Thursday, 24 September 2009

How inequality makes people religious

Tom Rees and Gregory Paul have shown that unequal societies have greater religious observance and more social problems than more equal ones. Paul has shown this for developed countries and Rees for a wider sample.

The correlations are far too strong for this to be coincidence – some causal mechanism must be operating – but neither author has been able to identify it with certainty. We can, however, discover the mechanism by setting the issue in a wider context.

That context is provided by sociologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better. Published earlier this year this fascinating book summarises hundreds of research studies. It shows that amongst the rich countries those with less income inequality do better than the rest with respect to community life, mental health, drug abuse, physical health, life expectancy, obesity, education, teenage births, violence, prison population and social mobility. Wow!

Moreover this does not happen because they have fewer poor people – the benefits apply at all income levels.

They also show that inequality is the main CAUSE of this litany of problems – not merely a correlate. This is shown by looking at the persistence of these relationships over decades, the fact that they apply both between countries and between US states and the lack of any plausible mechanism whereby, for instance, murder rates could increase income inequality and the lack of

Perhaps the most interesting element from our point of view is the mechanism they propose whereby inequality creates such problems.

The authors use well-established medical and psychological research to show that low social status is damaging to people’s physical and mental health and to performance on tests of skill. (This is not a uniquely human phenomenon as it’s also been shown in monkeys.) This explains the bad effects on poor and low-status people directly. There are also indirect effects as teenagers from poor areas respond to their sense of inferior status by anxiety about their looks and status, drug use, excessive food consumption, gang membership and demands for ‘respect’. Anorexia, obesity, early pregnancy and violence follow fairly directly.

Religion, of course, provides an alternative response. Teachings about God’s universal love may make low economic status more bearable whilst the support of a believing community helps both psychologically and in practical ways.

High levels of inequality make matters worse by giving almost everyone the sense of having lower income and status than the fat-cat bosses, sportsmen and ‘celebrities’ whose doings fill our papers and screens. Thus in highly unequal societies the bad effects apply to almost everyone – just what the sociological research shows.

In such societies religion is attractive to people at all levels of society as all are exposed to status anxiety. (But the attraction is obviously greater where the anxiety is greater.)

The evidence from The Spirit Level thus suggests strongly that religious observance, like the litany of problems listed above, is driven primarily by inequality.

There is also some evidence for religion as a cause. The US, for instance, scores even worse on several indicators than its inequality would suggest. It is also more religious. Religious beliefs may cause people to despair of attempts to improve society or even to favour policies, such as abstinence-only sex education, that make things worse. It can hardly be coincidence that religious influence on politics, belief in the imminent arrival of the Messiah and abstinence-only sex education are so strong in the USA.