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.