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Religion and Inequality Go Hand-in-Hand

Why some countries are more religious than others—and why, assumptions to the contrary, the U.S. is not unusually religious.
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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. 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.

One possible explanation for this pattern is that the wealthy are more attracted to religion in unequal societies because religions can justify their elevated positions. Where there is inequality, the poor are poorer and the wealthy are wealthier. With more poverty, is there a greater need for religion? The evidence for this is thin. In unequal societies, the rich are also religious. By some measures, the wealthy grow more religious and the poor become less religious where there is higher inequality. And with wealthy investors, religion is able to grow among the poor, preaching a message that helps keep the wealthy and the poor in their place.

We can see this trend among the wealthy in America. David Campbell (Notre Dame) and Robert Putnam (Harvard) report in their book American Grace that religion is far from dying among those with education and wealth. Income is unrelated to church attendance. College graduates in the U.S. are more likely to attend church than those with just a high school diploma. Moreover, over the past thirty years—decades during which inequality has risen—church attendance among those without college educations has dropped while attendance among college graduates has remained steady.

These findings do not paint the most flattering portrait of religion. Tom Reese of the blog epiphenom said our research "is the first really solid, empirical evidence that the rich use religion as a tool to keep the poor in their place." That is one interpretation, though we would caution that the wealthy are unlikely to be cognizant of this relationship. Rather, religions that thrive in unequal societies are likely ones that appeal to the wealthy—religions in unequal societies are more likely to seek out the rich young ruler, not the widow with only a few copper coins.


Related Elsewhere:

Grant's research first appeared in Social Science Quarterly.

Tobin Grant writes for the politics blog and covers survey and other current research for Christianity Today. His recent articles include:

Evangelicals Hold Pessimistic Views of the Economy | A recent poll suggests the dire outlook may be attributed to more than just religious views. (Sept. 12, 2011)
Famine in East Africa: Who Cares? | Several Christian NGOs are on the move, provided they can get the appropriate funds. (Aug. 19, 2011)
Your Insurance May Already Cover 'Abortion-Inducing Drugs' | Plans must provide contraception with no copayment nationally. (Aug. 12, 2011)

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