A correlation between poverty and religiosity

September 4, 2010 • 8:09 am

A Gallup poll out this week finds, among 100 nations surveyed, a very strong correlation between religiosity and poverty.  As you might expect, the poorest countries (rated by average per-capita GDP) are the most religious (rated by the proportion of people who say “yes” to the question, “Is religion an important part of your daily life?”).  Here’s a nice figure from the New York Times showing this correlation (click to enlarge):

Note that the United States is an outlier, far more religious (65% say “yes”) than its prosperity would suggest (average GDP about $46,000). If we were on the line, we’d be about as irreligious as Hong Kong (24% yeses). Of course the interpretation of the negative correlation isn’t clear.  The Gallup folks say this:

Social scientists have put forth numerous possible explanations for the relationship between the religiosity of a population and its average income level. One theory is that religion plays a more functional role in the world’s poorest countries, helping many residents cope with a daily struggle to provide for themselves and their families. A previous Gallup analysis supports this idea, revealing that the relationship between religiosity and emotional wellbeing is stronger among poor countries than among those in the developed world.

Why is the U.S. an outlier? Also unclear.  Greg Paul, of course, has suggested a modification of the theory mentioned above: religiosity is higher not just when average income is low, but when average life security is low.  If you plot religiosity against what Paul calls the “successful societies scale,” which takes into account dysfunctionalities like corruption, suicide, marital stability, and so forth, the U.S. is no longer an outlier.  We’re a rich society, but Paul’s metric shows that we’re not such a successful one.

The poll also affirms what most of us know: the U.S. is appreciably more religious than most other prosperous nations.  Here’s the proportion of people in various countries who claim that religion is an important part of their daily lives:

Sweden:  17%

Denmark: 19%

Japan:  24%

UK:  27%

France:  30%

Germany: 40%

Canada: 42%

Spain: 49%

U.S. 65%

Italy 72%

But the figures hearten me somewhat.  When people say, “Religion is here to stay,” I respond, “It didn’t stay in Denmark and England!”

53 thoughts on “A correlation between poverty and religiosity

  1. Many people in the US — and not just “poor people — are one incident away from total disaster. A serious illness can cost you your home or retirement savings, or both.

    Many of my friends don’t go see a doctor when they know they should because they just can’t afford it.

    Employees in the US have relatively few rights. About the time you really need a steady job — middle age and later — you’re liable to get laid off and become essentially unemployable for the rest of your life.

    It’s no wonder that many people turn to “God” and other woo-woo to try to neutralise the constant threat of calamity.

    1. Studies have shown that superstitions (like religion?) are strongly correlated with uncertainty. The more luck plays a factor, the more people rely on charms.

      As strange as your hypothesis may seem to some, it has support.

      1. Strange? Does it seem strange? It seems blindingly obvious to me. We have high overall prosperity but that disguises drastic inequality coupled with unique-among-developed-nations insecurity. It would be odd if that had no effect on levels of religiosity.

  2. Greg Paul’s ideas make a lot of sense and they are based on raw numbers and stats. It is hard to argue with that.
    One of his main source is the 2004 book Sacred and Secular. According to their analysis, while the average income is high in the US, unequal distribution and lack of access to safety nets (such as healthcare and coverage for unemployment) makes the life for many not on par with standards among other developed nations. This model also holds true for subpopulations; for example it can explain why African-Americans and Hispanics are generally quite religious, whereas Asians aren’t so much.
    I guess it is for a reason that Glen Beck finds the idea of “social justice” so upsetting.
    Another thing to remember is that some of the most secular nations of today are the almost-theocracies of yesterday. Queen Elizabeth is still officially “the defender of faith”, in a nation where weekly church attendance is in the single digits.

    1. QE2 is still the Defender of THE Faith, ie the Anglican Church. It’s Chuckie3 (2a to Jacobites) who may drop tha article.

      No Oceania? I’m guessing New Zealand would be somewhere near Denmark and Australia to the northeast of it.

      1. Many former British colonies
        are similar to one another, and
        to Britain, though whether that
        similarity stems from before or
        after the period of colonisation
        is not clear. New Zealand, in
        many ways, seems much more
        sensible than the rest of the
        Anglo-Saxon world. What is the
        reason for this?

    2. FYI, Henry VIII was awarded the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ by the pope for his works defending catholicism!! Ain’t that fabulous? I love it.

