The dysfunctionality of America: income inequality, religion, and evolution

January 25, 2012 • 6:00 am

In his State of the Union Address last night, President Obama made a big deal about the huge income inequality among Americans, with much of the wealth in the hands of a few while manylive in poverty.  Although we’re a relatively wealthy nation in terms of gross domestic product per capital, we’re also one of the most unequal in the world.  This inequality has been increasing in the U.S. for several decades.

It’s not often realized that, regardless of per-capita wealth, income inequality is correlated with a number of indices of social dysfunctionality.

You can see this relationship graphically (in both senses) at Sociological Images, in a post called “Income inequality is bad for society. Really bad.“.  Here are a few correlations among nations between income inequality and indices of social dysfunction (these are apparently taken from Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett‘s book, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better). Note the extreme position of the United States.

Infant mortality (I’m not sure what statistic they use to measure income inequality; it may well be the “Gini Index”):

Homicide rate:

Rate of incarceration:

Child well being (UNICEF measure):

Now of course this doesn’t imply that income inequality is the cause of all the dysfunctionality, for there could be other variable that affect dysfunctionality and these other measures as well.  Insecurity could be such a factor. Nevertheless, it’s a good working hypothesis that this kind of inequality breeds not only social unrest, which leads to crime, drug use, incarceration, and the like, but also bespeaks a lack of caring for the welfare of the poor, leading to things like high infant mortality.  The Equality Trust goes into these figures in detail, explaining the alternative hypotheses.

And then there’s another index of what most of us would see as dysfunctionality: the degree of religious belief.  The work of Solt et al., which I’ve discussed before, shows that income inequality is also highly correlated among nations with religiosity: the more unequal a nation, the more religious its inhabitants. Here’s a figure showing the positive correlation between income inequality (measured using the Gini index) and various measures of religiosity, taken from Solt et al..  Each dot is one country (see the link above for further information). The work of Tomas Rees leads to the same conclusion.

Here the pathway of causation is clearer: as I wrote before:

[As Solt et al. note], “Increases in inequality in one year predict substantial gains in religiosity in the next,” while “past values of religiosity do not predict future values of inequality.” In other words, the correlation between religiosity and inequality is driven by the former responding to the latter, and not the other way around.  Unequal incomes lead to societies becoming more religious.

Finally, we know that religiosity is highly correlated among nations with acceptance of evolution: the less religious nations have higher acceptance of that theory. Here’s a graph I made of that correlation among 34 countries, with data taken from Miller and Scott (2006), the Eurobarometer surveys, and a few other places. Note again the bad position of the US: next to the bottom in accepting evolution (the most resistant nation is Turkey).

As for the causes of this, I think it’s more likely that the inherent religiosity of a nation affects its inhabitant’s acceptance of evolution rather than reverse theory: acceptance of evolution makes a country more atheistic.  I favor the former idea because people imbibe religion earlier in their lives than they learn evolution (if they learn it at all).  ]

While this suggests that the way to make evolution more acceptable is to weaken the grasp of religion on the world, doing that may require larger structural changes in society, for the work cited above suggests that religiosity is itself a byproduct of social dysfunction, which itself may result from a grossly unequal distribution of incomes (see also the work of Greg Paul that I’ve discussed several times).

But of course the acceptance of evolution is a matter far less pressing than issues like homicide, drug use, and child mortality.  If we can reduce much of that dysfunctionality—and religiosity—by creating a more just and equal society, I predict that the acceptance of evolution will increase as well. One could regard of acceptance of evolution itself as one sign of a healthy society. We can start by eliminating the tax loopholes that enable the very wealthy to pay far fewer taxes than they should (viz. Mitt Romney).

h/t: Matthew Cobb via Ed Yong

63 thoughts on “The dysfunctionality of America: income inequality, religion, and evolution

  1. One factor you didn’t mention, but I am sure you are aware of, is the different nature of religion in the US and parts of Europe.

    In Northern Europe, where many of the countries which score well on these comparisons, the predominant religious ethos is supportive of measures such as universal healthcare and a welfare safety net. That is not the case in the US, where the predominant religious ethos seems to be quite the opposite.

