It’s been long noted that the USA is atypical of developed countries. As a wealthy, developed nation, America should not be as religious as it is. But wealth is about more than GDP per capita; it’s also about how wealth is distributed. America has high economic inequality, and it’s level of religiosity is typical of a country whose wealth is concentrated among the few.

Wealth and religion

As wealth increases, the importance of religion declines. USA is an outlier among developed nations. Graph by Corner of Church & State, an RNS blog. Source: World Values Survey


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The World Values Survey provides a good example of this relationship. The survey includes dozens of countries and asks the same question about religion. The graph shows that as GDP per capita increases, the percentage of people who say that religion is “very important” drops. The USA is an outlier. Countries with America’s level of wealth should have less than 20 percent of people saying religion is very important. Instead, half of Americans say this.

As inequality increases, the importance of religion increases. (Gini coefficient; zero equals total equality and one equals total inequality)

As inequality increases, the importance of religion increases. (Gini coefficient; zero equals total equality and one equals total inequality) Graph by Corner of Church & State, an RNS blog. Source: World Values Survey

But then look at inequality. Yes, America is wealthy, but it’s level of inequality is far above other developed countries. The country is wealthy, but the rich are richer and the poor are poorer than in other countries like it.

In terms of inequality, America is more like Iran, Serbia, and Mali — not a great list to be associated with economically. The USA is not an outlier in this graph. Its level of religiosity is right where we would expect a country with its level of inequality to be.

For more on inequality and religion, see my research with colleagues here and more by Fred Solt here.

Categories: Beliefs

Tobin Grant

Tobin Grant

@TobinGrant blogs for Religion News Service at Corner of Church and State, a data-driven conversation on religion and politics. He is a political science professor at Southern Illinois University and associate editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

5 Comments

  1. Just my opinion, but I believe a tremendous amount of truths about human pshychology, social interaction, and social history can be learned simply by taking on a study of money and economics from a historical perspective.

    So much of our experience can be seen in our past expression of money, distribution, labor vs capital etc.

    At the same time, you might realize like I did, that economics is not a science. Calling it so gives too much clout to the endeavor. It cannot because the money, systems, and people all change in relation to one another. The statisitic toolset for analysis is “scientific”….but in its basest form economics is only a finite game of carrot on a stick motivators, both negative and positive.

  2. The Great God Pan

    “America has high economic inequality, and it’s level of religiosity is typical of a country whose wealth is concentrated among the few.”

    A strong rebuke to those who claim that religion fosters economic justice, and that the poor would be worse off without religion. I won’t expect to see that factoid in a Chris Stedman column any time soon!

  3. I assume that any implied causation in any direction is purely accidental, and not Tobin’s intent. We were also a very religious nation when our inequality levels were much lower, 40 years ago. In fact, we were a more religious nation. So the time-trends go the opposite direction, at a national level. Clearly, the picture is more complicated than even “less religiosity correlates with more inequality.” Within the US, just the opposite is the case over time.

    • And to suggest one possible simple model to account for the coincidence of secularism and equality in much of the rich world, I think we have to look at the secular affiliation of socialist movements. If equality is brought to you by secularists, you become more secular. On the other hand, black churches played a central role in the American Civil Rights movement, which brought a measure of legal equality, and African Americans are substantially religious. So maybe people gravitate toward whoever happens to bring them more equality…whether those movements are religious or secular.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments with many links may be automatically held for moderation.