verse, since dropped, from that great Anglican hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful”.

    “Long-haired preachers come out every night,
    Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right;
    But when asked how ’bout something to eat
    They will answer with voices so sweet:
    Chorus:
    You will eat, bye and bye,
    In that glorious land above the sky;
    Work and pray live on hay,
    You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.”

    Joe Hill, “The Preacher and the Slave”

  39. BradW
    Posted July 22, 2011 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    When one reads the history of religion, and considers the actions of the RCC over the centuries, one is almost forced to presume that the “relative-power” theory, as shown in this study, has to be correct.

    Religion has almost always been about power and control based on authority.

  40. Posted July 22, 2011 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    Interesting read.

    At expensive seminars, you often find wealthy people and those at the bottom of the barrel – with hardly anyone from the “middle class.”

    the rich folks come to get an extra edge over the competition, thinking if they pick up one nugget or new contact it was worth their time… and the poor come to hopefully get the insight they need to get out of the poorhouse and start on the road to wealth.

    Religion and Money might be the same. The rich “are busy with it” to thank for that they got, and the poor are busy with it to beg for what they need… while the people in the middle are too busy trying to keep fro falling down by just doing the daily grind and ignoring all else.

  41. philosophercj
    Posted July 22, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    In Michael Shermer’s recent book, he reports some studies that show that in times of uncertainty people tend to see more patterns in the world that don’t exist (e.g. the virgin mary on a piece of toast). For example, people were given a series of pictures some of which were degraded pictures of objects and many of which were just pure static. People who had been exposed in uncertain situations before looking at the pictures found objects in the pure static pictures much more frequently than those who were not exposed to the uncertain situation. Perhaps economic uncertainty results in more “patternicity” as Shermer calls it. This in turn leads to more superstitious beliefs.

  42. Posted July 22, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    What do they know ? — that they are miserable. What need of snakes and fruits to teach us that – Byron

  43. Posted July 22, 2011 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t it possible that the main reason that upper class people get more religious as inequalities enlarge is to justify to themselves WHY they are the lucky ones with the money: God arranged it that way. Holding onto that belief helps them to feel good about themselves and their life style.

    I apologize if several people already said this in the comments, by the way. I’ve been on vacation and am scanning my favorite blogs to “catch up,” now that I’m back…

  44. Peter Q Wolfe
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    No, isolating a variable in this fashion isn’t looking at te whole picture. Look at slavery in economic terms that most wealthy 1% or so owned slaves not the rest. However, the wealthy like my great grand father in Tennesse manipulated the general people into thinking that it was about the color of someones skin or racial superiority that simply isn’t true. The same goes for nationality, religion, sexism, environmental concerns, etc cause the powerful or wealthy know the general people are easily goated into slavery of self-serving misery. Personally it is about making our world shaped in the image of the dollar bill for them the rulers to have control and to subject the rest of the population to miserible standards for their own benefit. It is as simple as that for the most part till the inventions or technologies heal or augment these diseases. Finally, this is why rich people in general don’t want abortion, talking about over population, gay marriage, gun control, wars, assistive suicide, death pnaty, etc cause it is about “Economics” nothing else at all.
    note: many wealthy people like Bill Gates, Buffet, etc don’t believe in God nor do I a lot of time nor do I care.

  45. Guan
    Posted October 4, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    “I just don’t notice rich people in America trying to spread religion among the poor.”

    All it takes is free canned food.


7 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] For a more in-depth look at this study and some of the important questions it raises, check out Jerry Coyne’s assessment and many excellent comments at Why Evolution is True. [...]

  2. [...] Why is religion stronger in economically unequal societies? [...]

  3. [...] Among the economically developed countries, religion tends to be strongest when there are great economic disparities in society; strangely enough, in such societies, it is the rich that are more religious! [...]

  4. [...] between poverty and religiosity« . Again from Coyne’s blog, »Why is religion stronger in economically unequal societies?« . And this time he looks satisfied by the analysis of the [...]

  5. [...] Hmm interesting, obviously not conclusive, but still, someting to think about (more here). [...]

  6. [...] I suggest you take a look at Jerry Coygne’s Why is religion stronger in economically unequal societies? It was a great first stepping stone that triggered me to think about this. The blog post was [...]

  7. […] this is true for other immigrant groups in America, and in Canada. Given what we know about how religiosity correlates with economic inequality, increased secularism may be an inevitable result of well-managed […]

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