    1. Is that because in Northern Europe, the predominant religious ethos has changed to reflect the dominant secular ethos, as those with religious affiliation are no longer a majority? (Evenly split in the UK, according to the latest Social Attitudes Survey.)


      1. Well I am sure the prevailing ethos has changed, but religious groups played important roles in getting progressive polices put in place.

          1. I am going to speak of the UK since I am most familiar with that country.

            There has long be a movement within Anglicanism, Methodism and other Christian denominations to push what might be called a liberal agenda. Religious groups often provided healthcare to the poor, whilst pushing for the Government to fund such care. They also got involved in providing decent housing, again telling the Government that it was the role of the state to ensure everyone had somewhere decent to live. Again, they played an important role in demands to end child poverty. In fact the Church of England is playing that role today, calling on the current Government to amend plans to cap how benefit a family can receive each week.

            Sometimes they did this through specifically religious organisations, other times they joined forces with secular groups. The advances made in these areas are not solely down to these religious groups, but it would be both churlish and dishonest to deny the importance of the role they played.

            1. >Religious groups often provided healthcare to the poor, whilst pushing for the Government to fund such care. They also got involved in providing decent housing, again telling the Government that it was the role of the state to ensure everyone had somewhere decent to live. Again, they played an important role in demands to end child poverty. In fact the Church of England is playing that role today, calling on the current Government to amend plans to cap how benefit a family can receive each week.

              That is like the opposite of the USA.
              Here the churches like to say that government is useless or worse because the church community can provide.

          2. I could also have mentioned penal reform, abolition of the death penalty, abolition of slavery and other stuff.

        1. As I understand it, this wasn’t the case in Scandinavia.

          The progressive community spirit and the relatively strong position of females is, according to some of our museums, founded in the Viking culture. This enabled communities to launch long voyage projects. The boats had to be build and supplied by many, farms had to be tended and defended while the ablest were on viking.

          Apparently these cultural characteristics survived the catholic, and later protestantic, intrusions both.

          Btw, wouldn’t some of that secularism rub off on the British Isle communities as well? The Vikings colonized some of them, I note.

          1. Indeed. Yorkshire, where i come from, still shows the stamp of the Vikings in its place names and York – Jorvik – was the seat of Erik Blood-Axe.

            But the English are a pretty mongrel race with all the waves of invaders (and those invited in) over several millennia.

            The Normans probably had the greatest influence – but then they, too, were originally Vikings, just Frenchified!


        2. That is interesting, Matt. In South Africa it was a real mixed bag. The Anglican, Catholic and Methodist churches played a significant role in the struggle for democracy, many laying their lives on the line, while the Afrikaner Calvinist Churches gave tacit and ideological support to the Apartheid regime (with notable exceptions such as Beyers Naude). The evangelical churches planted by Americans also gave tacit support to the status quo.

          The progressive churches did more than back the struggle, but contributed ideologically and these contributions played a significant role in the peaceful quality of the change.

          As a philosophy and politics student during the last years of Apartheid I encountered Christian liberation theology and a doctrine called Jesus’ Third Way. The latter was the approach adopted by Ghandi who wasn’t fussy about it being a Christian doctrine, and it also played a pivotal role in the relatively peaceful overthrow of the Marcos regime in the Philippines.

          I guess the point is:
          1. Not to take a static view but to ask what the dynamics are behind the trends. One cannot deny the role of some religious teachings in some successes (eg, the Protestant Work Ethic in the success of Germany).
          2. To consider the role of the specific ideas / doctrines / theology at play.

          Like I’ve said here a few times before, a statistic can only point to the presence of a relationship, it cannot tell you what that relationship is.

      2. I suspect that the UK is a lot less religious than the Social Attitudes Survey indicates. Many people say they are C of E but see it as an organization that provides ceremonies for various of life’s passages and carol concerts at Christmas, but they don’t actually believe any of the doctrines. What has increased over the past 50 years is the number of people who are prepared to openly admit to believing crazy things like creationism. However it may well be that they have not become more numerous but merely more noisy.

