The Connection Between a Country’s Wealth and Its Religiosity

Are religious countries more likely to be poor? Are richer countries less likely to be religious?

We may not be able to tell cause-and-effect here, but there does appear to be a remarkable correlation between the two, according to researcher Gregory Paul

“The correlation between religiosity and successful societies is somewhere around 0.7. Zero is no correlation and one is a perfect correlation, so it’s a really good correlation, and it’s not just an accident,” he told CBC News.

“There’s no situation where you have a really highly religious nation that’s highly successful socially.”

Paul’s intention in creating the scale was to challenge the idea that religion is universal and innate to the human condition, and to show that societies that don’t believe in God are not doomed, as some religious conservatives would have people believe.

If you want to accept this hypothesis, it’s easy for atheists to gloat: We’re richer, and therefore more educated, and therefore less religious. And there’s something to that. The countries with the highest religiosity are not exactly known for their high standards of education — where religion reigns supreme, access to information is hard to come by.

Though, to be fair, the United States is one of the wealthier countries that also has relatively high religiosity (60% have no doubt God exists), making it an outlier among the other data points:

Sociologist Phil Zuckerman also rains on the parade, but with good reason:

… it’s more than just an accumulation of wealth that makes a country more secular, sociologists say.

“The United States is one of the wealthier societies, and yet, it’s still quite religious,” said Phil Zuckerman, a sociology professor at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., who has studied secularization in Scandinavian countries and wrote a book about it called Society Without God.

“I think it’s when you have what we might call ‘existential security’ — so, wealth and prosperity are part of that, but by that we [also] mean the bulk of people in society have access to housing, health care, jobs. They live in a relatively stable, democratic society without much in the way of existential threats to their lives or their culture.”

So while the correlation is there, it wouldn’t be right to suggest wealth leads to secularism or religion leads to poverty. There are a lot of factors at play here and we’re only looking at two of them in isolation.

(Thanks to Kirby for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/matt.potter.73 Matt Potter

    Although this study doesn’t tell the entire story it is still a great example that less religious countries are advancing. I love to point out to believers that some of the least religious countries are some of the highest educated, have low incarceration rates, low violent crime, low std rates, lower abortion rates, citizens with better health, and survey results have them being some of the happiest populations. Basically all of the cherry picked ‘good’ Christian qualities without all the Christians.

  • http://www.facebook.com/matt.potter.73 Matt Potter

    Although this study doesn’t tell the entire story it is still a great example that less religious countries are advancing. I love to point out to believers that some of the least religious countries are some of the highest educated, have low incarceration rates, low violent crime, low std rates, lower abortion rates, citizens with better health, and survey results have them being some of the happiest populations. Basically all of the cherry picked ‘good’ Christian qualities without all the Christians.

    • baal

      These demographic facts are also true down on the per city level.

  • Xuuths

    Better to see what the data says if you don’t count the top and bottom 1% of the country.

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      Alternately, re-plot the US state-by-state, and see religiosity and wealth again line up.

  • http://twitter.com/Ro542124 Gideon

    I’m curious if there’s a similar correlation but based on the rate of wealth inequality rather than per capita income?

    • baal

      Given the recent wealth inequality graphs and vids that show <1% of the country with 60% of the weath (made up numbers its roughly the right scale), I wonder if the per capita value shouldn't be discounted to the median wage instead.

  • C Peterson

    Though, to be fair, the United States is one of the wealthier countries that also has relatively high religiosity (60% have no doubt God exists), making it an outlier among the other data points…

    However, to use another metric mentioned in the article, the U.S. is arguably not a very successful society socially. Furthermore, it is nowhere near as culturally and economically monolithic as most other developed nations. I think you could do this same study, looking only at the states, and see exactly the same pattern, with the wealthiest states being the least religious. While it is true that the U.S. is probably more religious than most other wealthy nations, it’s also true that the apparent religiosity is skewed by the extreme religiosity of just the Bible Belt.

  • Stev84

    It’s poverty that leads to religion. Poor people are far more easily coerced into praying for a better life or performing rituals in hope of improving things. This is also why religious charities have absolutely no interest in actually improving people’s living situation. Their best goal is always to stop people from dying and keeping them about where they are.

    • 3lemenope

      This is also why religious charities have absolutely no interest in actually improving people’s living situation. Their best goal is always to stop people from dying and keeping them about where they are.

      That’s quite a charge.

    • Blacksheep

      I’ve belonged to several large churches in and around NYC with membership in the hundreds and sometimes thousands… the average income was well above the median, yet I was surrounded by faithful people. Making the statement that it’s “poverty that leads to religion” is utterly false. A more accurate statement would include the word “sometimes.”

    • Blacksheep

      You are also WAY off in your allegations about religious charities. You may be living in a head-in-the sand atheist mindset that allows you to forget that most people – Christians and atheists alike – do good and want to do good more often than not. No Christian contemplates a “goal” of keeping people impoverished.

  • Pepe

    Though I’m guessing that Arab nations (at least most of them) would show up high in both per capita income and religiosity. Damn you, oil!

    • Ihatelies

      Hi i’m Arab Jordanian from Muslim family. Most Arab nations are poor except for those with oil. Living in Saudi and teacher and totally agree with richer less religious but they connect it to arrogance of humans towards Gods generosity. Another reason is that richer travel and are subject to new ideas and opinion.
      I would like to also indicate that being an Atheist and leaving the Islamic religion is punishable by death!

      Most of my relatives are poor and get more religious as they get older this is in Jordan where also Atheism is punishable by death.

      • kaydenpat

        I can’t imagine living in a country where what you believe can lead to your death.

        • ihatelies

          Don’t have an option.

