On religion and poverty

Sunny has picked up a rather interesting special report on religion in public life in the Economist (start here – there are about 7 or 8 articles that can be read in sequence by following the ‘next article’ link at the bottom of each piece) which has prompted him to some intriguing observations:

What I find most interesting from that report is that globally the picture is very different from what is painted by the usual suspects in Britain. Increased education does not seem to lead to decreased religiousity; the axis of all religions, including Christianity, is shifting East along with economic power; Christians are more aggressively evangelical than Muslims and will maintain their larger numbers.

It also means that when fundamentalist Christians in this country, perhaps epitomised by blogger Archbishop Cramner, complain that Muslims show far more religious fervour and Christians are losing out in the power stakes, they don’t understand that religious power itself is moving to the East. The major conflicts of the this century, whether over religion, resources or territory, will mostly take place in the East. In economic stakes and religious stakes ‘the western hemisphere’ (albeit the US) will become a bystander.

Now I’m really not sure that I’d drop Cramner into the same ‘fundamentalist’ box as, say, the Pentecostalists, Southern Baptists or any of the other independent strands of evangelical protestantism that make up the core of the modern fundamentalist movement. Cranmer, by adopted name and, from what I read, demeanour, looks to be very much a conservative ‘High’ Anglican in a sense that I suspect most would, today, find rather unfamiliar; one that harks back to the days when the Church of England was often referred to, somewhat facetiously, as the ‘Conservative Party at prayer’.

(Cranmer will, no doubt, correct me if I am in error in my assumption, but in essence he appears – to me – to ‘represent’ a brand of Anglicanism that was once commonplace but which has been, for quite some time, rather out of fashion in the Church of England, rather than one of the new ‘free church’ evangelical movements)

Quibbles over designations aside, the most interesting point here is the observation that ‘increased education does not seem to lead to decreased religiosity’. This is true, for all that there is a significant body of academic work – largely from the US – that demonstrates a correlation between poor educational standards and limited access to education and increased levels of religiosity. The assumption, harboured by some secularists/atheists, that raising educational standards will lead to a corresponding reduction in religiosity is something of a myth, albeit a comforting one for those who strongly espouse the importance of enlightenment values of knowledge, understanding and reason, one based on the all too common fallacy that correlation implies causation.

In this case it doesn’t, and it doesn’t precisely because education is not the primary causal factor but rather an indicator that points to an altogether different and more important cause; this being our old ‘friends’ poverty and income inequality.

Sunny includes, in his article, the following graphic, which shows amongst Pentecostal worshippers, in a number of countries when Pentecostalism is spreading rapidly, the extent to which people believe themselves to have had some measure of direct ‘contact’ with god by way of ‘divine’ healings, direct revelations or via participation in or witnessing exorcisms.

What makes this list interesting is not the numbers professing to have had such experiences but the list of countries included in the list, all of which have in common the fact that have large (and increasing) populations who live in poverty – the measure in use here being that of an income of less than 50% of median income – together with high levels of income inequality and a very limited, if not entirely absent, social welfare system of a kind that barely evens serves as a ‘safety net’ for the poorest in society.

That this is the case in the majority of those countries included on the list; India, South Africa, Brazil, etc., would, I think, be taken ‘as read’.

The inclusion of the US and South Korea would, to some, seem rather more surprising. Both are amongst the most affluent nations on the planet in terms of both nominal GDP, in which the US is ranked first, and South Korea thirteenth (above the likes of Australia, Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland), and per capita GDP, where the US is either fourth or sixth and South Korea thirty-first or thirty-fourth depending on whether you take your figures from the IMF or the CIA World Factbook.

Yet amongst OECD countries, the US ranks second and South Korea third in terms of income inequality, topped only by Hungary and both are towards the bottom of the list in terms of per capita spending on welfare – in this list of 28 OECD countries, South Korea is at the bottom of list in terms of expenditure on welfare as a percentage of GDP, with the US fourth from bottom and neither has, by Western European standards, a particularly robust welfare system.

What we’ve established, so far, is that the US and South Korea – the two affluent nations that are currently most subject to a growing tide of religiosity – are amongst those with the greatest levels of relative poverty and income inequality and possess what are amongst the least robust welfare systems in the OECD. But how, exactly, are these two factors – religiosity and poverty/income inequality – related?

To understand that you have to understand how religion – specifically Christianity (although the same principles apply to Islam, Judaism and to ‘fundamentalist’ movements within, for example, Hinduism) – actually ‘works’ as a sociological and psychological phenomenon.

Let’s start with a very basic idea and a bit of evolutionary psychology.

