Religion versus wealth

Washington monthly has an interesting article using data from the Pew Global Attitudes Project, showing an inverse correlation between the wealth of nations and the religiosity of their peoples.

Here’s the graph:


As with so many other things the US is an outlier (and Kuwait is also curiously anomalous) but the trend is clear.

It’s a curious thing — Maslow’s hierarchy of needs posits that self-actualization is something that can most easily be pursued once our basic needs for food, shelter, security, etc are already taken care of. History also suggests this to be be case. For example it was only when ancient Greece had developed an urban culture in which relatively rich landowners had time to reflect (in their urban mansions) that Western philosophy began to emerge. And at roughly the same time in India an agricultural revolution following the introduction of iron tools (more forestry cleared for fields, more efficient plowing) allowed that a large population of mendicant religious wanderers could be supported (the Buddha being amongst them). Without surplus wealth to support the Buddha and his monks his teachings would have been lost (assuming that he’d even tried pursuing a spiritual life — he might have been too busy trying to earn a living).

But maybe this survey just highlights the difference between religion and spirituality, with poverty leading to the embrace of more conformist doctrines that both give hope (the carrot, the opiate of the people) and keep a potentially troublesome population in cowed fear (the stick, hell as a punishment for disobedience), while in a more wealth culture people are free to pursue a more genuinely spiritual path that involves self-examination and a critique of social norms.

On the other hand perhaps wealth is a distraction from religion and spirituality — I’ve met very few wealthy Buddhists. Although perhaps it’s not so much wealth that does this but the pursuit of wealth. Perhaps the pursuit of wealth becomes a quasi-religion in its own right and takes away or suppresses more genuinely religious needs.

Perhaps we need just enough wealth so that we’re free enough from anxiety to think about what constitutes a meaningful life, but not so much obsession with wealth that we become unreflective. Perhaps that’s what the idea of voluntary simplicity hinges on — finding that appropriate balance of material comfort and existential discomfort.

2 Responses to “Religion versus wealth”

  1. Vinod Moonesinghe says:

    Perhaps it would be more correct to plot the graph with the x axis being PQLI rather than per capita gdp.

    The standard of living of the USA is not as high as its inhabitants are contsantly told.

  2. bodhipaksa says:

    I don’t know about it being more “correct” to use Physical quality-of-life index as the x axis since it would be measuring something very different — although it might be very interesting to do that!

    In this graph I believe the odd position of the US is because religious conviction is much stronger here than in Europe. While Europe has a comparable standard of living to the US there are far fewer people who identify themselves as religious.

    One thing that I think would be interesting would be to look at median income versus religious belief since the gap between the poor and the rich in the US is so wide (much wider than in many European countries). So much wealth in the US is in so few hands that it’s bound to skew the graph compared to GDP per capita. I wonder if that’s at least partly what you’re talking about, Vinod, when you say that people in the US don’t have as high a standard of living as they’re told.

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Published: Oct 27 2007

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Category: Religion & Society