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:
- To test the hypothesis that economic inequality among nations really is associated with increased religiosity.
- 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?
- 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:
- There is a very strong relationship between how economically developed a country is and its religiosity: less developed countries are significantly more religious.
- 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.
- 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:
- “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.
- “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!