The Telegraph gives some new data from a Pew survey on how people in various countries feel about religion. The one graph shown depicts the percentage of people from 40 countries who say that religion is “very important in their lives.” Here it is:
The good news is that countries like the UK and Australia are getting more and more like Scandinavia in their levels of nonbelief. As the Torygraph says, “Only 21% of people in the UK said religion was very important in their lives. The only countries which care about religion less are Russia, China, South Korea, France, Japan and China.” (Note that they didn’t survey Scandinavian countries.)
What I also see in that graph is a negative relationship between religiosity and societal well-being, with the least religious countries being, in general, First World nations or ones that are better off, while the most religious nations are poor countries in Asia, the Middle East, or sub-Saharan Africa. This is part of a general negative relationship between the “success” of a society and its religiosity, one quantified by Greg Paul in a paper in 2009. The relationship isn’t perfect, of course, as countries like Vietnam, Russia, and China show a historical legacy of non-religiosity based on a Communist past.
Nevertheless, here’s Paul’s relationship among 17 First World nations between the religiosity of a nation and its societal well being (measured on a “successful societies scale” ranging from 0 [absymal failure as a society] to 10 [highly successful society]. The names of the countries (with the large letters used on the graph) are given below:
The “U” stands for the U.S., which has a has a high religiosity and yet low success as a society. That’s because the U.S. ranks low on some of the indicators of “success”: free medical care, child mortality, homicide rates, abortions, proportion of people incarcerated, and so on. And if you were to add countries in the Middle East and Africa to this graph, the negative relationship would be even more striking. Being highly religious and low in societal success, those nations would fall in the lower right of the graph.
The possible explanations for this relationship are several. More religious societies could simply be ones that don’t impel their members to make them “successful” using the measures Paul incorporates. Alternatively, societies that are less successful for other reasons might promote religiosity in their members, as religious people might turn to God when they can’t depend on their neighbors and government (the “Karl Marx” explanation). Or both of these could apply. Or there could be unmeasured covariates that really explain the relationship.
A lot of data, though, supports the “Marx” explanation: people become more religious, or stay that way, when their living conditions are poor or they perceive themselves as disadvantaged. This is supported by a wealth of sociological data that I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, but I’ll add one fact that suggests the direction of the causation. Income inequality—a huge aspect of how well people think they’re doing—fluctuates over time in the U.S. And religiosity fluctuates with it, but a year behind! That is, when income inequality (as measured by the GINI index goes up), religiosity goes up a year later. Ditto when income inequality falls. This suggests that people become more religious when they perceive that their well-being is dropping, and vice versa.
At any rate, many sociologists agree with this interpretation. But of course, Christians don’t, as they’d like to see piety as the result of recognizing the “truths” there is a god and a heaven, and not simply as a reaction to a bad situation.
So, when the site Christian Today looked at the data above, they saw something completely different. In a piece called “Why are people in rich countries less religious?”, author Andy Walton gets pretty close to the Marxist interpretation, but somehow manages to completely recast it (my emphasis):
While richer countries have more access to material goods, which make people feel more satisfied, it appears that people find more ‘meaning’ in religious faith.
In an Atlantic article looking at some psychological research on this phenomenon, the author said, “The researchers found that this factor of religiosity mediated the relationship between a country’s wealth and the perceived meaning in its citizen’s lives… it was the presence of religion that largely accounted for the gap between money and meaning.”
In other words, there may be something psychologically significant about a belief in the transcendent which offers more meaning to people than wealth – in spite of the good things wealth can provide.
What Walton is doing here is making a virtue of necessity: people in poor societies, he says, find religion rather than goods as their source of meaning. That may well be true, but the important question is this: given access to any society they want, would these impoverished people still choose their poor but religious societies rather than the richer and more atheistic ones? Given the flow of immigrants from the former lands to the latter, I think the answer is clear. People aren’t valuing religion over goods because that reflects their innate preferences; they’re doing it because it’s the only thing they can do! They want that material well being!
Walton ends his piece with a slap at atheism:
So, what can we learn from these figures overall? I suspect there’s a different lesson depending on where we sit on the faith spectrum.
We are one of the richest countries in the world, yet English children are some of the unhappiest in the world. Atheist progressives should realise that a society which doesn’t as a whole take religion very seriously isn’t necessarily a better society.
Yes, but in general it’s a better society. As always, societies that don’t take religion very seriously tend to be the most successful societies. And as for the relationship between religiosity and happiness, take a gander at the 25 “happiest” countries in the world and, below them, the 25 “unhappiest” countries, all from a survey of 156 countries (data from the 2013 World Happiness Report, free online). First note that, contra Walton, Britain is #22 out of 156, so it’s not doing too badly. (h/t to reader “infiniteimprobability” for pointing me to the updated data.)
I haven’t run the stats on these, but I’ll bet that happiness is negatively correlated with religiosity.
Breakdown of data for each country: