Do countries become less religious as they get richer?

A new study from the Pew Research Center shows that the wealthier a country is, the less religious its people tend to be, except America.

Pew Research Center
The curve represents the logarithmic relationship between GDP per capita and the percentage saying that religion plays a very important role in their lives. Germany, France, Britain % data from spring 2011; US., Japan % data from spring 2012. Source: Spring 2011, 2012, 2013 Global Attitudes survey. Data for GDP per capita (PPP) from IMF World Economic Outlook Database, April 2014

A study recently published by the Pew Research Center suggests that people in richer countries tend to be less religious and less optimistic than those in poorer countries. The United States, however, is a notable outlier.

Measured by gross domestic product per capita, the US was wealthiest nation surveyed. According to Pew's survey, 54 percent of Americans said religion was very important in their lives –  more than double the percentage in the next three wealthiest economies: Canada (24 percent), Australia (21 percent) and Germany (21 percent).

According to Pew, the United States is also unlike similarly wealthy countries in that Americans put a greater emphasis on the correlation between belief in God and morality. Also, people in the U.S. also tend to be more optimistic than other wealthy nations, and on any given day are more likely to say they are having a particularly good day than are people in other wealthy countries.

But despite their religious tendencies, 57 percent of Americans do not agree that “success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control,” according to a different study conducted by Pew in 2014. This is significantly over the global median, 38 percent, and is perhaps a sign of the importance Americans place on individual achievement.

So how did we come to evolve culture that embraces the seemingly dissonant concepts of individual enterprise and surrender to a higher power?

In his seminal 1904 text, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," Max Weber argued that Protestantism – and particularly Calvinism – spurred believers to pursue their work with more zeal, giving rise to modern market capitalism in Northern Europe.

While America is atypically religious for a wealthy country, many poorer countries are much more religious than the US In nations such as Pakistan, Nigeria, and Senegal, religion plays an very important role in the lives of nearly 100 percent of the population, and 99 percent of people Indonesia and Ghana, see a direct correlation between believing in God and possessing good morals.

Gregory Paul, a paleontologist from Baltimore, told CBC News that religion tends to be more important to people in poorer countries because faith gives them an outlet to deal with the stress of their daily lives, made harder by poverty. Phil Zuckerman, a sociology professor at Pitzer College offered another way to view it, saying that the economic advantages make those in wealthy nations less prone to misfortune and therefore less reliant on religion.

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