  3. It’s part of a new narrative that is being constructed. There is a subsection of sociology that tries to push this notion that secularization never became true. You can tell that this sociology is held by US sociologists, though Peter Berger should know better, but of course he is also a theologian, so to try to change the narrative has a certain function.

    there is actualy little evidence in European countries that secularization fails. People leave churches at a stead rate. And in the US, the number of unbelievers is also growing, but the effect is just not as massive as some may have predicted.

    But rather than describe what is going on we get stories such as ‘secularization theory is wrong’.

    But of course it is true that there is a conservative backlash. But that conservative backlash and more politically fervent religiosity (and religious intolerance) is misconstrued as an indication that certain clear correlates do not exist.

  4. The USA is an outlier, because of the first amendment rights. Specifically, the “free exercise” clause has allowed religion to prosper.

    The religious right in America (the anti-American anti-Christian branch of American Christianity) does not understand this. It is attempting to destroy the “establishment” clause. But destroying that would also destroy the “free exercise” clause. If they succeed, then USA will no longer be an outlier – either they will destroy our religiosity or, more likely, they will destroy our prosperity.

    1. The US is not the only country to have enshrined some form of free exercise of religion. Why is it an outlier relative to them?

      1. Would you care to name the other countries that have freedom of religion ‘enshrined’, please.
        I cannot think of any comparable examples.

        1. efrique, the difference is that most nations had a state church until recently.

          the other countries that have freedom of religion

          It is a freedom by most declarations of human rights, for example an international freedom by UN (article 18) since 1948 and european by the Europan convention (article 9) since 1950.

          According to the swedish Wikipedia a Pew Forum report states that 70 % of the world population lives in nations that restricts freedom of religion. Then 30 % lives in nations that don’t.

          One of those nations is Sweden, where it is expressed in the basic law for government rule among individuals freedoms since 1975.

          1. Mmmm…. Maybe.
            But Sweden is a Monarchy, and government ‘rules’ in monarchies are not ‘enshrined’.
            I’m not wholly convinced.

  5. It does make me suspect that one of the best ways to dramatically reduce the influence of religion in the US is to introduce universal health care.

    Sounds simple but given the crazy politics in the US, it’s not clear which is the bigger boogie man: secularism or socialism.

    1. “Sounds simple but given the crazy politics in the US, it’s not clear which is the bigger boogie man: secularism or socialism.”

      They are frequently seen as the same things by people who don’t know what either of them mean – they just know they don’t like them.

      “It does make me suspect that one of the best ways to dramatically reduce the influence of religion in the US is to introduce universal health care.”

      I agree! And it’s interesting that many of the same people who are against universal healthcare are also the most conservatively religious. Perhaps they see that countries, particularly in Europe, that have universal healthcare tend to be much less religious than the U.S., leading them to think universal healthcare (which they consider socialism), will result in greater secularism.

      I’m not sure that I believe they’re smart enough to see this correlation, but it’s an interesting – if unlikely – possibility.

      If they did make this connection, though, they’d be likely to shout it from the rooftops: “Obama’s trying to get rid of God with that awful socialist universal healthcare. We can’t have that! He must be a Muslim AND an atheist!! And a communist and a nazi and Kenyan!! They’re all the same thing, right?!” <—my impression of a tea party wingnut.

      1. I believe they see the correlation but only subconsciously. The are after all the sort of people who are happy to go with their gut feelings and don’t require careful thought or evidence for their opinions. They know it’s bad but they don’t really know why which is why their reasons sound so silly. It’s interesting evidence of the value of intuition, you know more than you realise, even fundies.

  6. a very strong correlation between religiosity and poverty

    No offense, Jerry, but it drives me nuts when someone writes something like this and doesn’t provide the actual r-value. How am I to know what the magnitude of correlation is, just by eyeballing the scatterplot? What is the actual statistic?

    1. why would the linear correlation be relevant between one variable that’s a percentage and another that’s strictly positive?

      With constrained ranges and in particular with the proportion variable covering such a large fraction of its possible range, I’d be inclined to bet against linear correlation.

      There are several measures of monotonic association that would make much more sense than the pearson correlation.

  7. I wonder how much accurate this “religion percentage” is. I’m Brazilian, but living in the US for the last two years doing grad school, so I have pretty good notion of how much religion is important in these two countries. And here in the US, religion is much more part of everyday lives. I don’t have ANY friend that goes to the church on sundays. There are no discussion on whether creationism should be taught or not in schools; or whether a mosque should be built or not. Really, we don’t give a crap. I wonder if the translation of the question in various languages can distort the results. If you translate from English to Portuguese word-by-word, you’ll sound like a wacko.