  2. This graphic tells the entire story.


    Since those halcyon days of Duke, everyone has suffered — except the very top slice of the US population. Reagan began the tumble of working-class power by breaking PATCO, which made him a darling of the Right-wing.

    Now they want to end all New Deal programs: Bush II tried to end Social Security, and Paul Ryan tried to end Medicare. (And No Child Left Behind was intended to destroy teacher’s unions by destroying public schools. The ubiquitous joke on that was: “No Public School Left Standing.”)

    Reaganomics (or “trickle down”) has been conclusviely proved not to work. The money was given to the top 10% of the people in the US (note Romney’s 14% net tax rate on his $21M in 2010 — I’m sure his secretary is paying a higher percentage than that) AND, surprise, surprise: they kept it!

    1. I love one comment I heard from a Florida Republican, to the effect that,

      “I think it’s great Romney made all those millions. It shows he’s the best of the bunch and made it the old fashioned way, with hard work.”

      Now, I have no doubt that Romney works hard (he’s a Mormon after all.) But maybe, just maybe, he had more opportunities than the workers in his Daddy’s plants or in the inner city of Detroit because his father was a top Chrysler executive and a governor of a US state (Michigan)?

      It’s the typical GOP bullshit: He made it on his own. Yeah, right.

    2. To be ‘fair’ you could argue that the very rich, fearing the ‘threat’ of the unhappy poor (armed unhappy poor in some countries) choose to keep their money and invest it in gated communities, body guards, harsh justice systems etc.

      Of course you could also wonder which came first, the avarice of the rich or the pushback by the poor.

    3. Social Security and Medicare were late 1960s Democrat laws, not part of the New Deal (Democrat, but a generation earlier).

  3. Two unrelated comments. First, in the decade preceding my retirement the CEO’s annual bonus (in excess to salary) grew from $0.4 million to $21 million (total net worth over $200 million), while the average annual salary increase across the workforce was 3-4%, and no annual bonus. In many interviews the CEO explained that he had no control over how his compensation was calculated; the board of directors, aka God, did it.

    Second, the requirements for science and math have become so diluted in secondary education and college that it’s possible to graduate from high school having taken one general science course and algebra. Also, one can earn a BA in business/finance/marketing/government and an MBA having taken only two general science courses. What my daughter learned about the theory of evolution she learned from me and that is somewhat scary!

    Science and math are still considered “hard” by a lot of students who are let off the hook. It’s not surprising that evolution awareness is low. That won’t change until the standards in secondary education are raised and greater emphasis is placed on learning science and math.

    1. In my area, I just explain to students that a degree which requires only one term of calculus has an average salary of $12k more per year than degrees which do not. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but $1k extra per month is a fairly nice mortgage payment. And still students want to find degrees which do not require substantial thinking in a mathematical or scientific way.

      I suspect this has something to do with knowing on some level that they’re ill-prepared for it by the time they’ve started thinking about heading to college.

  4. My wife earned an accredited MBA from Winthrop University in South Carolina a few years ago, and she took only one class that even mentioned science: She was assigned to read “The Tao of Pooh.”
    I wrote her review of the book for her, since I was outraged. My paper was titled “The Tao of Cutesy-Pooh.”
    Her teacher had passed out papers copied from a science book showing the usual spectrum of radiation frequencies (You know, the one the labels television, infrared, visible light, etc.) and at the top, above microwaves, the professor had added “Spirit Waves?” My wife had to stop me from marching to the guy’s office to explain how full of shit he was.

    1. What the hell is a spirit wave? I know what spirit fingers are, and jazz hands, but a spirit wave? This I must research.

      Back from my ‘research’. Yes, I have shamelessly used the Google machine on this one. Top return is, which reads: Spiritual views of life can be quite varied from one person to the next. There is no right or wrong viewpoint, and it is a very personal and individual thing.

      That’s where I stopped reading.

      Then I found a useful blog on bellydancing, or so I thought. Its description is in English; its articles are not.

