More evidence that a caring government erodes religiosity

I’ve written many times about the increasing evidence that religiosity is negatively correlated with the well being of a society and its inhabitants. That is, those countries (and U.S. states) that have higher indices of well being are those that are the least religious. Of course, this is a correlation and doesn’t prove causation, but there are some data that the improvement of social welfare is causal in eroding religion. In the U.S., for instance, a fall in the GINI Index, which means more income equality, is followed in subsequent years by an decrease in religiosity, suggesting that people become less religious when they feel they’re on a level playing field of life.

A new paper by Miron Zuckerman, Chen Li, and Ed Diener in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (free access and pdf with the legal Unpaywall application; full reference below) adds more evidence to not only the negative relationship between government care of its people and their religiosity, but also suggests that the former causes changes in the latter. The former relationship holds not just for countries of the world (155 were assessed) but also the 50 United States, and data from the U.S. suggests that increased government welfare actually reduces religiosity.

I’ll try to be brief. The authors compiled data from 155 countries and the 50 U.S. states on

a. Religiosity (the proportion of people who answered “yes” to the question “Is religion an important part of your life?)

b. Quality of life. For the countries this was a composite index that incorporated educational attainment, infant mortality, percentage of population in urban areas, life expectancy, proportion of physicians among all inhabitants, and percentage of the population below the poverty level. Similar data, but using eight factors, was the index of quality of life in the U.S.

c. Index of government services. This used two statistics: health expenditures and education expenditures as percentages of the gross domestic product (GDP)

d. The Gini Index. Data from the World Bank: a value of zero means that all incomes are equal, while 1 means that one family has all the income and everyone else has none. The value thus ranges from zero to one, with higher values meaning more income inequality.

e. Subjective well being (SWB). These data were taken from a Gallup World Poll, and includes the components of life satisfaction, positive emotions, and negative emotions.

The authors tested several hypotheses in both countries of the world and U.S. states.

1.) The government can replace God as a service provider. That is, the hypothesis is that, as the authors say, “the government provides an extra layer of security and can replace God as an agency of last resort.” As Marx noted, religion may well be the last resort of people who have no hope from other people or their society. This would predict that, holding other variables equal, including SWB and Quality of Life, higher government services would be associated with lower religiosity.

2.) They tested the further hypothesis that religiosity would be lower ONLY with a combination of government services and higher quality of life. Do these factors need to be present simultaneously, or do they act in an additive way, having pretty independent effects?

3.) Finally, does higher SWB also correlate with reduced religiosity?

Along the way, they were able to use the U.S. longitudinal data to study temporal relationships between these variables, suggesting that it is social services that erode religion rather than the other way around. ]

In all cases, the relationships were controlled for other variables using hierarchical regression analyses, so that each factor’s effects could be studied independently.

The main results (read the paper for more).

For countries

a. Higher Gini scores (more inequality) were, across countries, associated with higher religiosity. This itself shows no causality; in fact, you could posit that more religious countries somehow increase income inequality, though other data (below) suggests that if there is a causality, it is between inequality and belief.

b. Better government services were associated with lower religiosity. Higher quality of life was also associated with lower religiosity (remember, each variable is controlled by holding the others constant).

c. There is an interaction between government services and quality of life: if you have higher levels of both, your country is even less religious.

d. Subjective Well Being was negatively associated with religiosity when government services were low, but not when they were high, implying that high government services are by themselves enough to reduce religiosity and efface any relationship between SWB and religiosity.

For U.S. states

These results are for the U.S. by itself, looking at the 50 states, and they also did a time series of measurements over six years. Quality of life included eight variables, which you can see in the paper.

a. Holding other factors constant, higher quality of life was associated with lower religiosity in a state, as was higher average government services. The interaction between higher quality of life and government services was of borderline significance (p = 0.069), but the lowest religiosity was still found in states having both higher quality of life and better government services. This mirrors the results above for different countries.

b. Interestingly, the level of government services in a given year predicted the level of religiosity (a negative relationship) one and two years in the future, implying that if there is a causality, it’s an erosion of religion by government services rather than an erosion of government services by religion. This temporal relationship did not hold for quality of life, nor did it hold in the reverse direction except for one-year data (but not two-year data) with a p value of 0.02 (religiosity predicting government services in the future)