    Or, maybe my impression is distorted because:

    – I come from an upper-middle-class family, which is the minority in Brazil. Maybe there is graph like this within Brazil, and I come from a unusual corner of it.

    – I’m in South Dakota right now, which might have more religious wackos than usual in the US. And this distorts my impression as well.

    What do you think?

  8. I can understand why China isn’t included on this graph, as accurate data may be difficult to acquire. But, I feel it might be wise to limit our conclusions drawn from a dataset that excludes the worlds largest nation by population and one of its largest economies.

    1. We should limit our conclusions because you think that something absolutely irrelevant to this graph should be included? Good one Sparky.

      1. China is irrelevant? What?

        More than a billion people, and an authoritarian government that is officially atheist. This would make conducting a survey like this very difficult, but hardly renders a discussion of global patterns of religiosity and poverty irrelevant.

        Or are you focusing only on the USA? It’s interesting in this context because of the comparison between the USA and the rest of the world. China is a big part of the rest of the world.

  9. I am somewhat surprised at the Canadian numbers (42%)Several recent polls would have the numbers at least ten points below that 42%.Congregations are dwindling in many parts of the country with churches closing down. Regular church attendance is in the 17 percent range. One possible explanation could be that the catholic church tends to treat all census Catholics as members.

  10. To me the USA isn’t even an outlier – not unless we pretend all the other points are on a perfect line. Otherwise you’d have numerous other “outliers” in the “poor but not very religious” group and you’d be claiming that a large fraction of your data points are “outliers” – a strange claim to make of valid data.

    Religions certainly strive to promote ignorance but there might be a better correlation between quality of education (how do we measure this) and low GDP. In many cases resources will also be an issue. For example, I can’t imagine PNG, Fiji, Nauru and numerous other island states (and many non-island states too) ever having a high GDP.

      1. Most of the bottom left are states that attempted to *force* atheism on the population. Most of the states in the bottom right (both wealthy and with low religiosity) are states that have chosen to become, or evolved into more secular states.

        And most of the states on the bottom left are still more religious than France, Britain, Japan, Hong Kong, Denmark and Sweden.

  11. Question/conversation dealing with this that arose amidst my friends and I:

    My assumption is, the dominant reason religiosity is so high in poorer nations is its perceived eschatology. Its message of hope for future blessing. Essentially, the idea that this is not all there is, so if I believe, one day, my poverty will be nullified.

    However, the inverse is relatively true as well. The more I have, the less I need to care about a future.

    So if the goal is to change minds, what is the eschatology of atheism? What message gives hope to individuals along with acceptance of present circumstances as all there is?

    1. What message gives hope to individuals along with acceptance of present circumstances as all there is?

      I don’t know, is it reality?

      1. No matter how poor and unhealthy anyone may be, the natural world still provides plenty of free beauty and comfort. Sunshine, rainbows, birdsong are all free. Some people even take joy in cats!

  12. Surely the median is much more appropriate than the average? I suspect the US per person average is heavily skewed by the uneven spread of wealth.

    Just working on the mean will not give us any figures worth discussing if we want to know the relationship with the ‘average’ person’s wealth and their religiosity.

    1. There isn’t a median for this statistic: it’s the GDP divided by the number of inhabitants. You can still argue that that’s not a good measure of prosperity, I suppose.

      1. Actually I’d argue that GPD is a measure of income as well as expenditure. So while you’d need slightly different data, changing the angle of wealth production can still be used, but it needs to be the right figures.

  13. Having a background in the Mormon church, I have seen that it was the lowest income people and the unemployed that accepted the church more often. They are the ones who would let the missionaries in their houses and would accept their teachings.

    My brother served a mission in California-San Francisco/San Jose and noticed the same trend.

  14. The US is an outlier, if taken as a whole, but in many ways the US is still a collection of states, with varying cultures. If you look at the differences between rurual vs. urban, and southern vs. northern states, you see a similar pattern as your graph describes. Northern, industrialized states have higher gdp and lower religiosity. The less “devoloped” states are usually also more religious.

    Another thing to consider is that the US is known as a haven for religious mintoriies, so it tends to attract and protect religiosity, more than Europe or Asia.


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