Do People Get Less Religious When Societies Grow More Egalitarian?

Slowly but surely, religion’s historical monopoly on the human mind is breaking apart. On its surface, the reason seems straightforward: the rise of secular democracy and especially of scientific understanding should encourage more people to give up on religion.

In fact, recent research from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago shows that the picture worldwide is much more complex than that. While atheism is on the rise in many places in the world, others are seeing a rise in religiosity, creating a situation where the levels of belief and non-belief vary wildly depending on culture. A lot of it has to do with history and culture, but one intriguing thread can be pulled from the picture, which is that there seems to be a strong correlation between high rates of atheism and countries that prioritize economic equality and make higher investments in a strong social safety net, such as France and the Netherlands.

Could liberal policies help create non-believers? Previous research indicates that when countries embrace progressive social policy, that tends to create a decline in religious belief. The theory, often called the “secularization thesis” is that the combination of good education of its citizens and the fact that citizens can rely on the government instead of the church for poverty relief means that more people will turn away from religion. But could the reasons go deeper than that? Few people base their choice of whether to believe in God or not on something as simple as whether they can go to the church or the state in times of need. Perhaps it’s more that economic insecurity itself increases the desire to believe in God. And if atheists want to minimize the power religion plays in society, should they start by demanding a more secure and egalitarian society?

There’s a heavy body of research showing that the more stress and uncertainty people face, the more likely they are to engage in what psychologists call “magical thinking”: superstition, prayer, belief in the supernatural. In 2008, Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky published a paper in Science demonstrating that when you remove the amount of control people have over their situation, they tend to engage more in “illusory pattern perception,” which is the psychological process that creates belief in the supernatural. Other research has shown the real-world effects of this psychological tendency, showing, for instance, that people living in war zones tend to engage in more magical thinking, such as carrying lucky charms or believing in the power of prayer, than those who don’t. 

We can observe these effects in ordinary situations where people feel a lack of control. Take for instance, the sports fan who is usually a rational person but nonetheless refuses to wash his favorite jersey for fear that it will cause his team to lose. Or the usually non-superstitious person who, when playing dice in a casino, blows on the dice before rolling for good luck. When we don’t have control over outcomes, we sometimes try to regain that sense of control by imagining that we’re actually exerting control through unseen supernatural means. Religion has a lot more tradition and power behind it than everyday superstitions, but psychologically, the process can be similar. People look to supernatural means to exert control over situations they can’t influence through real-world means.

Living in a country with a poor social-safety net and high income-inequality means, for most of its citizens, living a life dogged with constant insecurity and a loss of feelings of control. People worry more about losing their jobs, and if they do lose their jobs, they worry more about becoming homeless or otherwise falling into poverty. People without guaranteed access to health care worry more about what will happen to them if they get sick. Parents in places where the education system is shoddy worry more about what’s going to happen to their kids. The less control they feel over their own destiny, the more tempting it is to conjure up a God who can save you in a society that doesn’t bother.

It’s not so much that people believe the church will come through for them in a pinch. It’s that belief in God gives them a sense of control they lack in their real-world lives.

Given these patterns, it makes sense that Russia was, along with Israel, at the top of the list of countries that had the biggest surge in religiosity in the past 20 years. A large part of that, of course, is due to the end of communism and its bans on religion, allowing people to recommit to faith. But other formerly communist nations, like the Czech Repubic and Poland, didn’t see such a surge in believers. In fact, the Czech Republic saw a surge in atheism in the past decade.

Of course, the two countries couldn’t be more different for ordinary citizens post-communism. Russia has been a swirl of political and economic distress, making it a notoriously stressful place to live. Life expectancy in Russia hovers around 68 years, about 10 years short of the standard in more stable, prosperous Western nations. The Czech Republic, on the other hand, was praised by the U.N. for its remarkably high human development index, which is a rough shorthand to measure the stability and standard of living for the average citizen of a country. Life expectancy there has reached 77 years, closing in on countries like Germany and France.

Atheists who aren’t content to simply not believe themselves, but who also want to increase the secularization of a society and the numbers of atheists, need to get behind a politically progressive agenda. Right now, the United States is seeing an explosion in income inequality, high unemployment, and ever more serious cuts to the social safety net. The inevitable result of this is more stress, and more feelings of loss of control among ordinary Americans. If they aren’t going to find safety and security in the real world, they’re going to turn their hopes to a supernatural one.

Religion’s grip on power is tightly entwined with the economic misfortunes of the people. If we want to build a more secular society, the first step is building a more equitable one.


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