Most wealthy countries in the world, including Japan and much of Western Europe, are not particularly religious, with fewer than 25% of their citizens professing belief in God. The United States is a notable exception. Although it has high per capita income, it also has high religiosity — around 60% of us believe in God. Sociologists have produced a lot of theories about why America is an outlier in this respect, but several recent studies are converging on an answer: insecurity.
I found the latest of these, by medical writer Tomas Rees (author of the blog Epiphenom), described the latest New Humanist. Unfortunately, Rees’s article is not one of the pieces posted online, but you can find his original article, published in The Journal of Religion and Society, here (click on the lick at the upper right of the page). Rees also has a blog post on the topic here.
What Rees did, to make a long story short, was to calculate (using the Gini statistic) the degree of income inequality among citizens in each of 67 countries and then correlate that with his index of religiosity, which Rees took as the frequency of daily prayer not involving prayers uttered in church. Here’s the correlation he got among fifty-odd of those countries:
Fig. 1 from Rees paper. Correlation between the mean frequency of prayer and income inequality (the mean of the log Gini index for the period 1971-1996).
What does this mean? Rees interprets this as showing that religiosity is higher in those countries whose inhabitants are less secure. He takes income inequality as the measure of security. Is he justified in doing this? Well, his assessment of other classic factors used by sociologists to show societal insecurity (life expectancy, infant morality, homicide, perception of corruption) shows that most of these correlate strongly with income inequality (three factors show a weaker correlation: “prevalence of curable STDs,” “child well being,” and “non-vehicle property crime.” He can thus use income inequality as a proxy for these other factors. He also ran multiple-regression analyses to try to eliminate spurious correlations.
Average well being, as indicated by per capita gross domestic product, was also negatively correlated with religiosity, but in multivariate models was not as strong as income inequality itself in explaining religiosity. Most notably, while the US was an outlier in the religiosity/average income correlation, it was not in the religiosity/income inequality correlation. (See Fig. 1 above).
Conclusion? Rees submits that there is a causal relationship between national insecurity (as indexed by income inequality) and religiosity. But what causes what? Rees chews on two explanations:
One possibility that cannot be excluded on the basis of available evidence is that religiosity, or some component part of it, directly or indirectly worsens these key aspects of personal insecurity. Such effects could be case specific and need not be a consequence of religion in its broadest sense. . .
You could think of reasons for this. For example, a certain religious political party (say, Republicans) could foster government policies that make people less secure (say, opposition to universal health care).
The other reason sounds a bit more plausible to me:
The alternative possibility, that religiosity is not a cause but a consequence of personal insecurity, appears plausible. Indeed, this may also help explain the inverse correlation between per capita GDP and religiosity observed in this study and in previous studies. The link between modernization and secularization, as measured by personal religiosity, is likely to be at least in part driven by the fact that people in wealthier nations lead more secure
And, of course, causality could run both ways, with the factors interacting to cause a growing spiral of increased religiosity and insecurity.
Here’s Rees’s conclusion:
In conclusion, the current analysis ties together and explains two apparent paradoxes. First, the observation that modernization, in terms of average material wealth, appears linked to secularization in some countries but not others. The key to this paradox is that it is not simply average wealth, but also the distribution of wealth and the degree to which wealth is used to improve average personal security, which in large part determines religiosity. Second, the observation that religion, although generally believed to have a pro-socializing effect on the individual level, is associated on the macro level with societal ill health. This is most likely because personal religiosity is in part a response to adverse social environments, but that aggregate religiosity does not significantly ameliorate them.
Rees’s results are not a one-off: he cites several earlier studies supporting, at least, the correlation between religiosity and indices of insecurity. There’s also an important study, conducted in 2009 by Gregory Paul, that apparently shows the same result.
Paul constructed what he called a “successful societies” scale, incorporating many of the same factors Rees used, as well as others (his 25 factors included prevalance of homicides and suicides, life expectancy, duration of marriage, measurements of life satisfaction, indices of corruption and so on). He showed that, among 17 developed Western countries, and Japan, there was a strong negative correlation between societal health and religiosity; in other words, less successful societies were more religious. Here’s Paul’s plot, with the countries labelled as initials (“U” = US, “J” = Japan, “H” = Holland, “T” = Italy, “N” = Norway, and so on).
Fig. 2. (Fig. 25 from Greg Paul’s paper). Correlation among nations between belief in God and ranking on “successful societies scale”
And again, we’re not sure how the causality runs here, but I suspect that insecurity does promote religiosity to some extent. Note that this doesn’t necessarily refute other explanations, such as Pacal Boyer’s, for the fact of religiosity. It merely explains some of the variance in religiosity.
What can we say about all this? Well, I’m not staking my life on these results, but I find them intriguing. (See some criticism by Susan Blackmore here.) Nevertheless, Rees and Paul may be onto something. And if they’re right, even in part, then we atheists have a bigger task than simply trying to dispel the influence of religion on people. For to do that, we may have to work for better and more just societies. But isn’t that, in the end, a nobler goal?
Rees, T. J. 2009. Is personal insecurity a cause of cross-national differences in the intensity of religious belief? J. Religion and Society 11:1-24
Paul, G. 2009. The chronic depedence of popular religiosity upon dysfunctional psychosociological conditions. Evol. Psychol. 7:398-441.
Earlier paper by Gregory Paul (online): Paul, G. 2005. Cross-national correlations of quantifiable societal health with popular religiosity and secularism in the prosperous democracies. J. Religion and Society 7 (link here).