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Among developed nations, America stands out as an exceptionally religious country. While other wealthy nations grow ever more secular, the U.S. remains devoted to religion. New research on religion, however, finds that the U.S. may not be so exceptional after all. There is growing evidence linking religiosity to income inequality—countries where there are more haves than have-nots tend to be more religious than more egalitarian societies. The U.S., for all its wealth, is also a land of vast economic inequality. America's wealth exceeds that of European countries, but this wealth is spread out as unequally as it is in Uganda or Jamaica. And it is this high level of inequality that may help explain the so-called exceptional level of religiosity.

At least since Voltaire, scholars have predicted that religion would eventually be extinguished. It was seen as being ill-fitted for an enlightened, modern, rational world. Early sociologists saw society moving through an inevitable process of secularization. Eventually, went the theories, society would rid itself of the remnant of primitive superstition. Such theorists are still waiting for their Godot. Despite incredible rises in education, science, medicine, and overall quality of life during the 20th century, religion remains a common part of life around the globe.

In light of this continued vitality, a new take on secularization has emerged. Pippa Norris (Harvard) and Ronald Inglehart (Michigan) wrote in their book Sacred and Secular that people are more likely to be religious when their lives are at risk. Nations with harsher poverty are more likely to be religious; wealthier nations tend to be more secular.

Of course, material insecurity is not the only reason for religion. ...

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September 2011

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