Monday, April 20, 2009

National Wealth and Religiosity

One of my friends wrote a paper in Divinity School positing a correlation between religious conservatism and economic conditions in Appalachia: the poorer the area, the more conservative the theology. After reading his paper, I became interested in how religiosity and religious world views are influenced by socio-economic contexts. For example, we have all heard, erroneously, that the recent downturn in the economy has increased church attendance (1, 2, 3); it's not true (1, 2, 3, 4).

I stumbled upon a recent Gallup poll correlating the average national income with the importance of religion in a person's life:
A tour of the world's most religious countries wouldn't be all mountaintop shrines and magnificent temples -- it would also take you to some pretty bleak places. Gallup Polls in 143 countries reveal that among countries where average annual incomes are $2,000 or less, 92% of residents say religion is an important part of their daily lives. By contrast, among the richest countries surveyed -- those where average annual incomes are $25,000 or more -- that figure drops to 44%.
Gallup offers several theories. An older theory positing a relationship between secularism and modernity has become come under fire recently for its incompleteness. Newer theories show that religion provides a sense of hope for those who have greater exposure to social vulnerability, and that religion provides an emotional lift to those in most need, especially through religious communities and social networks. As such, in countries where there is the highest religiosity, there is the highest rates of life satisfaction. With these theories in mind, Gallup concludes:
Gallup Poll results support the idea that the social and psychological benefits of religion are strongest in the world's poorest countries. However, these effects vary from country to country, and as history has shown, religion is often associated with devastating conflict as well. One implication seems to be this: Strategies for development in the world's poorest countries should seek to leverage the positive power of religion by promoting conditions, such as interfaith harmony and low state interference, under which its benefits are most likely to come shining through.
I feel that, while these theories seem correct, we are missing more explanation from the other direction. I wonder if it could be said that a richer person credits their economic success to him/herself, while a poorer person credits his/her success to God. Transversing up the socio-economic ladder, belief in personal and individual success starts trumping the belief that success is derived from God. Just a thought.


Matt F. said...

I will start off by saying that I do not think that people who are religious are ignorant or uneducated. However, it would seem to me that level of education would have the most impact on religiosity. The more people are exposed to science, secular philosophy, world religion, and anything else that could potentially supplant the religious ideas of their parents or their society the higher percentage of these people are, rightly or wrongly, going to question their beliefs. So in poorer areas, where access to higher education and outside ideas is limited, the religious traditions of parents and local culture or society would be more likely to hold sway. This probably doesn't explain totally the results of the study, but I would wager that it is at least partly responsible.

Drew said...

Exactly right, Matt. From the poll:

Sociologists going back to the 19th century have theorized that societies naturally grow more secular as they modernize -- that is, as people begin to grow better off in terms of education and living standards, the importance they attach to religion begins to recede.

But these secularization theories have come under fire more recently for their inability to tell the whole story.

Vince said...

Wow, Drew, that sounds like a really interesting paper that your friend wrote. I wonder who the Dem Bones faithful might be able to credit for your inspiration, or where they might be able to procure a copy of said essay for themselves? . . .

Vince said...

Seriously, though, your musing about who gets the credit for worldly success is really interesting. I don't remember if I said anything about it in the paper or not, but I found a study on that exact thing when I was doing research....and, based on some statistics from mid-1900s rural Appalachia, your suggestion seems to be exactly the case.

I think it's very interesting that people of low socio-economic status are (in this study, anyway) more likely BOTH to attribute their [low] socio-economic status to God AND to praise, worship, and thank God. thoughts?

Drew said...

And, yes, Vince was said friend who wrote the awesome paper.

Drew said...

I am not sure that they are attributing their success, or lack thereof, to God, but that God is there, omnipotently, and therefore, in charge of everything. "We should worship and glorify that." But, as you accrue more success, I am willing to bet, that there is a theological tipping point, in which, you start, ego-centristically, crediting success to yourself. "Nah, that God stuff is bull. I did this without the help of God. This success is my reward for my hard work. Not God's reward unto me."

That's kinda how I see it. But as this study points out, there are many factors at play. I just wanted to posit a potential psycho-theological one. What do you think?