The Wealth and Religiosity of Nations

Via Political Animal, a graph that plots a nation’s religiosity against its wealth, as measured by per-capital GDP.  Yes, yes I know there are lots of issues with GDP and measures of "religiosity," (feel free to point them out in comments) but this is a blog, not a scholarly forum, so charts will be accepted at face value. As long as they have pretty colors.

The U.S. is an outlier here, which is the thing that caught Kevin Drum’s eye. What caught my eye is how poor Kuwait is.  I was always under the impression that thinly-populated oil-rich states had the highest per-capita GDPs, but it turns out small European nations beat them by a mile.  Which again raises the question: Why is Iceland so bloody rich?  Everyone I know who’s visited Iceland is floored by the outrageous prices and how many flashy possessions everybody owns, but I’ve never gotten a satisfactory explanation for how this small, treeless nation got so rich.  Is it sitting on gas or oil reserves?  Has it cornered the world market in gingko?  What gives?

I also noted the close scores for Eastern and Western Europe on the religiosity scale.  Even the most religious Eastern European nation doesn’t come close to the U.S.  It doesn’t really surprise me, since I’ve traveled a fair bit in the former Eastern bloc. However, you often hear that after the Iron Curtain fell, church pews were filled by those were finally "free to live their faith" after years of political persecution.  I think this cliche was generated by a stream of news stories in the early 90s.  What the reporters didn’t cover was people gradually losing interest and drifting away. No pretty pictures of candle-filled churches there!

Why did this happen? Take your pick of explanations: (1) Communism drummed the religious instinct out of Eastern Europeans; (2) They were distracted by all the bright, shiny objects offered by the free market; or (3) although the Catholic Church earned respect for resisting Communism, it quickly re-asserted lots of its old reactionary tendencies after the fall. Many Czechs/Poles/Hungarians saw little advantage in throwing off one intellectual corset imposed by second-rate political bureaucrats only to replace it with another intellectual corset imposed by second-rate religious bureaucrats.

Number 3 is, by the way, the most common explanation given by Eastern Europeans I know. By far.

6 thoughts on “The Wealth and Religiosity of Nations

  1. I have an explanation for the outlier status of the US; No state church, and no tradition of a state church.

    Historically every European country had a religion officially sanctioned (and largely controlled) by the state. Even when tolerance was decreed (as in England when the ‘Dissenter’ king William of Orange decreed that dissenters be allowed to pursue their religion this did not constitute true freedom of religion but mere tolerance – at least at the beginning, as I think it grew into freedom later.

    In Europe religion retains it’s aura as an apparatus of state control – an aura it never had in the US.

    Another thing to consider: When Europeans religiously oppressed Europeans – where did they tend to go? The US. Ask the Irish, the Anabaptists and many, many others. There are many communities in the US where their religion is central to their ethnic identity. When that is true, and when the people are actually in control as opposed to remote authorities – religion is less likely to decline.


  2. In addition to the factors Don lists, American expectations of churches are overall very different to what one finds in countries with established state churches. (I can’t comment on non-western cultures.)

    For Americans, church is a source of social support; churches provide a sense of community whether one remains in one area or moves around. For many, there’s a prestige factor: you go to “a good church,” associate with people doing well, and there’s pressure to do better. The U.S. has a much higher level of private volunteer and charitable involvement than do other countries, and the church is one outlet for this. These factors, though present, are found to a much lesser degree in Europe.


  3. The Roman Catholic sociologist (and popular novelist) Father Andrew Greeley has written many interesting books relating to this subject. He examined why American Protestants donate a higher proportion of their income to their church than American Catholics and concluded that it’s a matter of control. Protestant ministers are hired by their parish council and serve at the pleasure of that council, whereas Catholic priests are typically appointed by the bishop. Greeley concluded that devolution of power encourages giving and involvement.

    However the vocations ‘crisis’ of the US catholic priesthood seems to be having a positive effect upon US catholicism. Priests now are frequently shared by several parishes, and the control of the parish has necessarily devolved to the lay members. My family in the US are very involved in the running and governance of their churches – vibrant, active churches by my observation.

    The management consultant Peter Drucker also has some interesting books about management of non-profit organisations, inclusing churches.


  4. >Is it sitting on gas or oil reserves?
    >Has it cornered the world market in gingko?
    >What gives?

    Iceland offers the lowest energy prices in Europe and North America. Over 99% of the country’s electricity is produced from hydropower and geothermal energy.


  5. The U.S. is an outlier when considered as an undifferentiated wad. Plot wealth and religiosity within the U.S and you’ll probably trace a curve approximating the international comparison. It’s not the only answer, of course, but explanations of differnces between Europe and the U.S. generally must be seen against background levels of inequality — in income, healthcare and education. Canada’s proof of this pudding. It’s history and economic institutions are similar enough to the behemoth below it, but the Canucks fall right in with Europeans when it comes to many cultural issues. (See the homo-religio graphical comparison posted on this blog.)


  6. as stated above free geothermal electricity- makes industries like aluminum viable with much less damage to the environment, plus of course huge fishing rights, plus tourism, plus a huge american base, plus a highly educated very equal and therefore very common good oriented society on the scandinavian model, plus and that is what probably seals the deal – all these resources only have to support about 250.000 people situated in one city almost exclusively.
    in short iceland is a city state like singapore in many respects, but without many of the constraints.

    no unskilled migration and ready access to the scandinavian and european support networks and markets.
    TITLE: A mayor religiosidad, menor properidad y riqueza
    BLOG NAME: Desde el exilio
    DATE: 10/25/2007 02:57:37 PM
    O es al revs?
    Unos dicen que s:

    Otros van y miran el nmero de iglesias (slo en USA), y llegan a la misma conclusin:

    Y usted qe opina? Llego va Ger…


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