      Spirit waves. You must be joking.

  5. I always find it amusing, but sad, when right-wingers complain about social breakdown, while completely ignoring the fact that the problems which they rail against are often caused by precisely the economic policies that they favour.

  6. The homicide rate looks like a way-out-there outlier for the US, probably due to the aforementioned inequality and lack of social support, combined with an almost obsession with the god given right to own guns.

    Note that Singapore has higher inequality and a higher incarceration rate, but less homicides, probably due to effective gun regulation.

      1. Recreational drugs are illegal, as are so many other things, such as not flushing public toilets and dropping chewing gum on the footpath…? Dunno really, except that I have heard that “Singapore is a fine city. You can be fined for anything.”

  7. It would be instructive to plot a similar graph based on the political systems of countries and the prevailing political groupings.

    Is it any surprise that powerful right leaning groups wish to suppress moves to end inequality or erode religious belief, or is that cynical?! The infant mortality figures are telling, yet the USA is so big perhaps it should be broken down into comparable sized population groups to better compare with more compact and densely populated nations?

    1. Dominic,
      In “The Spirit Level” Wilkinson and Pickett do show US infant mortality by state. The data supports their thesis that infant mortality is worse in states with a more unequal wealth distribution

  8. From the outside the US looks like a one party state. The party has two factions and there are differences between which to some people can be quite significant, but in the wider picture they are pretty minimal. The economic system of the country for the last four decades seems to be based on socialism for the super-rich and rampant capitalism for everyone else. That is bound to cause an ever widening gulf between rich and poor.

  9. Association does not imply linear or immediate causality.
    Income inequality is the product of factors and conditions. Even if income inequality predicts social situations and attitudes in a statistical sense , we must be wary of simple correlations.
    Egalitarian values and robust social policies over many decades have remedied social inequality in Scandinavia and, to a lesser extent, post-war Germany.
    On the other hand, an authoritarian city-state like Singapore, leading on the income inequality scale, has the lowest infant mortality, and a homicide rate comparable to Western Europe. The high rate of carceral population in Singapore is mainly due to draconian law enforcement and repression, not to income inequality. The low trust score can be easily explained in a multi-ethnic, post-colonial, artificial state where traditional family and clan ties have been the guaranty of communal survival for generations. The score differences between Singapore and the US show clearly what social engineering and a clear common purpose can achieve, even if we need not agree with the muscular political system installed by Lee Kuan Yew.
    The point is, income inequality is a product, not an educt. It is a symptom of evils, before becoming a cause of other evils. Just bringing the fever down won’t cure the disease; painkillers won’t excise the tumour.

  10. “Now of course this doesn’t imply that income inequality is the cause of all the dysfunctionality, for there could be other variable [sic] that affect dysfunctionality and these other measures as well. Insecurity could be such a factor. Nevertheless, it’s a good working hypothesis that this kind of inequality breeds not only social unrest, which leads to crime, drug use, incarceration, and the like, but also bespeaks a lack of caring for the welfare of the poor, leading to things like high infant mortality.”

    First you admit you are looking at merely a correlation. Then, you assert that a hypothesis is justified as “good” that inequality of wealth “breeds” all these bad things. How is that not self-dissolving contradiction?

    In moving from hypothesis to fact (which I assume would be important, since an unproven hypothesis is meaningless outside of itself), how will you prove the the exact mechanism through which wealth inequality produces social unrest, which leads to crime, drug use, incarceration? And what justifies the assertion that inequality of income is a factual marker for “a lack of caring for the welfare of the poor?”

    On that last item, I point out that under the compulsory welfare system run by the state (the coldest form of “caring” ever invented), it is the hyper-wealthy that in fact pay for the poor.

    In reminding that the entirety of what you wrote is speculation, not fact, I offer a counter hypothesis: the root explanation for inequality of wealth/income in a free society is: some people create more value than others and thus “make more money.” The root explanation of why wealth inequality has ‘gone extreme” recently is: by abandoning free market capitalism and hard money in favor of socialized fiat money and cartel capitalism over the past century, the powerful fire wall and cleansing mechanisms of economics have been suppressed, and now people who are ‘devious clever manipulators’ rather than ‘value creators’ are thriving and vacuuming in the fake money.

