Following Jesus’ teaching may be the undoing of Christianity

April 4, 2009

Reduce religion by taking care of the poor?

The secular community often bemoans the religiosity of Americans compared with their British and other European counterparts. A recent article from Gallup offers a perspective that is important to keep in mind. Steve Crabtree and Brett Pelham ask, "Are Americans among the most religious people in the world?" Well, "the answer depends on which ‘world’ you’re talking about."

If you’re referring to the entire planet, the answer is plainly "no." In 2006, 2007, and 2008, Gallup asked representative samples in 143 countries and territories whether religion was an important part of their daily lives… Across all populations, the median proportion of residents who said religion is important in their daily lives is 82%. Americans fall well below this midpoint, at 65%.

  But before you point out the considerable effect religion has on U.S. society and politics, let’s change the lens to account for a basic insight multicountry surveys offer: a population’s religiosity level is strongly related to its average standard of living. Gallup’s World Poll, for example, indicates that 8 of the 11 countries in which almost all residents (at least 98%) say religion is important in their daily lives are poorer nations in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

  On the opposite end of the spectrum, the 10 least religious countries studied include several with the world’s highest living standards, including Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Hong Kong, and Japan…

  Social scientists have noted that one thing that makes Americans distinctive is our high level of religiosity relative to other rich-world populations. Among 27 countries commonly seen as part of the developed world, the median proportion of those who say religion is important in their daily lives is just 38%. From this perspective, the fact that two-thirds of Americans respond this way makes us look extremely devout.

  Source: Gallup

As pervasive as religion is in the United States, it’s important to remember that things could be worse, a whole lot worse. And, fortunately, religion in the U.S. is rather   blasé and bland compared to the rock-em-sock-em militant (literally!) fundamentalism in much of the rest of the world.

  Implicit in these findings is a possible solution for reducing the prevalence of religion in the world: raise the standard of living. My fiscally conservative and libertarian atheist friends should take note: It may be in your best interest to participate (through government aid or otherwise) in raising the living standards of people everywhere – including the much maligned working and non-working poor within our own borders.

  The irony is almost palpable: If atheists, as well as Christians, follow Jesus’ admonition to "go, sell your possessions and give to the poor" it may well be the undoing of Christianity and religion in general. Taking this into account, our time may be better spent by reaching out to the less fortunate among us than crusading to keep crosses out of parks.  



#1 Kevin (Guest) on Saturday April 04, 2009 at 12:29pm

“Taking this into account, our time may be better spent by reaching out to the less fortunate among us than crusading to keep crosses out of parks.”

If only this were true…

Religion might well disappear if poverty were to disappear first, but as anyone who has ever “reached out” to the poor (religiously or otherwise) will know, this hardly does away with the situation. I am not surprised at all by the fact that poor, suffering nations are among the most religious. Much solace can be found in a desperate, uncontrollable situation by imagining a superpowerful friend who has your personal interests at heart and the power to defeat all of your enemies and oppressors simply by thinking about it.

What I wonder is how much would be explained by looking at the income inequality in America compared to these other “developed” nations. If we adjusted for the extreme levels of income inequality in the US, would we then see a plausible explanation for the extreme religiosity of the US by comparison? Do we not see higher levels of religiosity (esp. fundamentalism) in poor, rural areas than in urbanized areas? Is there not less incidence of hardcore religiosity among the wealthy elite in America?

#2 Randy on Saturday April 04, 2009 at 1:14pm

You are absolutely right, and I think it’s true on the small local scale as well as a larger world scale.  I have people in my own family who turned to religious resources when they were in serious need because there was no secular alternative, and now they are fundamentalist nuts because they feel a deep connection to the people who improved their lives.  It is deeply important that atheists and other non-believers set up a framework of charity and support that is equal to or better than those that are religion-run, and are not just secular by chance, but actively promote rationality, and offer a caring way out of religion for those who want out.  Religion too often dominates the charity and support worlds, and as such has gained a reputation for being good despite the wrong that they do, and we have let them do that unopposed.  It’s also important to note that a government or other de-facto secular service is not the same as a service that has a secondary goal of promoting rationality.

#3 joshualipana on Saturday April 04, 2009 at 11:29pm

If we want to raise the living standards of people let us allow the Free Market to do it. Government will only make things worse.

#4 Tony Sidaway (Guest) on Sunday April 05, 2009 at 8:15am

The nations with a high standard of living tend to be democratic socialist nations (though they may not use that name explicitly to describe their politics).

The USA has also been socialist-leaning for many decades.  For all the rhetoric, a high proportion of its GDP is pooled in common and spent for purposes decided by a democratic process.

There is good evidence that religiosity is being eroded, but this is likely to be a slower process in the USA where there is a strong charity culture associated with churches and charitable donations are very high in comparison with countries which spend more of GDP on social services.

#5 joshualipana on Sunday April 05, 2009 at 9:38am

We don’t want religion to finally be destroyed only to find big brother come alive. Don’t forget those European high standard of living countries which lean socialist also still have a Church Tax.

#6 Vadjong on Monday April 06, 2009 at 2:51am

Are you suggesting that, stripped of the jewish messiah-speak, Jesus was a leader of a communist resistance cell under the boot of a fascist occupation force? Tito born in a stable?

Most all founders of religions and -isms throughout the world had hypocritical messages against material wealth, expressly to convert and mobilize the poor masses against the overlords of the establishment. (Until their own church/party became the establishment. Haven’t you read Frank Herbert’s <bold>Dune Messiah</bold>?)

Giving away my mantle does not make the world a richer place.
Giving people jobs in mantle factories does.

#7 liberalartist on Monday April 06, 2009 at 3:15pm

I expect that it is not only the discrepancy of incomes in the US, but also our high crime rates that lead to a sense of insecurity and need to be saved by religion. Plus religion is a commodity in the US. It is marketed like Nike shoes and Diet Coke.

But don’t forget that the liberation of women must play a key roll. Those countries that extend economic, social and political freedom to women will find it much easier to join the middle class. And this leads to the liberalization of religion, which is just one step closer to letting it go.

This gives me hope that as we continue to improve people’s lives around the world, we are ending the tyranny that is religion (albeit slowly).

#8 katherine (Guest) on Saturday April 25, 2009 at 2:54pm

I think democratic socialism might not be such a bad thing.  Also,I am spiritual, but not religious because religion is very divisive, and it really didn’t comfort me, but metaphysical, motivational, psychological principles put in action along with meditation and fiscal responsibility are helping me to make positive changes.  While religion might be a problem, one shouldn’t discard spirituality and lessons of spirituality.

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