          • ihatelies

            Keep it as a secret and live a lie is how you can live.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Pink_Unicorn Anna

    The countries with the highest religiosity are not exactly known for their high standards of education — where religion reigns supreme, access to information is hard to come by.

    This is precisely why I think missionaries are so deplorable. They have a history of targeting people in the developing world, people who are often uneducated, illiterate, and who have absolutely no way of fact-checking what they are being told.

    • http://twitter.com/ylaenna M. Elaine

      Not all missionaries have such deplorable motives. Many of them truly believe they are bringing salvation to the needy. Many have good intentions, despite their religiosity.

      • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Pink_Unicorn Anna

        Oh, I don’t doubt that they have good intentions. I know they think they’re doing the right thing. It’s just that their actions are so predatory and opportunistic. Evangelicals go into developing countries with the goal of wiping out those people’s native religions, and they’re not about to provide prospective converts with objective information or let them know about dissenting opinions.

        • http://hauntedtimber.wordpress.com/ timberwraith

          It’s just that their actions are so predatory and opportunistic.

          Religion aside, on a more general, geopolitical level, I believe you can say that about most rich nations vs. most poor nations. Consider how poorer nations have been violently exploited as a source of slaves, underpaid labor, natural resources, inexpensive agricultural products, etc. There’s a well established pattern of rich, powerful nations treating the less powerful like dirt in their greed. Missionaries would be a part of that pattern, but hardly the only example of exploitation.

          Knowing this, I refrain from looking at rich nations and declaring their relative lack of religion to be such a great achievement. There is a long history of those riches being built upon the blood, sweat, and tears of people who have the misfortune of living in less powerful, poorer nations.

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Pink_Unicorn Anna

            Well, of course missionaries are not the only example of exploitation. But I don’t think that’s any reason to go easy on them. They’re certainly a prominent example. Think of how many Americans raise money for and go on missionary trips to the developing world, and consider how many Americans think that’s a good thing. No one points out the power imbalance between the two groups. They think by building schools or donating money they’re doing good, but many don’t stop to consider (or else agree with) the ultimate goal of these groups, which is to eradicate the native religions by presenting biased information to an uneducated populace.

            • http://hauntedtimber.wordpress.com/ timberwraith

              I’m not suggesting going easy on anyone… including we non-believers. I’ve seen a kind of self-congratulatory “yay secular people in secular nations” attitude arise in many places on the internet. The history of economic exploitation that lead to the wealth and social stability that we take for granted is now being implied to be a consequence of secularism while staring down our noses at less fortunate, heavily exploited religious nations.

              • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Pink_Unicorn Anna

                I don’t think anyone is suggesting that wealth and social stability are the result of secularism. Rather, it’s the other way around. Education and economic security are the key to more secular societies. Have you read Zuckerman’s Society Without God? He does a good job of pointing out how and why Scandinavia has become so secular.

                I’m completely in agreement with you about rich countries exploiting poor ones. Missionaries are just but one example of this mentality. Not the only example, by any means, but an example which most of mainstream America does not acknowledge as either predatory or problematic.

                • http://hauntedtimber.wordpress.com/ timberwraith

                  Rather, it’s the other way around.

                  On this, we will have to disagree.

                • http://hauntedtimber.wordpress.com/ timberwraith

                  I don’t think anyone is suggesting that wealth and social stability are the result of secularism. Rather, it’s the other way around. Education and economic security are the key to more secular societies.

                  *smacks forehead* I agree with this, actually.

                  Sorry, I read your reply yesterday while half asleep or something, and misunderstood it. I tried to edit it using Disqus and it didn’t quite work. Please disregard the “guest” post—that was my old, botched reply.

                  Now, off in search of caffeine so this embarrassment won’t happen again…

      • Chris B

        As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

  • DF

    It’s almost like nobody ever thought there was a connection between wealth and loss of faith. Oh yeah…

  • http://twitter.com/hansgustafson Hans Gustafson

    I once met a Danish sociologist at a conference in Prague. He reported that Denmark, by the numbers, is the most secular country in the world but is also the most spiritual (perhaps referring to the “spiritual not religious” folks).

    Further, he reported that even though only 6% of the population reports regular church attendance, 96% believe it is important to have and fund an official Church of Denmark supported by the state. Reasons for this, he speculated, are because most Danes find value in holding weddings and funerals and the like at the Church.

    Disclaimer: These are the numbers I recall, by memory, the Dane citing in his study. I am sure I have not remembered them with perfect accuracy. Also, this was a few years ago so perhaps the statistics have changed.

  • Robster

    Poverty is the church’s greatest friend. People with a real need will seek that help wherever they can. If there’s a cleric of some sort prattling on about a benevolent god/jesus/allah/friendly ghost or whatever that offers a whole lot of apparently good stuff and there’s not much good stuff in the lives of those afflicted by poverty, you’ve got a sale. Reducing poverty would reduce the “need” for religious traditions so it really isn’t in the interest of the churches to alleviate the problem and do themselves out of potential victims of their fraudulent nonsense.

  • eonL5

    One might argue that the US is an out-liar only because the uber-wealthy make our per-capita income appear fairly high. Anybody seen that video about U.S. wealth distribution?

  • Major Nav

    What about theocracy/communism/dictatorship (aka forced group thought) vs secular government?

  • Gus Snarp

    I have no doubt there’s a distinct relationship, for many reasons, but what I find interesting here is the remarkable clustering of the most religious nations that are also the most poor. While the U.S. can be seen as an outlier, and it probably is under these metrics, it also seems that the relationship becomes weaker the less religious the nation is, and strong the more religious it is. So we see huge variation among less religious nations, and that includes the U.S., really, and in the really highly religious nations, there’s very little variation at all. There also seems to be a cutoff around 60-80% religiosity, above which variation disappears, and below which it begins to increase.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X