Religion, Atheism and Wealth

God and money

What is the relationship between religion and wealth? Are religious people richer or poorer than more secular people? We will look at data from the United States and around the world to answer these questions.

US GDP per capita, 1960-2011

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US religious identification, 1948-2008

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US relevance of religion, 1957-2009

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Religion and wealth in America

The US has become less religious over time, and wealthier over time.

The percentage of Americans who believe in God declined in the late 20th century, as did the percentage of people who pray regularly, who attend church regularly and who read sacred texts.

The charts at right demonstrate that as American wealth has increased in the late 20th and early 21st century, the percentage of Americans identifying as Christian has decreased, while the percentage claiming no religion has increased. In addition, the perceived relevance of religion in the modern world has fallen.

Statistics also show that the poorest American states tend to be the most religious and the richest tend to be the least religious. In wealthy states (on a per capita basis) such as New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, religion is important in the daily lives of only 50 to 70% of people (or less). Meanwhile, poor states such as Mississippi, Alabama and West Virginia often have numbers higher than 70%. Residents of the poorest states also attend church more frequently than their rich state counterparts.

The relationship is mixed of course, because of many factors. For instance, in relatively poor states such as Montana, Maine and Vermont, religion is not important in most people's daily lives. Nevertheless, a moderate positive correlation exists between secularism among the people and GDP per capita.

Wealth and religiosity among US states, 2009

Each dot represents a state.
Each dot represents a state. | Source

Religiosity declines with higher incomes

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Wealth and religion around the world

On a global scale, the poorest countries tend to have the most religious populations and the richest tend to have the least. Over 98% of the residents of countries such as Bangladesh, Yemen, Indonesia and Egypt say that religion is an important part of their daily life. By contrast, in rich countries such as Japan, France, the UK and Sweden, the number stays between 20 and 40%. In addition, globally, as median income increases, religion becomes increasingly unimportant to people (see the chart at right). Weekly church attendance has collapsed in the very wealthy countries of Europe, but remains strong in the developing countries of Africa and parts of Asia.

Poor countries are more religious, and rich countries are less religious

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Religion, atheism and wealth: conclusions

Why do these relationships exist? Why do religious societies tend to be poorer, and more secular societies tend to be wealthier? Causality runs in multiple directions.

Secularism can cause wealth. Secularism and naturalism make people focus on this life, as opposed to the next life. People become more interested in happiness and comfort during their time on earth than in a supernatural world.

Prosperity also often causes secularism, as people realize they do not need religion and superstition to explain their world. Wealth enables them to purchase the most advanced technology and to fund ever-more sophisticated science to better understand the universe, and to have more control over it than they once did.

Meanwhile, poverty can cause religion. The poor often turn to higher powers to allay their sense of hopelessness and helplessness. Because the poor tend to be less educated and more ignorant, they are more susceptible to explanations involving magic, superstition, and mysticism.

And religion can cause poverty. Religious customs may lead to lifestyles that contribute to poverty. And religious beliefs may promote attitudes that inhibit wealth accumulation. One example is the fatalism that "everything is in God's hands." Jehovah's Witnesses have been instructed many times over the last 150 years by their leadership to forgo the pursuit of wealth and higher education in expectation of the end of the world. Many religions also expect followers to donate money to religious institutions. Medieval Catholicism promoted the view that wealth accumulation is sinful, identifying avarice and envy as two of the gravest sins while banning the charging of interest on loans. Jesus himself said that "the poor shall inherit the earth," and that it is almost impossible for a wealthy man to enter heaven.

To be sure, secular ideologies or philosophies can cause poverty as well. Worldviews that discourage the use of advanced technology, seeking a more "natural" lifestyle are some examples, as is any secular anti-wealth belief system, such as many strains of communism and Marxism. In the same way, religion can sometimes cause wealth. If followers are encouraged to work hard, develop skills and pursue learning, then religion will be a force for more prosperity. Many segments of Judaism, Mormonism, Islam, Hinduism and others fall in this category.

Nevertheless, the fact that greater religiosity is consistently correlated with more poverty indicates that the first set of relationships is more salient. CNN Money profiled an Orthodox Jewish family in Texas with five children, who faced significant financial burdens in staying true to their beliefs. After buying their house, thousands of dollars in renovations were needed to install a second sink, second oven and second dishwasher for the purpose of keeping meat and dairy products separate, in line with religious law.

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Comments 8 comments

ESP1983 profile image

ESP1983 4 years ago from Tampa, Florida

It would be interesting see the correlation between richest vs. happiest countries. It is important to know what seeking financial prosperity although not bad, the sole focus on it creates a big gamma of problems because of how selfish people is turning. Religion itself is to blame for its fall, with its stubborn intolerance to certain aspects, but it worries me that people are giving importance only to material aspects because after all, it's interesting that in the most developed countries, divorces and broken family relations are on the rise.


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 4 years ago from New York City Author

In general studies have shown that wealth and income is correlated with happiness up to a certain point. Beyond that point, increases in wealth do not lead to significant increases in happiness. And indeed, excessive emphasis on wealth and materialism can lead to emptiness and lack of true fulfillment. But there is a clear and important relationship between material wealth and overall happiness, which makes sense because we are primarily material beings.

What is interesting is that some of the most secular countries on earth--Denmark, Iceland, Norway, the Netherlands and others--are also some of the highest-ranking on world surveys of happiness and life satisfaction. This supports the idea that we do not need religion or spirituality to be happy.


aguasilver profile image

aguasilver 4 years ago from Malaga, Spain

" A secular outlook often makes people focus on building wealth and prosperity in this life, as opposed to salvation in the next life."

Spot on secularist10, you hit the nail on the head:

Matthew 6:24

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

Matthew 24:12

And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.

Scripture tells us that apostasy MUST happen before Christ returns, so I thank you for this encouraging hub.


f_hruz profile image

f_hruz 4 years ago from Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Great hub!

The common denominator to higher income, greater prosperity, less religiosity and a better life in general, is more education and a greater degree of rationality in a given society, I'd say ...

@ aguasilva - you have shown quite clearly on previous occasions your god delusion and your inability to think for yourself which makes you constantly quote the same old story book you know ... if it makes any sense or not!


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 4 years ago from New York City Author

Haha, to each his own, Agua.


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 4 years ago from New York City Author

Thanks, f_hruz. Yes, the key factors to greater prosperity are there staring us straight in the face, if we care to look at them.


aguasilver profile image

aguasilver 4 years ago from Malaga, Spain

See f_hruz. that's the correct answer 'to each his own' - the insults and ad hominee attacks are not so balanced.

Thanks secularist10, I agree with you, except one word:

"the key factors to greater apostasy are there staring us straight in the face, if we care to look at them." :)


f_hruz profile image

f_hruz 4 years ago from Toronto, Ontario, Canada

@ aguasilva - you lack the most basic grasp of reality to even understand how retarding religiosity really is on all levels, from personal development, over national well being, to international relations and global prosperity ...

Keep your head stuck in the sand and you'll be just fine ... :)

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