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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
US religious identification, 1948-2008
US relevance of religion, 1957-2009
Religion and wealth in America
The US has become less religious over time, and wealthier over time.
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
Religiosity declines with higher incomes
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
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.