Humans, as with other species, are subject to a number of basic biological drives, the most primal and important of which is that of survival. However, what also needs to be understood is that when we say ‘survival’ what we mean is rather more than merely the survival of the individual at a level at or or above that which meets their basic subsistence needs. Survival, in this context, means survival not only of the living organism but also survival of its genetic material by way of its being passed on successive generations.

(If you want the detail behind this concept, then avail yourself of a copy of Dawkins’ ‘The Selfish Gene‘)

Survival, at the genetic level, necessitates not only subsistence but the ability to accumulate (and defend) resources (food, shelter, etc.) over an above the minimum level necessary for mere survival in order to improve one’s chances of passing on one’s genes to the next generation. To pass on your gene you need to mate and to attract a mate you have to compete with others of your species who’re seeking to do the same thing, which means that you need to be bigger, stronger, healthier, etc. than your rivals, all of which requires more resources; the best possible supply of food, the best materials for constructing a shelter, etc.

As with all other species, we are subject to a basic degree of biological ‘programming’ that drives us to compete (or, in humans and other social animals, to collaborate) to improve our circumstances and living conditions.

Now, okay, as societies and civilisation has developed, those primal drives have been overlaid, adapted, modified and reinforced by a wide variety of social, psychological and cultural factors, but the basic drive to better our circumstances is there nonetheless and still operates on us, perhaps more so because of all the additional ‘baggage’ we’ve added over the years.

That’s all well and good, but it raises an important question. In the context of societies and civilisation, how do we deal with situations in which that basic aspiration drive is – for whatever reason – frustrated to the extent it become near impossible to make any substantive improvements in our lot? And especially, of course, those situations in which the cause of such frustrations is other people, other members of our society, people who are in – in terms of population – the minority?

We live in an unequal world such that the primary, if not absolutely central concern, of all political institutions – and that includes things like organised religion and capitalism as well as government and the state – have to find a means of managing inequality and the frustrations that stem from it.

One way of doing it – that favoured by totalitarian regimes (dictatorships, absolute monarchies, etc.) is by way of force and oppression, which gives rise to the ‘police state’ and that goes with it. And on the other side of that same coin is, of course, popular revolution – if force can be used to sustain and ‘manage’ inequality it can also be used to attempt to overturn it.

Democracy, and especially capitalism, manage inequality in a rather different manner by employing various means of ‘buying off’ the masses in order to reduce them to state of quietism. Both permit a little of the key resource (wealth, political power) to trickle down to the masses, just enough to convince them that they are making some progress and have some scope to improve their lot but not so much as to fuel the kind of aspirations that might serve to threaten those at the top, and it has to be said that this is – by and large – a pretty effective approach. As long as you can convince the majority of the people that their lives are improving by small, incremental, degrees, many either won’t notice or won’t care too much that the workings of the system mean that your life improves by a lot more than theirs. It’s a balancing act, which can be difficult to maintain and sustain, but when it does work it tends to offer greater stability than other alternatives.

Religion, at various times, has and will resort to both of these methods. On one side the Inquisition and, on the other, charity and the performance of ‘good works’, but – almost uniquely – it has another trick up its sleeve, and its that which provides the key to understanding the relationship between religion and poverty.

What needs to be understood clearly is that the majority of mainstream religions in the world today have – to varying degrees – been subjected at some point in their history to the extremes of oppression and persecution and, in the case of Christianity, oppression and persecution (by the Roman state) are its formative experiences. In terms of its history, it was ‘born’ – as a political entity – under extreme conditions of inequality, poverty and persecution from the time of Nero almost right through to the time of its adoption as the state religion of the Roman Empire by Constantine, more than two centuries later, and its political outlook – even today – is deeply marked by its origins.

So, almost the first question it has to find an answer to is that of how to sustain itself in conditions where its followers had little or no prospect of fulfilling their basic drive for material self-improvement. To survive it had to find a means of managing inequality from the bottom up and find incentives for its putative followers that would offset and compensate them for their inability – due to state oppression – to make any material progress in the world.

Religion ‘manages’ poverty and inequality from the bottom up, and indeed thrives in such conditions, by ‘selling’ the masses a very different notion of what their basics needs are and how they can best be fulfilled, one that de-emphasises to the point of insignificance the value of the material world in favour of a notion ‘spiritual world’, an ‘inner life’ that cannot be taken away from the individual by means of external oppression. It’s answer to the pivotal question of how an individual can fulfil their needs and improve their lot in circumstances where it is impossible for them to improve their material conditions (and where any such improvements are taken away from them by oppression from above) is to propose that the individual should reduce their material wants and need to an absolute minimum. The central message is that if you don’t want something in the first place then you cannot be made unhappy or be frustrated if you either don’t have it or if others deny you the means to get it so the only way you can be sure of fulfilling your wants and needs is being limiting them to only those (abstract) things that you can control and which cannot be take away from you. Reinforce that notion with the promise of ‘jam tomorrow’ in the form of a promise of a paradisical life after death as the reward for showing virtue and forbearance in life and you have an incredibly powerful social and psychological lever, one that in the right circumstances can ‘move’ whole populations.