The upshot. In general, the authors’ hypotheses, which are also those advanced by Norris and Inglehart in their excellent book Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, were confirmed: there is a negative correlation between government care of its people, as well as social well being, and religiosity. States and countries that take better care of their people are less religious, and the temporal analysis suggests that an improvement in government welfare erodes religiosity, as predicted by many sociologists—as well as by Karl Marx. Further, as we already know, there’s a negative correlation between quality of life (and happiness, too!) and religiosity. The most religious countries are the least well off and have the unhappiest people. 

So much for the claim that religion makes things better, and for the other claim that religion is essential for people’s well being. In fact, religion is a substitute for material well being, and goes away when people’s well being improves. The happiest countries in the world, those with the most well being (material, medical, and so on), as well as the best government services, are the least religious countries—countries like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and so on.  This is a message that we can’t shout too loudly. Religion doesn’t improve people’s well being. (I suppose the goddies will argue, “yes, but they’re spiritually better off.” But if that’s the case, why aren’t they also happier?)

Finally, as the world improves and people increase their well being (see Pinker’s talk that I’ll post later today), religiosity will decrease. Of that I am sure. You don’t need god in a world where people feel secure and taken care of by their society. Eventually, as the rising tide of well being lifts all boats, religion will become a vestigial belief.


Zuckerman, M., C. Li, and E. Diener. 2018. Religion as an Exchange System: The Interchangeability of God and Government in a Provider Role. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin: First published April 12, 2018;


  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted May 25, 2018 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    “vestigial belief”

    I like it

    … like, astrology, alchemy, Zoroastrianism… whatever that is….

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted May 25, 2018 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      Zoroastrianism is a 5th century BCE religion still mainly a minority religion in Iran and other Arabic countries. It was founded by a Persian/Iranian prophet names Zoraster (also known as Zarathustra.) However, its indirect influence on Christianity is enormous and it has a small number of New Agey followers in America.

      Alchemy is a kind of proto-scientific version of chemistry, kind of like Ptolemaic astronomy or Aristotelian physics.
      Belief in some aspects of alchemy is part and parcel of some esoteric religions such as Rosicrucianism, but alchemy is not itself per se a religion.
      Isaac Newton was deeply into alchemy. It gave birth to modern chemistry in the same way that astrology gave birth to astronomy.

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted May 25, 2018 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

        Alleged prophet …

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted May 25, 2018 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

        Despite what Jews/Christians/Muslims claim, Zoroastrianism was the first mono-theistic religion.

        • nicky
          Posted May 25, 2018 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

          Well, there was also pharao Amenhothep IV, better known as Akhenaten or Achnaton, more than 1300 bc who replaced the polytheism of Egypt with a single god, Aton. Must be one of the, if not the, oldest monotheistic religions.
          Note that if Roman Catholicism can be considered monotheistic (I think it is not, not so much due to the Trinity, but to the worship of Mary and a plethora of saints) then the old Chinese Shangdi, more than 17 centuries bc, could also be considered monotheistic

          • Heather Hastie
            Posted May 25, 2018 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

            Yeah. I’ve always felt a bit that way about Catholicism too – though that might be my Protestant upbringing as well! 🙂

            • Filippo
              Posted May 26, 2018 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

              Having fairly-well exhausted the online possibilities of religioso v. atheist debates, I’ve started exploring the Catholic v., say, Southern Baptist (the tradition in which I was raised) debates.

              Catholicism claims to be the one true [original] church and, from my experience, no sect exceeds the So. Baptists in the (self-perceived) rectitude of their religious opinions. Not a few of them decline to consider themselves “Protestant.” They rather claim that they are or represent the original New Testatment church.)

              • Heather Hastie
                Posted May 27, 2018 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

                The arrogance of the various claims always astounds me, especially as they consider atheists to be the arrogant ones.

                They think they’re so important to the creator of the universe that a quick prayer will get them a parking space, but atheists are arrogant for thinking they’re of no importance in the grand scheme of things?

