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Did Religion Evolve to Benefit the Weak or the Powerful?

The paradox of who benefits most from religion

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

What causes people to become more religious, and who does religion benefit? Does it benefit the disadvantaged, by providing them with a source of hope and empowerment? Or is it a tool that the powerful use to oppress and subdue the weak—as Marx declared, the “opiate of the masses?”

You may think you already know the answer to these questions. But here are three observations that may cause you to reconsider what you think you know.

Observation 1: People become more religious under adverse circumstances. There is a vast literature to suggest that people use religious belief to cope and remain hopeful when they’re experiencing virtually any kind of traumatic or stressful experience, including illness, divorce, natural disaster, bereavement, abuse, and social exclusion [1-3].

Observation 2: Societies become more religious as they become more unequal. Social theorists have long speculated that there is a positive correlation between socioeconomic inequality and religiosity, and the first strong empirical evidence for this relationship was published in 2011 by Solt, Habel and Grant [4]. Their longitudinal analysis showed that from 1981-2007, across 76 different societies, increases in religiosity in one year tended to be preceded by increases in inequality the previous year. They found the same pattern when they looked at just one society for a longer period (the USA from 1955-2005).

Observation 3: As a society becomes more unequal, all of its members tend to become more religious, but perhaps especially those at the top. Observation 1 above implies that as a society becomes less equal, its poorer members will become more religious, and this will raise its aggregate level of religiosity. However, this is not the pattern that Solt and colleagues discovered, in the study cited above, when they analyzed their data by income level. They instead found that religiosity increases with inequality at all socioeconomic levels, with the largest effects observed at the highest income levels. Solt and colleagues don’t, in my opinion, present a clearly conclusive statistical case that the religiosity-inequality relationship is in fact significantly higher among the wealthy. However they do present some evidence in this regard, and do seem to have convinced themselves (and the reviewers who approved their study for publication); they conclude that “higher levels of economic inequality appear to make religion more attractive to the rich and to increase their ability to disseminate religion among the other members of their societies." In any event, Solt and colleagues certainly find no support for the prediction, based on Observation 1, that the religiosity-inequality relationship will be caused only by increased religiosity among the poor.

The paradox of who benefits most from religion

So what we have here is a paradox: although we have hundreds of studies to suggest that religiosity increases in individuals who experience adversity and stress, this relationship simply doesn’t show up when analyzing the effects of inequality on religiosity. What we find instead is that inequality increases religiosity at all socioeconomic levels, and perhaps even more among the rich than the poor.

What’s going on here? There are several possible explanations, but the most promising one may be that although the rich and poor both become more religious as inequality increases, they do so in different ways. Perhaps among the poor, increased religiosity is borne more of desperation—a search for hope and optimism in the face of increasing relative deprivation—whereas among the rich, it’s more an effort to maintain the status quo by declaring it to be consistent with some divine unseen order. If so, it may be possible to measure differences in the religious sentiments expressed by the rich and poor respectively: those of the poor may place more emphasis on faith, hope, and perseverance, whereas those of the rich may place more emphasis on conforming to religious tradition and not rocking the theological boat.

Future studies may be able to measure such variables, and thus test the hypothesis that religiosity has different functions, and is experienced differently, depending on whether your social power is weak or strong. Until then, the question of who benefits most from religion will remain largely unresolved.


  1. Aydin, N., Fischer, P., & Frey, D. (2010). Turning to God in the face of ostracism: Effects of social exclusion on religiousness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 742-753.
  2. Bryant-Davis, T., & Wong, E. C. (2013). Faith to move mountains: Religious coping, spirituality, and interpersonal trauma recovery. American Psychologist, 68, 675-684.
  3. Gall T. L. & Guirguis-Younger M. (2013). Religious and spiritual coping: Current theory and research. In Pargament, K. I., Exline, J. J., & Jones, J. W. (Eds). APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality (Vol 1): Context, Theory, and Research (pp. 349-364). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  4. Solt, F., Habel, P., & Grant, J. T. (2011). Economic inequality, relative power, and religiosity. Social Science Quarterly, 92, 447-465.

Copyright Michael E. Price 2016. All rights reserved.

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