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Austin Cline

Religion & Wealth: Less Religious Countries are More Wealthy

By April 3, 2008

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Christian leaders frequently assert that their message is not one of this world and that Christians cannot serve both their god and "Mammon." Despite how wealthy these leaders and their churches tend to be, perhaps they have a point: according to international data, there is a strong correlation between a country being more wealthy and a country also being less religious.
Global publics are sharply divided over the relationship between religion and morality. In much of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, there is a strong consensus that belief in God is necessary for morality and good values. Throughout much of Europe, however, majorities think morality is achievable without faith. Meanwhile, opinions are more mixed in the Americas, including in the United States, where 57% say that one must believe in God to have good values and be moral, while 41% disagree.

The survey finds a strong relationship between a country's religiosity and its economic status. In poorer nations, religion remains central to the lives of individuals, while secular perspectives are more common in richer nations.1 This relationship generally is consistent across regions and countries, although there are some exceptions, including most notably the United States, which is a much more religious country than its level of prosperity would indicate. Other nations deviate from the pattern as well, including the oil-rich, predominantly Muslim -- and very religious -- kingdom of Kuwait.

Source: Pew Global Attitudes Project

The first thing to remember about this is the fact that it describes a correlation, not a causation. We can't tell if more wealth leads to less religion, if less religion leads to more wealth, if it's some combination of the two, or if instead both more wealth and less religion are caused by entirely separate social forces. The latter is least likely I think — it's surely not a random, unconnected correlation. Duke Sociology Professor Lisa A. Keister argues that there are a number of factors which cause conservative Protestants to have lower average wealth:

The Bible contains a large number of lessons about money and finances. About 2,000 verses of New Testament verses address the subject, Keister notes in the study. Religious beliefs affect conservative Protestants’ wealth in a number of ways. They influence wealth ownership directly by shaping the values that people use to make work and financial decisions. In particular, Biblical references to God’s exclusive ownership of worldly goods lead to practices which are likely to reduce saving and asset accumulation.

Using the Economic Values Survey and the National Longitudinal Study of Youth, the study found that conservative Protestants tend to hold the following beliefs:

Divine advice, advice from clergy and other religious advice about money and work have merit. More conservative Protestants than other people surveyed are likely to pray about financial decisions, for example.

Excess accumulation of wealth is undesirable. More conservative Protestants said money prevents one from knowing God than other people surveyed.

Religious belief also can influence net worth indirectly through behavior that impedes the accumulation of wealth. This behavior includes:

Low educational attainment. Education is one of the strongest predictors of wealth, and conservative Protestants have significantly less education than members of other faiths.

Conservative Protestants tend to have children relatively early and to have large families, both of which make saving difficult. Also, conservative Protestant women tend not to work outside the family, which also reduces the ability to save. Saving and the resulting growth of assets “are perhaps the single biggest predictors of total adult wealth,” the study says.

Source: Duke University

The second thing to notice is that the relationship is between wealth and religion, not wealth and theism. The less religious countries which are also more wealthy may also be more atheistic, but there are still high rates of theism combined with low rates of religion. A person can believe in a god without belonging to any organized religion. This means that the increase in wealth may be more closely connected to a decline in the power, status, influence, and wealth of religious institutions than it is to a decline in belief in gods.

The third thing to notice is America's outlier status. America is always an outlier on these studies, so this data is entirely consistent with lots of other information about religious beliefs around the world. The question which Americans have to ask is whether they are comfortable being more like countries such as Kuwait or Saudi Arabia or if they would rather be more like Germany and Britain. Personally, I'd vote for the latter.

Finally, we should note that his same general trend appears to exist within America as well. A graph posted at Washington Monthly indicates that higher wealth correlates strongly with a lower number of churches per capita. This may not be the best indicator of religiosity, but it's probably a more reliable one than self-reporting — if there isn't enough interest in religion to sustain as many churches, then there probably isn't as much religious belief, devotion, or passion.

Christianity has to preach an other-worldly message because there's no evidence that it does anything for people in this world. Christianity does not correlate positively with more education, more wealth, or any of the other indicators used in international studies of what makes for a happy, prosperous nation. Christianity's otherworldly message made sense for early Christians who expected Armageddon to come soon, but those expectations have proven false. It's about time that Christians got on living this life and making it better both for themselves and others around them.

April 3, 2008 at 5:19 pm
(1) mave says:

terrible grammar. it should be “fewer religious countries”, not “less”.

April 3, 2008 at 5:28 pm
(2) DaveTheWave says:

It’s supposed to mean “countries that are less religious than others”

April 3, 2008 at 6:14 pm
(3) Kim@Religiarchy says:

Great post. I came across some of these trends in the World Values Survey too. Don’t forget that the fundamentalist protestants are giving 10% of their income to the church too. Even if they make $10 an hour and have two kids. After all, if they didn’t fork it over to the church, god wouldn’t bless them.

April 4, 2008 at 8:55 pm
(4) John Hanks says:

Less militaristic countries are even more wealthy.

August 1, 2008 at 11:28 am
(5) Jstov says:

I find it sad that in the comments Kim makes fun of people that valiantly give 10% out of the charity of their heart despite how little they may have. That is pretty low. I think a major factor as to why religious countries are not as wealthy is because of the fact that they are driven by religion and not by greed. Greed is an evil animal that breeds corruption. Wealth is not the purpose of life and the sooner everyone realizes that, the better off this world will be.

August 12, 2008 at 3:53 pm
(6) rachael says:

Jstov; you couldn’t be more correct.

October 23, 2008 at 5:53 am
(7) LittleBittenUSA says:

US does not have the monopoly on charity. Other countries give as well, but do not make such a hysterically desperate production out of it.

“Look at what I did for you, you silly heathen! And with no strings attached, that you can see! Now that I presume to have successfully kidnapped your trust, I must “kindly” insist, with the mother of all guilt-trips, that you show me your gratitude by forking over your soul, your 10% “minimum” tithes, and whatever else we can squeeze out of that sinning husk of yours, to my Jesus. If you don’t, it will all be your fault because you didn’t listen to me, and you’ll go on to a very fiery and painful torment in Hell!”

That – and not truly sincere altruism – seems to be the endlessly tired thrust of such charitous motivations.

January 6, 2009 at 9:41 am
(8) Jim B says:

I’d say you can draw any conclusion you are looking for on this one.
Saudi Arabia, very rich, very religious. USA, same. Afganistan, very religious, very poor. Mexico, Costa Rica same. I’ll bet blond-headed countries are richer , on average.
Jim B.

January 25, 2009 at 2:16 am
(9) Realistic Idealist says:

JIM B. – Saudi Arabia is only rich because of US exploitation in the early 1900s and oil markets. It’s not people-driven.

EVERYONE ELSE – Hate money but want to be rich? Invent a world that doesn’t revolve around money and spread the love. Until then, shut up and put up or pray until you’re dead.

February 10, 2009 at 5:05 pm
(10) lucideparole says:

That’s typical of a democratic believer: “SHUT UP”
Poor dickhead..

March 28, 2009 at 8:29 am
(11) ShellySummers says:

I know there was a study done a bit back on just this subject. For the life of me i can not remember what that study was called. Could someone let me know or send me a link? Thank you.

September 5, 2010 at 6:48 am
(12) Me says:

This blog topic was recently picked up by the New York Times (9/3/2010). See the article here…

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