The most religious countries of the world are desperately poor suggesting that religion serves as a balm for the miseries of life (1). In wealthy developed countries, the quality of life is better and religion declines. Yet there are exceptions.
Some poor countries are not very religions and some wealthy countries are not very secular. Such exceptions are highlighted by those who reject the argument that religion functions as a security blanket relative to the problems of life in poor countries.
Poor countries that are not very religious The poster country here is Vietnam. This is a very poor country but it is also highly secular. Only 30 percent of the population perceive religion as being important in their daily lives (2). This is exactly the same level of religiosity as France – a very affluent country.
Vietnam’s incongruously low level of religion for a poor country is easily explained. There is a history of Communist suppression of church organizations, clergy, and religious rituals and teaching. Most other poor countries that are predominantly secular have a Communist history. Examples include Albania and Kazakhstan.
Wealthy countries that are not very secular The poster country here is the U.S. where two thirds of the population (65 percent) claim that religion is important in their daily lives. In absolute terms, the U.S. is by far the richest country in the world although some smaller countries generate higher gross domestic product (GDP) per person.
If wealth destroys religion, how could the U.S. remain so religious? There are two issues here – the religiosity question and the wealth issue.
As far as religion is concerned, there are many complex social and political reasons why Americans exaggerate their devotion to religion. By some measures, the U.S. is well advanced on the road to secularism.
In truly religious countries, virtually everyone attends church regularly so that the buildings are packed to capacity. In the U.S., church attendances comprise a small fraction of the population. Most Americans do not attend church regularly. Although some 40 percent of Americans, claim to be regular church attendees, head counts of congregations suggest that only about one person in five does so (1). So the country is well advanced towards secularism.
As far as wealth is concerned, a lot of money is concentrated in the hands of a wealthy elite. At the same time, a sizable chunk of the population is desperately poor (about one person in six). Such unequal distribution of wealth creates a pervasive sense of insecurity that affects everyone in the country – rich as well as poor. Inequality contributes to violent crime, and numerous social and health problems (3). In short, it favors the kind of insecurity that encourages religion.
So the supposed contradiction of America as a very wealthy country with a supposedly high level of religion is quite easily resolved. Despite great wealth, the quality of life of the general population is not good enough to destroy religion. Yet, it is good enough to have permitted considerable movement towards secularism.
Saudi Arabia is another instance of a wealthy country that remains highly religious. Saudi Arabia is not nearly as wealthy as the U.S. despite its huge oil reserves. It is also much more religious with 93 percent of the population reporting that religion is important to them compared to 65 percent of Americans (2).
Like the U.S., Saudi Arabia suffers from a highly unequal distribution of wealth. There are a lot of poor people and the country has high levels of domestic violence affecting women and children.
So despite its moderate wealth, Saudi Arabia remains highly religious. Even if the country became much wealthier, it is possible that Saudis would continue to report high levels of religiosity.
As for many other Moslem countries, religion is not free. Indeed, the loss of religion, or apostasy, is a capital offense under sharia law that is theoretically punishable by death. Religious habits also have a certain inertia that can take generations to change particularly if religion is a source of political identity...
So conservative Moslem countries pose the same sort of challenge to researchers as Communist countries do. If the state either represses religion, as Communist regimes do, or enforces it, after the manner of Saudi Arabia, then it is difficult to take what survey respondents say at face value. Yet religious unanimity is weakening in Saudi Arabia just as it does in other developing nations.
So religion does decline as countries develop. Apparent inconsistencies to this pattern are easily resolved.
Wealth matters only if it affects the standard of living of ordinary citizens. Wherever there is a significant increase in the standard of living of the general population religion declines. That pattern remains strong and unmistakable.
1. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B00886ZSJ6/
2. Gallup (2010). Religiosity highest in world’s poorest nations. Accessed at: http://www.gallup.com in July 2011.
3. Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2010). The spirit level: Why greater equality makes societies stronger. New York: Bloomsbury Press.