    1. Your post is is just the standard ideological litany, without a shred of evidence.
      Please present evidence for just two points, if you can:
      1.”it is the hyper-wealthy that in fact pay for the poor”
      Who pays how much for whom, when/where, and for what?

      2. ”the root explanation for inequality of wealth/income in a free society is: some people create more value than others and thus “make more money.”
      Which people precisely, pray, create precisely how much more value, of what sort, and how does this value correspond to the money they make?

      Bonus point for explaining the role of the “free society” qualifier in #2.

      1. No, i will not explain. I stated it was a counter hypothosis, not a proof. The author of this piece is the person on trial for floating a speculation as if it had weight.

        However, trust that if my barb WERE on trial, I would support it fully.

        As for the “free society” phrase, it was deliberately dropped in to counter the author’s quiet poison of “by creating a more just and equal society” which is the motto of a collectivist out to eradicate freedom.

        1. “That which can be asserted without proof can also be dismissed without proof.”

          Slam-dunk HitchRaz!
          Case dismissed.

          1. Sorry you got all pumped up with your dunking, but it is a loud sucking sound. As I have already pointed out in my prior post, I was not trying to prove anything. I just floated my hypothesis. There was no case to dismiss. I’ll let you know when I am going to make the case and prove the hypothesis, THEN you can attempt to dunk over me.

            So calm down and why don’t you join me in calling for the author to do something more than assert a hypothesis.

            1. I presented my objections, qualifications, and caveats in the post immediately above yours.

              Even if not fully formal, the argument presented by Jerry Coyne is a true hypothesis, in the sense that it is substantiated by empirical evidence, has a clear scope and presents an explanatory framework. If you follow the links referenced, you will find alternative hypotheses. These, along with qualifications formulated by Jerry, provide a structure against which the hypothesis can be tested and validated or falsified.

              Your post, on the other hand, contains nothing but unwarranted and unsubstantiated assertions. These do not amount to a hypothesis.

              1. it is not substantiated (that word implies ‘given substance’ which it does not) by empirical evidence; it is accompanied by some graphs of data. Yes, it contains an explanatory framework, plausible under “many worlds” construction. So is mine.

                And my supposed “unwarranted assertions” are merely unsupported in place here, not unwarranted. Unwarranted is your ad hoc opinion.

                But this is a smoke screen; you are drilling (fruitlessly) for quibbles about “what is a hypothesis.” What’s more important here is that this essay shows no indication of intent to prove. The author just lets his premise hang out like a poison rumor.

  11. I do think that the acceptance of the truth of evolution makes one much less likely to believe in god. It was certainly true in my case. In fact, I think the one thing theists get right is that evolution is atheistic. Among all scientific discoveries, evolution is a greater threat to theism than the others combined, IMO. Dawkins, in one of his books, averred that he could understand why people would believe in divine creation before evolution was discovered and understood.

      1. It would be interesting to see a correlation between some more general index of scientific literacy (rather than acceptance of human evolution) and religiosity. I expect you’d get a similar negative pattern.

  12. here’s the problem, there is evidence that inequality is a systemic and random process and not due to any intentionality.

    apparently, and we can dig up the research, systems tend to clump at the tails, naturally…this makes sense.

    ther also appears to be little we can consciously do to re-mediate, independent of the problem of unintended consequences…

    according to some U of Chicago research also, the middle class is not suffering…

    on ce again we need to avoid ideology that tungs at our heart strings…

    1. here’s the problem, there is evidence that inequality is a systemic and random process and not due to any intentionality.

      The decision to ignore such inequality cannot be consider to lack intentionality, and no government can pretend it is unaware of the problems associated with inequality.

      It is quite possible for governments to introduce polices aimed at reducing inequality. We know this because there are governments that have done this to some extent or another, mainly in Western Europe.

