Research shows link between poverty gap and religious belief

29 July, 2009

New research has demonstrated that the personal insecurity associated with income inequality is a major reason that some countries, even wealthy ones, are more religious than others.

The study by independent researcher, Dr Tom Rees (Journal of Religion and Society, Vol 11) analyses data from over 50 countries representing a wide range of religions, wealth, and social structures. It uses income inequality as a measure of how much personal insecurity people in those countries face.

The finding may explain why conventional theories about the causes of religion have always fallen short. Conventional theories on why religion varies from place to place claim either that modernization leads to loss of faith, or that states that interfere with religion actually make people disenchanted with it. However, neither of these theories can explain the differences between wealthy countries.

The new analysis shows a high correlation between personal insecurity and countries which are more religious than others. Indeed, personal insecurity is the single most important factor in predicting national variations in religiosity.

“This is because inequality is associated with a range of social problems that combine to make people feel insecure and in need of the comfort offered by religion,” suggests the study author, Dr Tom Rees.

Dr Rees also confirmed that, “more religious nations have more indicators of social disharmony, with lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality, higher murder rates, more corruption, and a higher number of abortions. They also scored worse on the Global Peace index, that is, they are less peaceful both internally and in their external relations. What’s more, the research shows that nations with high levels of belief in God, Hell and the Devil (‘passionate dualism’) have higher murder rates.

“The combined effects of personal insecurity, modernization and freedom of religion explain most of the differences between countries. For the first time, we have a comprehensive theory of national religiosity, explaining religiousness in countries as diverse as India and Germany.

“Most importantly, it explains why countries with similar wealth and freedom have different levels of religion. It all depends on whether the country chooses to spend its wealth on improving personal security by, for example, investing in a strong welfare state.”

David Flint is the chairman of Humanists4Science, an independent group affiliated to the BHA, promoting scientific understanding and the application of scientific method to issues of concern to broader society. Flint said, “This is an important study especially when combined with previous studies. It’s likely, as Tom suggests, that religion offers comfort to the insecure. It also likely that religion, by discouraging people, especially policy makers, from rational analysis, creates the conditions that lead to inequality and insecurity. That would be a true religious vicious circle!”

The British Humanist Association has welcomed the research. Naomi Phillips, Public Affairs Officer at the BHA, said, “This is a great contribution to a growing body of research which examines the sociology of religious belief, and demonstrates a clear correlation between religious belief and social ills.

“The lesson here is not that individual religious people don’t or can’t make great and positive contributions to society; of course they can and do, just like everyone else. However the lesson, especially for policy makers, is that they cannot take for granted the notion that religious belief is a positive influence on society, or that the advancement of religion is a public benefit.

“Whether government is exempting religious groups from equalities legislation, giving religious families special dispensation in the state school system, or going as far as contracting public services to religious organisations, these are all current examples of the privileging of religion which we campaign against. And this research shows that when government privileges religion, far from fixing social dysfunction they are in fact encouraging the symptoms of social dysfunction.”


Original article: Is Personal Insecurity a Cause of Cross-National Differences in the Intensity of Religious Belief?, Dr Tom Rees, Journal of Religion and Society (Vol 11).

The study author Dr Tom Rees is an independent researcher and a member of Humanists4Science. He can be contacted on or 07815 700690.

Humanists4Science is a group of Humanists who support the use of scientific method to broad social concerns. Its chairman, David Flint, can be contacted on or 020 8363 2979.

For further comment or information from the British Humanist Association, contact Naomi Phillips on 020 7079 3585 or on 07779 703 242.

The BHA is the national charity representing and supporting the non-religious and campaigning for an end to religious privilege and discrimination based on religion or belief.