              • Posted May 27, 2018 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

                From their point of view, we atheists are the arrogant ones because we are substituting our own reason and science for their God and religion. They see themselves as the insignificant ones compared to God and we atheists more significant in our world as we claim to be our own source of morality. Of course, this is BS because their God and religion are also human creations though they would disagree.

              • Heather Hastie
                Posted May 27, 2018 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

                I’m going to Tweet a meme from my collection, just so I can add it to this comment:

          • Eddie Janssen
            Posted May 26, 2018 at 5:31 am | Permalink

            Some people even claim that Moses and the Hebrews were the remaining followers of Akhenaten’s cult. The Exodus took place some 50 to 100 years after Akhenaten’s cult was abolished in the reign of his son Toetankhamun.
            Although the theory is “too beautiful to be true” it would explain why Ramses (and the ruling class of Amun priests) would want to get rid of them.

          • Posted May 26, 2018 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

            As an unbeliever living in a Latinamerican Roman Catholic environment as a consequence of my marriage, I wonder but have never asked how they can talk of the monotheistic nature of their Church.
            Thank you nicky, for “saying it aloud”. Now I’m going to discuss it with some friends, and perhaps with my least closed-minded grandson. Already looking forward to their reactions!

            • nicky
              Posted May 26, 2018 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

              Come to think of it, none of the extant ‘monotheistic’ religions are monotheistic, they are at least bi-theistic. From Zoroastrianism to the Abrahamics, there is always this evil kind of opposite ‘god’: the Devil, Satan, Shaitan, Beelzebub etc.

            • nicky
              Posted May 26, 2018 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

              Note, they wiĺ say Mary and the saints are not demi-gods, and are not worshipped. They are only asked for ‘intercession’ when prayed to…

  2. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted May 25, 2018 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    This could be a conscious or unconscious reason of why conservative religious types are so deeply opposed to “government programs”.

    I’m curious as to how this breaks down in terms of the spectrum of religion. Do religious that are very anti-theocracy (favoring strong separation of God and government) fare better, worse, or equally by the rise of benign government?

    • Posted May 25, 2018 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      It is why they do not like the Information Age, as a whole. Even if it does not educate, and the religious self-censor, information unifies people. People of different color, different faiths, different sexualities. Religion hates democratization.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted May 25, 2018 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

        And some religions are at best deeply ambivalent about democratization.
        The Catholic church was quite anti-democratic for much of the Enlightenment period. The turning point was when Jesuit author John Courtney Murray published his book “We Hold These Truths: Catholic Thoughts on the American Proposition”, defending democracy.
        I found the book’s arguments somewhat mundane, but am astonished at how controversial it was even in the mid-20th century.

        Thomas Aquinas’ morphed Aristotle’s arguments for democracy into an argument for constitutional monarchy.

        In Asian culture, classical Confucianism is quite anti-democratic.

        The only religion I can think of that was strongly pro-democracy right from the get-go was Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy- not exactly a mainstream option.

  3. Posted May 25, 2018 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    It’s obviously just the opposite extreme of the “no atheists in foxholes” meme.

  4. Randall Schenck
    Posted May 25, 2018 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    It is just good to have the data match up with common sense belief and leave you thinking, how could it be any other way. Why do people who live poor, with a poor education and paycheck to paycheck existence come to religion for comfort and answers. Same reason they buy in to extreme politicians who feed fear and lies to them and keep them on this diet because it is all they have.

  5. XCellKen
    Posted May 25, 2018 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    “Better government services were associated with lower religiosity.”

    Does this mean the Libertarians are religious? My anecdotal evidence is quite the opposite of this.

    • Posted May 25, 2018 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      That which people advocate is not the same as what they receive. Your logic would imply that those who favor universal health care should be healthier than those who oppose it.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted May 25, 2018 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      @XCellKen Yes, Libertarians are religious ~ 64% of 6,500 polled members of the Libertarian Party identify with a religion: SOURCE

      • Pikolo
        Posted May 25, 2018 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

        Isn’t that still below US average?

