Why Atheists Should Listen to Pope Francis

12 Dec


Atheists really should listen to Pope Francis:

Francis wrote in a papal statement, “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system…. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”

The author of this article is slamming atheists for “not picking the correct battles”. I think I actually agree. Pope Francis’ quote above, if followed through, would be one of the biggest deathblows to religion. There are a multitude of studies I’ve read that show that income inequality is tightly linked with religiosity.

Every single 1st world nation that is irreligious shares a set of distinctive attributes. These include handgun control, anti-corporal punishment and anti-bullying policies, rehabilitative rather than punitive incarceration, intensive sex education that emphasizes condom use, reduced socio-economic disparity via tax and welfare systems combined with comprehensive health care, increased leisure time that can be dedicated to family needs and stress reduction, and so forth.


Long-time readers of this blog will know that the link between inequality and religion has a particular fascination for me. In fact, the blog started while I was doing background research into a paper I wrote in 2009, on the link between income inequality and religion in countries around the world.

The idea was first put forward in rough form in an earlier book by Pippa Norris and Ronald Ingelhart. My paper took that a modest step further, by showing that income inequality really did seem to be an independent factor helping to explain why people in some countries pray more often than in others.

But you should always treat any particular piece of research with a healthy pinch of salt. All too often, promising findings tend to evaporate on closer examination. You can only be confident that the effect is real if it holds up when you kick the tyres a bit and test out the hypothesis in different ways.

Which is why it was good to see another paper, later in 2009, which used different (more sophisticated) statistical tools to showed a link between inequality and Church attendance. That was good corroboration, because it used a different set of data and compared it with a different aspect of religion.


Barber found that countries with more Muslims, a larger agricultural workforce, and more infectious diseases had fewer atheists. And countries that were once communist, had more education, and had higher taxation had more atheists.

But even after taking all this into account, those countries with higher income inequality still had fewer atheists.

That’s a remarkable result, especially when you consider that one of the main ways to reduce income inequality and its bad effects is to increase taxes. So those countries that raise taxes without fixing income inequality are still going to be more religious.

And rich people use religion to keep the poor in their place:

…many wealthy individuals, rather than simply allowing redistribution to be decided through the democratic process as such median-voter models assume, respond to higher levels of inequality by adopting religious beliefs and spreading them among their poorer fellow citizens. Religion then works to discourage interest in mere material well-being in favor of eternal spiritual rewards, preserving the privileges of the rich and allowing unequal conditions to continue.


As we estimate here, 68% of human beings-4.6 billion people-would say that religion is important in their daily lives. Past studies have found that the religious, on average, have higher subjective well-being (SWB). Yet, people are rapidly leaving organized religion in economically developed nations where religious freedom is high. Why would people leave religion if it enhances their happiness? After controlling for circumstances in both the United States and world samples, we found that religiosity is associated with slightly higher SWB, and similarly so across four major world religions. The associations of religiosity and SWB were mediated by social support, feeling respected, and purpose or meaning in life. However, there was an interaction underlying the general trend such that the association of religion and well-being is conditional on societal circumstances. Nations and states with more difficult life conditions (e.g., widespread hunger and low life expectancy) were much more likely to be highly religious. In these nations, religiosity was associated with greater social support, respect, purpose or meaning, and all three types of SWB. In societies with more favorable circumstances, religiosity is less prevalent and religious and nonreligious individuals experience similar levels of SWB. There was also a person-culture fit effect such that religious people had higher SWB in religious nations but not in nonreligious nations. Thus, it appears that the benefits of religion for social relationships and SWB depend on the characteristics of the society.

Jerry Coyne:

As we know, the south is really religious (just go there if you doubt that!), and the northeast and west coast states much less so.

And below is a national map of the Human Development Index (HDI) from Wikipedia. This index is a measure of societal well being that differs from the “Successful Societies Scale” (SSS) that I used in my talk at Harvard. The HDI uses a set of traits that differ from those used in the SSS: the former amalgamates three traits (life expectancy, education, and income), while the latter combines 25 traits, including corruption, income disparity, child mortality, access to medical care, suicide rates, and so on. Unlike the SSS, under which the U.S. ranks very low among first-world nations, the HDI places the U.S. at the top when the index is not adjusted for inequality among residents, but falls much lower when adjusted for inequality (see the Wikipedia article on the HDI at link above). The disparity may be due to the inclusion of income inequality in the adjusted HDI; income inequality is highly positively correlated with religiosity across 71 nations.

The south is not so great here, the northeast (and two states on the west coast) are better. That suggests a relationship between religiosity and well being as measured by the HDI.

After crunching the data, Dr. Roy produced this correlation between the religiosity of the 50 states and their ranking on the HDI:


As you see, we have the same negative relationship between well-being and religiosity that we saw for different countries of the West. The correlation here is r= – 0.66897, and the probability (“p”) that this correlation would arise by chance is p = 0.00000012. (A value of p less than 0.05 is conventionally used to show a significant relationship.) This relationship, then, is not only striking but very highly significant in a statistical sense. Harry put a least-squares regression line through the data; its slope is also highly significant.

24/7 Wall St.

4. United States
> Gini coefficient: 0.378
> Change in income inequality: +12.1%
> Employment rate: 66.7% (13th highest)
> Change in income of the rich: +1.9% per year
> Change in income of the poor: +0.5% per year

Inequality in the United States increased significantly from 1985 to 2008, putting it in the fourth-worst spot in the study. As with many other countries in which income inequality has increased, average income has gone up across all income groups since the mid-1980s, but not equally. The income of the wealthiest 10% has greatly outpaced the poorest 10%. The share enjoyed by the top 0.1% in total pretax income quadrupled in the 30 years to 2008.

The USA is the most religious 1st world democracy.

And of course, one of my earlier posts, What’s Wrong With Believing In God?:

The most religious places to live are also the worst places to live.

Teen pregnancies are highest in the most religious parts of the US. Porn is bought more in the more religious parts of the US. Out of first world democracies, the most religious ones are positively correlated with rates of homocides, STDs, teen pregnancies, and other societal ills.

fMRI scans show that people simply assign their own beliefs to god in order to validate them.

Belief in god doesn’t reduce substance abuse, and makes people more intolerant.

Religious attendance, but not beliefs, were linked to improved health, a reduction in suicides, and increased marital fidelity. Which suggests that it’s having social support networks, and not god belief, that makes people happier and society better.

I’m quoting myself a lot, but this is what I wrote about liberalizing religions before, and it bears repeating.

Liberal religionists are really in a bind. If they continue to liberalize — meaning increasing the well-being of people in “material” ways such as welfare states, social justice, etc. — then they will lead to their own undoing. Welfare states and social justice are the main sociological factors that lead to nations becoming non-religious. I don’t have any problem with that, but if they want to see their traditions continue beyond just textbooks, then they might have an issue with it.

If one wants to win the fight against religion, one has to start looking at the causes of belief formation, not the conclusions. Income inequality is one of those causes.

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Posted by on December 12, 2013 in economics/sociology


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