    2. But the point is that the inequality in the US is much greater than elsewhere, and it has negative effects. These can be avoided, as is the case in other countries, and the people are safer and happier. But that will never happen in the US of A where the idea is that government is inherently evil, the less the better etc.

    3. I see inequality as being entirely due to intentions – it is by no means a random thing. For example, it it random that a CEO asks for a $20B (Yes, B) bonus over 10 years while paying everyone else as little as he possibly can and charging customers as much as he can?

  13. I think there is a link between religiosity and a strong belief in free will or personal responsibility; basically, the belief that whatever happens to people is mostly under their own control. This makes it possible to justify inequality because of the belief that people could have had different lives if they had just tried harder. I think that is one reason why there is a correlation between religiosity and inequality.

  14. In Fig.1 I’d like to point out that the correlation in all cases is poor. I certainly wouldn’t want to design a medical diagnostic tool based on such poor correlations. The plots preceding fig.1 are a type which I would discard with little thought – graphs with an arbitrary unlabeled axis are not to be trusted because you can adjust the scale to get anything from a seemingly flat line to a steep line – a favorite trick of the TV stocks reader. The last plot also has very poor correlation. What I would like to see are the predictive success rates of an inverse Bayes analysis – would the rates be significantly better than chance?

  15. I have a lot of trouble with this:

    – I have to agree with those who complain that the graphs presented are weak. And the stats non-existent and the reference site is not supportive to briefly grasp the strength of their claims.

    – The Paul et al theory of religiosity is founded on social insecurity, not exclusively economical inequality. Occam mentions exceptions.

    But if that is so, I think it is beneficial! We may never have a practical society which is largely economical equal, the societies that tried, nominally, failed miserably. (Say, communism.) But we seem to be able to build societies which lend social security to the majority, see Scandinavia for one example.

    1. Good point.
      It is noteworthy that the one German statesman who did most to institute Social Security and healthcare was a Conservative, and in many ways a reactionary: Bismarck.

      As an intelligent Conservative, Bismarck became aware that social inequality would become intolerable—and disruptive!—unless compensated by adequate social security: the “safety net”, as Churchill later called it, beneath which none should be allowed to fall. German capitalism has fared all the better for it.

      1. Bismark’s collectivist moves led to the ability of Hitler to be adored. The German public was primed with the notion of the state (later: Hitler) taking care of them. They gladly exchanged their individualism for duty to the authority in order to get the goodies.

        1. Clearly, your knowledge and understanding of German history leaves even more room for improvement than your comprehension of hypothesis building.

          1. oh I understand the chain of causality, all right. Nothing inspires pathological adherence to blind duty, which Hitler required and inflamed, better than the compulsory enfolding of personal responsibility into the coercive mechanism of the state.

            Bismark (and the German Romantic Philosophers) set Hitler up.

            1. I don’t know, religion does a pretty good job too. State provision can be a utility rather than a mechanism of control. Unless you consider roads and the fire department a system of control? Healthcare, water, heating gas, telecommunications and so on can be provided in the same way, which in reality is only detrimental to those who would be parasitic upon the provision of essential resources.

  16. It is striking how the USA as a fairly developed country have managed to stay religious while religions have lost much of its power over people in other western societies. As you point out, income inequality might be one reason for that.

    Unfortunately though, Europe and much of the middle east are facing a rise of Islam. Examples like Lybia and Egypt show how the ousting of dictators have opened doors for theocrats. Paradoxically, they were democratically elected, at least in Egypt’s case.

    Europe is still fast asleep and does not recognize the threat emanating from the influx of Islam through immigration. While secular European societies are still concerned about infringing on somebody’s right of religious freedom or free speech, religious immigrants seek to perpetuate religious practices with a mindset straight from the middle ages.

    This is not to blame Islam alone, Christianity can be equally destructive.

  17. “We can start by eliminating the tax loopholes that enable the very wealthy to pay far fewer taxes than they should”

    And also stopping to break the first amendment by funding churches via taxes (or rather their tax-exemption status, which comes out the same).

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