Sunday, September 12, 2010

Poverty and Religiosity

There is a new Gallup poll out that looks at religiosity as a function of a country's GDP. Not surprisingly, the poorest countries are also the most religious. Here is a helpful plot from Charles Blow of the New York Times:

The upper left corner (poor and religious) is populated with several Muslim countries. In fact here is the table for some of the top 10 most religious countries:

wow - look at the 99%+ countries. I'm actually surprised that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are not up there (they are at #35 and #38 respectively, with Saudi Arabia at 93% and Pakistan at 92%). It is a bit surprising to see Sri Lanka up there as well, but then 90% of Indians also think that religion is an important part of their lives. Given my recent trip to Malaysia, I will also include it in here: 96%. Wow! And this is inclusive of non-Muslim minorities as well.

If you look at religiosity as a function of median per-capita income, then you also get a pretty clear trend:

Well, explanation for these numbers is one thing. But this, perhaps, also has lessons for the recent tensions over freedom-of-speech in the West versus respect for religion (read Muslims). This is indeed a tough issue - but we don't take into account that, because of global communications, we are now having these debates across cultures with values far far different from each other. An understanding and appreciation of these differences may help in diffusing tensions related to hot-button controversies, such as the recently aborted Qur'an burning stunt in Florida.

As far as the possible explanation for the religiosity-poverty link:
Social scientists have put forth numerous possible explanations for the relationship between the religiosity of a population and its average income level. One theory is that religion plays a more functional role in the world's poorest countries, helping many residents cope with a daily struggle to provide for themselves and their families. A previous Gallup analysis supports this idea, revealing that the relationship between religiosity and emotional wellbeing is stronger among poor countries than among those in the developed world.
Now US is an obvious outlier. A few years ago I had a post on a fantastic Atlantic Monthly article analyzing results from the Pew Global Attitudes Project - and the author of the article had made some interesting observations about the connection of wealth with an increasing level of secularization (see Secularization, Wealth and Religiosity, and the discussion therein). But regarding the US issue, the author had suggested that it is the free-market competition of religions in the US (in particular, amongst the various Protestant denominations) that has led to creative innovations with enormous success, both in the US and abroad. I think this is a very interesting point. However, in the same time, there has also been a notable increase in the number of people who do not adhere to any religion ("Nones") in the US. The Atlantic article takes an optimistic approach towards an increasing level of secularism in the world, and despite these new Gallup results, I agree with it, and I think that the ease of cross-cultural exchanges will eventually dilute out these sharp numbers (overall, perhaps a geographically more religiously pluralistic world). But how will that interplay with the poverty-religiosity connection?

Good stuff and fascinating issues. Check out this earlier discussion here, and the new Gallup results here.


Ali said...

"Good stuff and fascinating issues."

So the religious are those who are poor?
This is atheist propaganda, plain and simple!

Shahid said...

As an avid follower of this blog, I expect the author(s) to ignore the above comment for obvious reasons.

Nice recommendations btw. Interesting stuff - especially in the context of how the future can be expected to play out.

As for the "explanations" put forward for the US argument, would the US be as big an outlier as it is today (in this graph) around 8- years ago? Probably not. Political involvement of religious people (and by religious I mean those who profess religion more than they practice it) has had a significant affect on it as well (this might be a wrong explanation but I feel it can be one and I'm not tying to practicing religion but professing it - i.e. religion has become a bigger part of public life).

Shahid said...

8I meant 80 not 8

Salman Hameed said...

"So the religious are those who are poor?"

Actually the graph is read the other way: Countries with low per-capita income are also religious. A subtle but importance difference.


Would US be an outlier on this plot 80 years ago? This is an excellent question. I think what you are alluding to is the birth of the evangelical churches in the early 20th century and how influential they have become in the last couple of decades (with Carter being the first President with an evangelical faith).

I don't know the answer to your question (somebody like historian Ronald Numbers would be an excellent person to ask this question: if interested, check out his book, especially the last chapter, Science & Christianity from Pulpit and Pew). I think US will not be an outlier in the 20th century - but not because of the change of its location. Rather, other developed western countries would have displayed more religiosity. I think the general trend towards secularization (in the developed world) would have also moved US alongside other developed countries (down to the lower right part of the plot). However, this trend was probably countered by the increasing influence of Evangelicals, leaving it at the same place. I don't think we have good stats for large populations for the early 20th century, so it is hard to check this. However, now there are many polls that are tracking religiosity patterns, and the increasing trend of "Nones" (those with no religious affiliation - this includes "not religious" as well as those who are religious, but not associated with any faith) is quite interesting in the context of global exchange of ideas. You can read more on the recent American trends here.

Tom Rees said...

Although the USA has a high per capita income, it marries this with a high level of poverty. In other words, it's not just the average income you need to look at, but how it is distributed. Several people have shown that this seems to be important - that state welfare reduces religion, and that low income inequality means lower national religious service attendance. I wrote a paper on this last year showing that income inequality was an independent predictor of average prayer rates.

Salman Hameed said...


Sorry I missed your paper when it came out - but it is an excellent piece of work. The complex relation of modernity with secularization in different countries is fascinating - and I plan to use this paper in a class I'm teaching next semester on Islam, evolution, and modernity.

Two questions:
a) I'm surprised that a place like Iran fits relatively well with the predictive model of prayer frequency. I know that the question addresses prayer to God outside of religious services, I'm still surprised to see Iran at close to once a week. Is this because references to God may be tied to culture, and after disentangling that, one is left with a lower frequency?

b) Related to the first question, it would be fantastic to see Iran with respect to other Muslim countries as well. May be religious frequency is relatively low in Iran - and that may have to do wit the more institutional structure of Shia Islam, or may be the population itself indeed less religious. Apart from Turkey and Tanzania, are there other Muslim-majority countries on that plot?

Basmah said...

I wonder where China would lie, at the intersection in the middle?

Perhaps if there is data on more of these rich gulf countries (the Arab oil giants), the top right of the plot would be more populated. That should be interesting to see, two contrasting highly religious groups in the plot, at the two ends of the GDP.

Interesting to know that Vietnam is still very French, read non-religious.

Tom Rees said...

Hi Salman, glad you found it useful! As with any statistical model, it's difficult to apply to much significance to any one specific instance. Why is Iran bang on the line? Probably chance! There is a fair amount of randomness (i.e. local cultural effects) that are unexplained in the model. Iranians do report praying a lot less than Moroccans (40% of Iranians vs 67% of Moroccans pray every day). The model also works quite well for Morocco, but not for Bangladesh (Bangladeshis pray less than you'd expect, given the poverty). But in general I was quite interested to see that there didn't seem to be any consistent deviations regardless of world region/culture. Of course, there are too few countries in the model outside the West (because that's where the data are) to make any definitive conclusions.

The only other muslim-majority country included is Kyrgyzstan, which is also almost dead on the predicted line (they pray a little less than Iran).

Salman Hameed said...


Great - thanks for the explanation. Kyguzstan is itself interesting because of the Soviet influence of the past.

China will still be pretty low on the y-axis. As far as the rich gulf-states are concerned, you are probably right about the upper middle and upper right portion. Kuwait was in the earlier post, and sure enough, it is standing by itself.