Wealth and Religiosity February 25, 2008

Wealth and Religiosity

The March issue of The Atlantic has a powerful article by Alan Wolfe (director of the Boisi Center for Religion and Public Life at Boston College) about the impact of religion:

Every new outburst of religious passion, while producing ecstasy and revelation for some, has disrupted established loyalties, fueled intolerance, and led to violence between the chosen and the damned.

There’s a little bit of the Doomsday scenario that Sam Harris wrote about in The End of Faith:

A common worry is that intense competition for souls could produce another era in which religious conflict leads to religious war—only this time with nuclear weapons. If we are really in for anything like the kind of zeal that accompanied earlier periods of religious expansion, we might as well say goodbye to the Enlightenment and its principles of tolerance.

But there are some upsides:

First, many areas of the world are experiencing a decline in religious belief and practice. Second, where religions are flourishing, they are also generally evolving—very often in ways that allow them to fit more easily into secular societies, and that weaken them as politically disruptive forces… The answer to the question of which religion will dominate the future, at least politically, may well be: None of the above.

The most interesting part of the article may be the following graphic, which shows the relationship between a country’s gross domestic product (in effect, how rich it is) and its religiosity (click for larger image):


The graph is courtesy of the Pew Global Attitudes Project. And as Wolfe points out:

The pattern, as seen in the Pew study and a number of other sources, is hard to miss: when God and Mammon collide, Mammon usually wins.

The article elaborates at length about the points (countries) on the graph.

The United States seems to stand outside the rest of the bunch — an outlier if ever there was one. We are “the only country in the world, apart from Kuwait, that is both wealthy and religious,” Wolfe writes.

He explains away this uniqueness, though:

… one shouldn’t go overboard in describing American religiosity. For one thing, it is as shallow as it is broad: Americans know relatively little about the histories, the theological controversies, or even the sacred texts of their chosen faiths. Recent decades have seen the rise of the Christian right in the United States, but they have also witnessed the seemingly inexorable advance of secular ideals, such as personal choice and pluralism, that blossomed in the 1960s. Some signs indicate that the Christian right may be losing steam, or at least moderating, as a political force. Nonbelief, meanwhile, is increasing: not only are atheist manifestos selling in large numbers, but the percentage of those who express no religious preference to pollsters doubled between 1990 and 2001, to 15 percent.

He closes with this (and let’s hope that he’s right):

Moreover, the future may come sooner than we think. We have seen how rapidly religion has spread in the past, claiming adherents from competing faiths before the competition knew what hit them. Both secularism and secularly inspired ways of being religious are spreading just as rapidly—maybe even more so. Historians may one day look back on the next few decades, not as yet another era when religious conflicts enveloped countries and blew apart established societies, but as the era when secularization took over the world.

You may now resume staring at that incredible graphic.

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

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  • AJ

    I have been informed that the GDP to religiosity correlation takes a similar form when looking at states individually in the US. I haven’t been able to verify it with data yet.

  • Milena

    Very interesting chart. Bulgaria (my homeland) seems to be both one of the poorest and one of the least religious countries. So are the rest of the Eastern European countries (although Czech Republic seems to be doing fairly well, the smug bastards.) It can probably be attributed to Communism and it’s after-effects. I was wondering about China, but it’s not listed. Neither is Cuba. South Korea seems to fall right in the mean, especially if you were to trace a line (is this what they’re called in English? I study math in French, so the terms might be wrong) to best represent the cluster, although compared to Czech Republic, which has a very similar GDP, it’s a lot more religious.

  • This (and the other stats post you made today) is fantastic stuff!

    What the various graphs don’t show is that the nonaffiliated group is going to grow a lot quicker than many people anticipate. Why? Two key trends:
    1) The explosion of secular material freely available in readily digestable form (e.g., YouTube). The religions have been able to sheid young people from counter arguments in the past, but that is now changing. Moreover, the media in which the material is available is more heavily consumed by young people. The result will be an accelarated decline in the number of young people sticking with the religion of their parents.
    2) “% religious” data is almost always presented in aggregate across the population. This masks the fact that there is already a great disparity between the religiousity of the young and old. And old people have a tendancy of dying. There is currently a massive blip in the age distribution of many western nations: the baby boomers. Expect a corresponding negative ‘blip’ in “% religious” figures when those folks reach their mortal limit.

