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. There are some societies that clearly buck this pattern. On one side are impoverished countries that have low levels of religiosity. China and Vietnam are the primary examples. Through force, these countries have been able to clamp down on religion (though not completely extinguish it). In the other direction, the major exception to the rule is the United States. Based on wealth, education, and other measures of development, the U.S. should be far less religious than it is. Indeed, America should be one of the least religious nations on earth.
But it isn't. Far from it. Religion continues as a prominent part of American life.
The reason may be due to inequality. The U.S. economy is distributed much more unequally than other Western economies. By the most common measures of inequality, the U.S. is ranked as the 39th most unequal economy (out of 136 countries). The U.S. is ranked near Uganda, Jamaica, Cameroon, and Cote d'Ivoire. Turkmenistan, Mali, and Cambodia have greater income inequality than the United States. Canada is ranked 101st; the entire European Union is ranked 111th. Sweden is considered the most equal nation.
Within the U.S., we can see the same pattern. States with high inequality, (e.g., states in the Mississippi Delta region) are also some of the most religious. States with more economic equality (e.g., states in New England and the Mountain West) are some of the least religious.
My own research with colleagues Fred Solt and Phil Habel (also from Southern Illinois University) shows that the U.S. is typical of countries with such high inequality. The U.S. is not unusually religious—it is typical for a country with such high inequality. We examine a dozen measures of religiosity, including prayer, church attendance, belief in God, and the self-identification of "religious people." In each case, inequality leads to greater religiosity.