        Pew lists the USA at 78% religious(, though their data is usually skewed ~5-10% towards religion(going by comparison between their results and the Australian Censu)

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted May 25, 2018 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

          What you say is true, but I’m responding to XCellKen’s claim that the sample of Libertarians that he knows are irreligious:

          “Does this mean the Libertarians are religious? My anecdotal evidence is quite the opposite of this”

          Clearly his sample is smaller than the one I’m using – which contains more religious than not religious

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 25, 2018 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

      True, but the study is across societies, not isolated by ideology. That Libertarians are less religious no more disproves the thesis than that American Episcopalians tend to be wealthy and well-fed.

  6. Posted May 25, 2018 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Anecdotally, I can report that the religious I know; are are quite content with their lives. So every time I read that the religious tend to be less happy or even unhappy, it makes me think that it needs another explanation. I can see that in hard core evangelicals that seem to be chronically pissed off. But the rest of easy-going Catholics, blissfully ignorant of their doctrine, are doing fine.

    Or are very good are pretending.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted May 25, 2018 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      I rely on observation. Anecdotically, an African born co-worker was surprised when I referenced the statistics that Swedes are among the happiest people in the world. My impression, colored by my preconceptions for sure, was: because we did not laugh publicly so often as people in his upbringing environment we looked somber in comparison. Statistically we have a muted body language and wide personal space; likely because that is perceived as amenable among peers.

      So I am not sure if perceived happiness is telling one way or another.

      • Filippo
        Posted May 26, 2018 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

        I think it liberating not to have to smile (or whoop and holler) on command.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 25, 2018 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

      “blissfully ignorant of their doctrine,”

      I think you just explained it.

      I recall when one Cook Islands dance group visited Auckland, fund-raising for something or other. They danced each night in some islander-related venue or other. Their manager was staying with us so we got to see several ‘shows’. Cook Island dancing is quite… expressive. One night they were hosted by an evangelical group in Onehunga – they weren’t allowed to dance! (too sinful) but some wally rabbited on about how joyful everybody was and how we should hug the person next to us yadda yadda – what a depressingly glum event. The next night was hosted by the Catholic islanders in Mangere – predictably, it was a hoot. Thoroughly enjoyed by one and all (including the two or three Catholic clergy present).


    • shelleywatsonburch
      Posted May 25, 2018 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

      That is interesting, and I’ve noticed the same. I wonder how much of that is genuine contentment with life as it is, as opposed to “Of course I’m happy, I have God and this is as good as it gets in this life.” This life is temporary. Non believers may try harder to make it as good as possible, because this is the only life we expect. Believers may devote less energy to making life good and healthy and fulfilling for society, because they believe the real life comes later. I have heard “the poor you will always have with you” quoted so often, usually when pondering what society should do to help the underprivileged. I have also heard many Christians assert that people in bad circumstances are there because God wants them to be there, in order to get them to turn to him. In the end, for believers it is all about salvation, not about making life easier and more equitable.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted May 25, 2018 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

        I’ve been thinking about Dennis’ question all day, because I also have noticed anecdotally an above average contentment exhibited by the non-loony religious & how does that fact [if true] square with secular societies ending up with the highest well-being stats?

        My provisional conclusion is that it’s good to have an absorbing, harmless hobby & a network that shares your hobby. Religion is an unusual hobby in that it often involves the whole family & it has a moral framework.
        Examples of good hobbies
        Fishing, photography, spin class, dance, martial arts, Methodist or CofE quasi-Christianity
        Examples of bad hobbies
        Gossip, undiluted religion

        However a mild dose of religious involvement can be an enormous good: as a young person there’s an increased chance of finding a romantic partner. As an old person you’ll not be lying dead in your flat for months, very likely to have hospital visitors & there’ll be people to break bread with at least once a week.

        There isn’t an alternative to religion in the UK that I know of – I suspect a lot of the elderly rediscover it when they realise that their lives are insecure. It’s easy to fake a bit of outward faith in return for a natter.

        I think that in the UK [& elsewhere, but no knowledge] it was in the Enlightenment era that charitable & philanthropic activity among voluntary associations & rich benefactors became a fashionable norm with the middle & upper class adopting a philanthropic approach toward the disadvantaged. And it was a jolly good thing too! But it was nearly always delivered in a Christian framework where the supplicant had to sing hymns for his supper & bed – he’d better know his place *tugs forelock* & fall in line with what the benefactor regarded as the correct behaviour & attitudes.

