Are Poor People Happier in Religious Societies?

This post contains a video, which you can also view here. To support more videos like this, head to!


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.”

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

Related Articles


  1. there was a lot of befuddlement over why black people, women, and other marginalized groups weren’t joining

    Maybe, in addition to your other reasons (which I agree with), another reason is the often rather blatent racism, classism, misogyny and sexual harassment and violence, ablism, etc., that a lot of atheists display and which, according to what I read, also predominate in many atheist organizations. For instance, I’ve read a lot of on-line atheist women who refuse to even use the word atheist because of how odious so many self-styled atheists are. I get the impression that for a lot of atheists (or at least a lot of the loud-mouthed ones), atheism is just another support pillar for their privilege. (Dawkins is kind of the poster boy for this.)

    Another aspect of this is that for many people in religious organizations, God and Jesus aren’t the primary reasons for joining. You mention the support role that Black churches have played in the African-American community, but there are things other than theistic beliefs that attract non-Black people as well to churches and other religious organizations. Things like wanting the sense of connectedness that comes from belonging to a community, or wanting your children to grow up among people who share your moral values, or, in some cases, looking for communities that are actively working towards the sorts of social change that you feel are important.

    And some religious movements aren’t all that fussy about beliefs in divinities. I’ve been a member of Quaker Meetings and, later on, Unitarian congregations, and they don’t promote any particular beliefs; I’ve even seen (small a) atheists who feel at home there. What I’ve appreciated has been how much they focus on simply being a decent person and working to make the world a better place. (The UUs have a saying, “deed, not creed.”)

  2. 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.”
    I have a hard time imagining what this kind of white atheist is thinking. Atheism as a belief is utterly uninteresting, and political organizing based on atheism as a mere belief it makes no more sense than political organizing based around a shared belief that the New York Jets are the best team in the NFL or around a shared belief that mushrooms are yucky.

    What makes atheism interesting and something worth organizing around are the presumptions and philosophies underlying belief in atheism, and those presumptions and philosophies, if shared and non-trivial, are always going to have conclusions going beyond “gods do not exist.” A philosophy that calls for closely examining the presumptions and philosophical structure underlying culturally propagated beliefs before accepting them as true – i.e., the philosophy ostensibly underlying skeptical atheism – applies as reasonably and persuasively to the belief that everyone should just shut up and follow the lead of “educated” white men as to the belief that god(s) exist.

    Saying that organized atheist political activism should only be about separation of church and state and keeping creationism out of schools inherently delegitimizes atheist activism and is philosophically indistinguishable from advocating that the bible should be taught in school and evolution shouldn’t. No one should give a flying fuck about Richard Dawkins’ beliefs about gods when his “reasoning” about sexism and racism make clear that, any claims to the contrary, his belief that gods don’t exist is a mere belief that he can’t support any better than Kent Hovind can support his own beliefs. Both men have the same basic philosophy – everything I believe is true and here’s a bunch of post-hoc rationalization “supporting” my beliefs – that can be dismissed out of hand by anyone who bothers trying to identify why they believe what they believe.

    Dawkinites can claim all they want that there is reasoning behind their belief that gods don’t exist, but when they start saying that atheism is just a belief that gods don’t exist or refuse to apply the “reasoning” they claim is behind their atheism to other beliefs they’ve given up the ghost. They don’t believe in gods because they don’t believe in gods.

    It’s no wonder that they are terrible representatives of atheism, alienating most atheists and never helping to achieve progress towards the ostensible goals of their atheist activism. They’re just old men on the lawn, yelling at the moon to believe them.

Leave a Reply to rmjohnstonCancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button