- Per a new PNAS paper, poorer societies are more religious, and the effects of national religiosity lessen the effects of poverty on well-being. Tweet This
- "There is reason to believe that religious decline may even accelerate in the decades to come. As a result, lower SES may well exert particularly harmful effects on well-being in the future." Tweet This
A common, and reasonable, assumption is that poverty makes people unhappy. One of the puzzles in international economics is the connection between this relationship—the correlation between socioeconomic status and personal well-being—and the general level of wealth in a society as a whole. Social scientists have observed that as countries get richer, socioeconomic status is more strongly correlated with well-being, i.e. being poor more strongly predicts feeling bad in poor countries than rich ones.
A new paper, authored by an ocean-spanning group of social science researchers, and published in PNAS, offers a suggested solution to this paradox: poorer societies are more religious, and the effects of national religiosity lessen the effects of poverty on well-being.
“It is not a nation’s economic development per se that alters the psychological burden of lower SES, but a tremendously important covariate of it— national religiosity,” the authors write. “Eminent thinkers, from Voltaire to Durkheim, have pointed to the role of religion in creating and maintaining norm-abiding groups. The resulting social norms hold prominent positions in theories of the emergence and perpetuation of culture and, ultimately, human evolution.”
To test their hypothesis, the authors gather data from three global opinion surveys: the Gallup World Poll, the Gosling-Potter Internet Personality Project, and World Values Survey. They use these data to test the relationship between socioeconomic status and self-reported well-being, and how that relationship is mediated by both economic development and religiosity.
First, they replicate the finding that higher levels of national development lead to a higher psychological burden: SES is significantly associated with well-being in highly developed Norway, for example, but not in Jamaica. They also find that higher levels of religiosity attenuate the relationship between SES and well-being, albeit with a smaller effect size than indicators of development. Finally, they combine the two models to show that “the psychological burden of lower SES was attenuated in more religious nations and that this finding emerged consistently in all three data sets.”
While the study uses large and well-collected surveys, and includes a number of controls in its final analysis, readers should not draw too strong a conclusion from it. Collecting survey data across the world is challenging, and adequately distinguishing correlation and causation in survey data alone is a vexing problem.
That said, there is a certain plausibility to the theory. The authors suggest that religious messaging may reduce the social opprobrium associated with poverty, and increase the suspicion cast on the conspicuously wealthy. It may also be the case that people in secularized societies assess their personal value based more on material achievement, and less on spiritual “achievement,” meaning that they self-evaluate their own poverty more negatively than they would if they had religion to fall back on.
If, indeed, religiosity attenuates the SES-well-being relationship, then this is concerning news for those nations undergoing a religious decline, including the United States. “The Western world has witnessed a marked decline in national religiosity over the last decades,” the authors write.
Viewed through the lens of the present research, this decline suggests that the harmful effects of lower SES on well-being should be more severe now than they were in the past. There is reason to believe that religious decline may even accelerate in the decades to come. As a result, lower SES may well exert particularly harmful effects on well-being in the future.
Without the buffer of religion, the self-perceived suffering of the poor would increase—an unhappy allotment, even amid greater plenty.
Charles Fain Lehman is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a Contributing Editor at City Journal.