Is it better to be poor in a rich country or in a poor country? It’s a deceptively complicated question! An overall poor country may have less income inequality, meaning you might be poor, but everyone you see and interact with is also poor so it may not seem so bad. Slovenia is a developing country and is one of the most income-equal countries in the world according to the Gini index. The United States, a developed country, ranks around 124 out of 157 countries, meaning our poor people live in an entire world that is built to remind them of what they lack. Not great for mental health!
But on the other hand, in theory a more economically developed country should have more resources to aid economically disadvantaged people, in terms of universal healthcare, public transportation, or universal basic income. And so, apparently it’s been assumed for some time amongst experts that a more economically developed country is better for poor people. A rising tide lifts all boats, right? Like, remember when the stock market was doing really well and we were all super rich and eating caviar? Remember that? Hmm.
Well, in recent years research on this topic has shown that the former seems to actually be the correct one: poor people in developing countries are happier than poor people in developed countries. But why? Is it wealth inequality? Probably not, considering that despite my examples of Slovenia and the United States, it doesn’t necessarily hold that wealthier nations have more income inequality. I tricked you with cherrypicked data points! Trust no one!
But maybe it’s because rich nations value wealth more, so poor people in those countries are more likely to think of their lack of wealth as a moral failing. Or, speaking of morality, maybe it’s because richer countries are less likely to be religious, and the major world religions tend to be anti-money and pro-poor people, like this study from 2012 suggested.
Enter a recent paper published in PNAS (and brought to my attention by valued patron JeanLucPicorgi): National religiosity eases the psychological burden of poverty, brought to us by an international collection of psychologists led by Jana B. Berkessel of University of Mannheim, best known for their groundbreaking steamroller design.
The psychologists looked at three different data sets, two that had about 1.5 million subjects and one with a quarter of million subjects, across 156, 85, and 92 nations. They controlled for things like income inequality, urban vs rural populations, and individualism vs collectivism (which I covered in this video from last year about how national philosophies might explain our reaction to the pandemic). They found that “as national religiosity continues to decline, lower socioeconomic status will become increasingly harmful for well-being.”
I honestly wish I were better with statistical modeling, because this study is basically all statistics — taking a bunch of existing data and messing with it. But I’m not good with stats, so in a study like this I unfortunately have to take their word for it that these covariates had nothing to do with the results. Luckily, I do have a statistician friend, Jamie Bernstein, who actually praised the researchers’ transparency with their data and what models they used, going on to say “they ran the exact same analysis 3 times using three different datasets from different organizations and they got the same pattern of results in all three analyses, which confirms that what they found does seem to be a real pattern and not something that was caused by some weird elements of the specifics of the way the surveys were conducted.”
So yes, this study did present good evidence that religion is correlated with well-being amongst the poor. It’s not an established cause, just a compelling correlation, meaning that maybe religious poor people feel better about themselves because of their religion, or maybe people who tend to be religious tend to be happier regardless, or as Jamie points out, maybe it’s something like displacement — “It’s possible that in lower-GDP countries the poorest members of the community have stayed in the same location for generations and have built strong ties to their community, which increase well-being. Whereas, higher GDP-countries may experience more displacement of populations, which leads to less community ties and has strong decreases on happiness and security for poor people in particular.”
Or, maybe it’s something that many of us progressive atheists already thought of, talked about nonstop at conferences and in blog posts and in books, but were generally ignored by the few large and influential secular organizations.
I’m a certified dumb-dumb so even though I have talked about this a lot, I’m going to again step back and just let a certified smart person say it. Here’s Black Skeptics Los Angeles founder Sikivu Hutchison in a Washington Post op-ed in 2014:
“African Americans still live in disproportionately segregated neighborhoods, with few living-wage jobs, parks, accessible public transportation and healthy grocery stores. We make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but nearly 40 percent of its prison and homeless populations. This disparity has only deepened in the Obama age.
“Faith-based institutions provide resources to these poor and working-class families. They also fight racial discrimination, offer a foundation for community organizing and create access to social welfare, professional networks and educational resources. These are essential issues, and atheists of color often find themselves allied in these missions.”
Hutchison points out that white atheists tend to be affluent, and so they don’t really care to educate themselves about what’s happening and don’t consider it to be an atheist or humanist issue to do much more than worry about separation of church and state and creationism in schools, rather than “affirmative action, voting rights, affordable housing, reproductive rights, education and job opportunities.”
When I first got involved in atheist and skeptic activism, there was a lot of befuddlement over why black people, women, and other marginalized groups weren’t joining, but when people like Hutchinson said “hey maybe it’s because black churches provide essential resources to a community under constant attack, and if humanist organizations can start caring about those issues and helping provide those resources, even if it means actually teaming up with progressive religious people, maybe more black people will join the cause?” The organizations responded by making room in the conference schedule for one diversity panel starring a woman, a black person, and some flavor of gay person. Hi, I’m the woman. I often paid for my own airfare and hotel.
So I agree with the authors of this study in part — most major religions DO try to make people feel better for being poor or oppressed, like “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” But it makes more sense to me, personally, to look more deeply at whether or not these “developed” countries are actually instituting large scale secular safety nets that actively try to improve equality (income and otherwise). How many developed countries judge their success on how fulfilled the poorest citizen is, as opposed to prioritizing things like how well the stock market is doing? That might give us a more helpful hint as to what we need to do moving forward other than “just keep everyone religious somehow.”