    Religion requires a critical mass to sustain itself (because it is bullshit, so the main way people keep their belief is to rely on social proof – “so many other people believe it too, it must be true”). When that critical mass is shredded by the above two trends, a tipping point will likely occur.

    …Of course, the religious will see this as one more sign that the end is nigh, which will make them even more dangerous.

  • I like tea

    The explosion of secular material freely available in readily digestable form (e.g., YouTube). The religions have been able to sheid young people from counter arguments in the past, but that is now changing.

    That’s a very good point, and I hope it has a significant effect on our society. If there’s one thing that the Ron Paul debacle proved, it’s that YouTube definitely does not reflect mainstream America, but it does, as you say, reach many (most?) young Americans, and if they become increasingly secular, that’s the direction our country will inevitably take as they come of age. Hopefully.

    Of course, as I’ve said on the forums, I was deconverted by a good, old-fashioned paper book. If my mom had had any idea, she probably would have burned it. 😛

  • cautious

    If there’s one thing that the Ron Paul debacle proved, it’s that

    …there’s a lot of forum trolls who think that being libertarian is cool?

    The graph is cool but I think it shows a correlation between wealth and religiosity, which is a by-product of something else. I interpret it as a cause-effect, mostly positive feedback relationship between progress and secularism. Countries who have gone through the historical, European-led Industrial Revolution are all on the bottom half of the chart. Countries that have played a game of catch-up with the West in terms of technology, say, South Korea and Japan, are on the bottom half of the chart. Israel is an immigrant country founded and mainly peopled by Europeans. Modernization, in the technological, economic, and scientific manner seen in Europe since ~1800, appears to lead to a decrease in religious control of life.

    So if, say, Ethiopia needs to become less religious, it needs to do it’s best impression of a First World, industrialized nation. This will be a good thing, if we can learn how to bring the rest of the world up to modern standards in some sustainable fashion.

    The U.S. is an outlier but I like how the article defines American religiousness: it’s prevalent, but shallow. Sometimes it seems like the only people who actually understand the religion they claim to avow are fighting internet battles with friendly atheists. That seems like an American tradition: we’re very willing to say we’re in favor of something that sounds good (religion, science, democracy, history) but when you quiz the average person about any of those subjects, you realize that we don’t know much.

  • “one shouldn’t go overboard in describing American religiosity”

    Perhaps. But I think there’s a better way of interpreting the apparent fluke of the U.S.’s place on this chart:

    I think one shouldn’t go overboard in describing American wealth.

    America as a country may be extremely wealthy. But that wealth is largely, and increasingly, in the hands of a few. There’s a great deal of poverty in the U.S. — a shameful amount for such a wealthy country. And while the American middle class is relatively comfortable on a day to day basis (certainly compared to, say, Senegal), middle-class Americans also live with a high degree of anxiety and struggle. They — we — tend to work over-long and exhausting hours; send our kids to increasingly crappy public schools; are just one or two paychecks away from financial disaster; have lousy health insurance and could be wiped out by a single bad injury or illness, have lousy retirement, ditto. Etc. etc. etc.

    If the health, happiness, prosperity and security of a society leads to less religion — as I think is very likely — then I don’t think a highly religious U.S. is a fluke or an outlier. I think it fits the pattern perfectly.

  • Vincent

    The pattern, as seen in the Pew study and a number of other sources, is hard to miss: when God and Mammon collide, Mammon usually wins.

    Or God wins. Depends on which end of the chart you are looking at.
    Stupid statement.
    What you CAN glean from the chart is merely that they conflict. There is a clear patter of inverse relationship between the 2, but God seems to be winning on one end and Mammon on the other.

  • Ian

    We are “the only country in the world, apart from Kuwait, that is both wealthy and religious,” Wolfe writes.

    I can think of a few other examples that aren’t on the graph, but would probably be in the upper-right quadrant: Qatar, UAE, Brunei, Singapore… to name a few.

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