        In the successful secular nations the best of these institutions still operate & have adjusted their mission to be less authoritarian & they’ve shed or submerged most of the poisonous religion twaddle.
        Examples of good practise: Customers of the Salvation Army hostels system in the UK can be in residence many months, but only encounter Jesus when the cow shed manger diorama is dusted off for Christmas. Sikh temples – food & bed for the needy – no religion, but please take off your shoes indoors.
        Example of bad practise
        Catholic charitable activity everywhere – no adjustment to the zeitgeist whatsoever

        This is all too long…

        • shelleywatsonburch
          Posted May 26, 2018 at 1:38 am | Permalink

          No, not too long. And good observations. Sure, religious organizations that put human wellbeing first and proselytizing second can do some good things. Families can use religion, say, as a tool to keep their kids from engaging in risky behavior (even if your parents can’t see you, God can). However, in the US, states with the highest religiosity also have the highest rates of teen pregnancy, poverty, drug use, porn viewing, etc. Also poorest physical health, lower life expectancies, greater rates of obesity, I think lower educational attainment. I can only speak for the US, but I would say most of the religious in those states do not consider their faith a hobby, and would be incensed to hear it described that way. The statistics say something undeniable about the difference between religious and secular communities. Is it because people who tend to support a more robust social framework happen to value religion less, or does less religion create a more just and healthy society because it doesn’t use the ‘oh well, God is in control, he’ll do something if he wants to’ crutch.

          • Michael Fisher
            Posted May 26, 2018 at 2:01 am | Permalink

            That old time brainwashing, below is a quote taken from this Guardian article [a good read] Beattyville, Kentucky – America’s poorest white town :-

            “I’m not one for helping people who don’t help themselves but sometimes you do the best you can and you still need help,”

            said 63-year-old Wilma Barrett who, after a lifetime of hard work farming and digging coal, was unsettled to find herself reliant on welfare payments and the food bank.

            “A lot of it’s our own fault. The Lord says work and if you don’t work and provide for yourself then there’s no reason why anyone else should. I know it’s easy to give up but the Lord tells us not to give up. Too many people here have given up”

            The US is a total outlier that confounds me – The Flag, the Bible, the unhealing racial divides, the obsession with consumerism, the disdain for welfare recipients.

      • Posted May 26, 2018 at 11:13 am | Permalink

        Religious people have a strong motivation to lie when answering the “Are you happy?” question. Their religion promises them happiness if they follow its teachings so to admit they aren’t happy seems to throw shade onto their religion, something the other club members would frown on. This motivation is even stronger if they know that their answer is going to be used to compare people in their religion with those of other religions or atheists.

  7. John Hucul
    Posted May 25, 2018 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    “people become less religious when they feel they’re on a level playing field of life” Does this mean that god intentionally screws with the playing field (e.g. Job) to get more true believers?

  8. Posted May 25, 2018 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to remain agnostic about causality. I view government as more changeable (or endogenous) than religiosity, so I can see easily how a more enlightened (i.e., less religious) population might elect better government. But how can it go the other way? How does a benighted population get the better government in the first place? It seems to me the theory that causality flows from better government to less religiosity requires some type of deus ex machina determining the type of government.

    • nicky
      Posted May 25, 2018 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

      1 – Religiosity causes ‘bad’ govt. & life.
      2 – Bad govt. & life cause religiosity.
      3 – Something different causes both bad govt. and life.
      4 – A combination of the above.
      5 – The correlation is spurious, by chance.
      I’d go for 4, a kind of reciprocal relationship, a mutualistic benefit for both religiosity and bad govt. & life.
      There is also the notion that religion has always been the instrument of those in power to keep the plebs under their thumbs (which would fall under 2), or to keep the peace among not closely related males.

      • nicky
        Posted May 25, 2018 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

        sorry, under 3: ‘and religiosity’

  9. Hempenstein
    Posted May 26, 2018 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    And then there’s North Korea where the gov’t is the religion and thereby can provide however little help it likes yet still (like the Monty Python sketch) the people are happy since that’s all they have.

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