New Study: The Relationship between Religion and Redistribution

New Study: The Relationship between Religion and Redistribution May 8, 2019

There is undoubtedly a complex relationship between religion and the idea of redistribution, compounded by the effect of conservative political values, as according to a new study.

The study, published in PLOS One, indicates that conservative political views have the power to overcome some of the effects of religion, particularly in countries that have more robust welfare systems.

The abstract reads:

Current literature presents conflicting findings concerning the effect of religiosity on attitudes towards redistribution. This paper attempts to reconcile these findings by arguing that the belief and social behavior dimensions of religiosity affect support for redistribution via different mechanisms, and that these effects are moderated by state welfare generosity. Using multilevel path analysis models on data from the World Values Survey, we show that the effect of the religious belief on attitudes towards redistribution is mediated by competing personal orientations—prosocial values and conservative identification—while the religious social behavior dimension significantly decreases support for redistribution via increased levels of happiness. Lower levels of welfare generosity increase the positive effect of prosocial orientations and weaken the negative effect conservative identification, leading to positive or null indirect effect of religiosity. These findings show the importance of taking into account the multiple dimensions of religiosity and institutional context when studying the relationship between religion and redistribution attitudes.

The data takes into account a broader field of countries than other similar studies have previously done. The core conclusions are as follows:

Income redistribution and the role of tax-benefit systems in Latin America by UNU-WIDER

In fact, our results and conclusions are in line with the recent findings that show that aggregating the different elements, may be misleading on both theoretical and methodological grounds [23117118]. We find that the positive effect of religious belief via prosocial orientations is generally weaker compared to its negative effect via conservative orientations. Thus, considerations concerning hard work, and individualism, or government skepticism generally override the effect of religiously based prosocial orientations. However, we also show that prosocial considerations may exert greater influence on attitudes towards redistribution particularly when states provide less generous welfare benefits. While we do not present a direct test of the mechanism underlying this effect, we suggest that religiously-motivated welfare provision becomes more influential in when states provide less generous welfare benefits, and reinforces the relationship between religious beliefs and prosocial orientations. This finding suggests that the role of religious belief in supporting redistributive polices may actually be positive in contexts outside the most often studied Western cases that have high levels of welfare generosity.

In other words, in countries that have poor welfare systems (often outside of the developed world), the effect of prosocial religiosity is higher on views towards redistribution. The more generous and robust the welfare system is, the less the effect of religiosity has upon views of redistribution:

Thus, we may expect more resistance to religiously-based discourses on helping and benevolence in contexts where welfare generosity is high, as in the case of the conservative backlash against Pope Francis’s support for efforts to solve problems of inequality and poverty [119].

The paper suggests that in times of economic hardship the effect of prosocial religious messages maybe more keenly felt and effective.

The part of the paper gives me the greatest cause for concern is as follows:

According to terror management theory [46], people cope with the awareness of their mortality by investing in cultures, such as religious communities, that offer symbolic immortality [4748]. That is, religious social behavior offers psychological security and well-being by affirming one’s membership of a group that outlives its members, thereby reducing anxiety and increasing happiness [4748]. Religious social behavior has a robust effect on positive emotions like happiness [44951] and reduces the negative effects of income shocks or unemployment on the happiness and life satisfaction of members of religious organizations [45]. For religious individuals, their greater levels of happiness due to the psychological insurance afforded by their participation in a religious community makes them assess economic conditions more favorably [43]. In fact, well-being and happiness is associated with more favorable impressions and judgements [5256] including political and economic evaluations. Happier individuals report greater confidence in government institutions [5758] and tend to evaluate the state of the economy more positively [59]. Perceptions of well-being in turn influence individuals’ responses to economic incentives and their attitudes towards the market economy with happier individuals being more likely to support market economy [59]. Individuals who are satisfied with their economic condition are generally less supportive of government redistribution [60] while those who feel that they are economically vulnerable are more supportive [61]. Happiness is also positively associated with perceived social mobility which reduces support for redistribution and increases support for market economy [6263]. This is because those who overestimate the level of social mobility in their society assume that they may become the rich of tomorrow and they do not want to be the ones who will have to support redistributive schemes [62]. Thus, we expect higher levels of happiness to erode support for redistributive policies [1660].

The paper doesn’t seem to give explicit hat tip to the complexity of the relationship between happiness and religiosity. This is something given a great amount of analysis in the superb book The Nonreligious [UK here]. Quite often, it is a case of a correlation between religiosity and happiness and not a causal link. As you might be able to infer from the above paragraph, the sense of (religious) community is one of the causal variables involved in a sense of happiness, as is security and suchlike. Religious communities can offer these, but it is not the religious content from which the happiness is derived.

I think this will have to be a topic for a future post because the claim that religion causes greater happiness is really common amongst theists.


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