And, of course, as the promised reward can be obtained only in a hypothetical ‘place’ that cannot be accessed from the material world while the believer remains alive, and from which there is no prospect return once dead, you never have to worry about anyone coming back to complain that the promised rewards weren’t all they were cracked up to be.

Religion – particularly Christianity – thrives in conditions of extreme poverty and inequality precisely because it is, itself, a product of such conditions and has evolved a set of very powerful and effective social, political and psychological mechanisms for managing and exploiting those conditions to its own maximum advantage, which is precisely why – but for external political interference of the kind that has operated in communist states over the last sixty years – one finds that religiosity is it at greatest level in those societies where there is the greatest degree of relative poverty and income inequality – and this is true both in the developing world (self-evidently) but also in relatively affluent western economies where there are significant levels of poverty and inequality – which includes not only the US and South Korea, but also a number of countries in Southern and Eastern Europe in which agriculture – which tends to generate lower levels of wealth than either manufacturing or the provision of financial and other services, remains a far more significant component of the economy than it is in Northern Europe (including the UK).

(Oh, and before anyone tries pointing to Italy as the exception that bucks this general trend, I should point out both that the presence of the Vatican has a marked effect in skewing trends in religiosity and that such trends are also subject to significant regional variations. The degree of religiosity to be found in the industrial North of Italy is very different to that in the agrarian south, much as one tends to find the greatest degree of religiosity in German society in Bavaria, where agriculture remains a significant part of the state economy…

…And, of course, the connection between religiosity and poverty also explains why the former it more prevalent, in Britain today, in those migrant communities – African/African Caribbean, Pakistani, Bangladeshi. etc. where poverty and inequality is at its greatest.)

The notion that increasing education will reduce levels of religiosity has arisen, and taken hold primarily because, as a society, we equate education with affluence and improvements in individual material circumstances. If you get a better education, you get a better job and become more affluent in the process. And because so much of the public narrative surrounding religion, secularism, science, etc. resolves itself into a ‘battle of ideas’, an intellectual conflict, the widely held assumption is that its actually education, itself, that serves to counter religiosity, when in fact its one of education’s primary ‘by-products’ – increasing affluence – which affords individuals the means to meet their material needs and aspirations rather than fall back on the stoicism and self-denial of religion to mange out those needs and aspirations, that is actually at work here.

What makes this even more interesting is, of course, that the overwhelming tendency amongst religiously-inspired/influenced social conservatives has been, for many years, to blame a whole raft of what the perceive to be social ‘ills’ – and more to the point, the general failure of their preferred solutions to gain significant traction in British society – on liberalism, permissiveness, secularism, atheism and – especially – just about anything to do with the 1960s, while often professing open support for and admiration of capitalism and the free market economy, without ever once coming to appreciate – but for periodic complaints about ‘consumerism’ – that the real ‘enemy’ that has been systematically undermining their values and reducing their influence is the rising levels of affluence in British that are the direct product of the modern capitalist economy.

In the current global climate this one observation has massive implications in terms of the approach taken by the US, UK and other Western economies in addressing a whole raft of economic and foreign policy issues, not least those raised by Islamic radicalism, where the current tendency to approach such issues from the standpoint of a burgeoning ‘conflict of ideas’, one that – in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan – has sadly tipped over into military conflict.

There is, at present, a general political consensus that takes the view that religion, and [Islamic] religious fundamentalism in particular, is a destabilising force in the world and one that threatens the material and economic security of Western liberal society. In this, in recent years, much of the public and political discourse has been driven, or course, by the US and, from within the US by social conservative many of whose values are rooted in and derived from Christianity, and particularly from evangelical/fundamentalist forms of Christianity of the kind that has come to thrive in the unequal social conditions across much of the heartlands of the US. And its from precisely this source that the notion that Islamic fundamentalism should be countered by a battle of ideas, backed up by force if necessary (or expedient) has emerged at much the same time as this same body of ideological opinion has taken the resources of world to there for the exploitation of the ‘free’ market no matter the social costs.

In much the same manner that some (many?) secularists and atheists have mistakenly assumed that education is the key to reducing levels of religiosity – and therefore reducing the perceived threat to global stability posed by religious fundamentalism – so the assumption of the US government and its supporters has been that the spread of liberal democracy is the key that we should be looking for and promoting at all costs, while – at the same time – using the notion of spreading democracy as a ‘trojan horse’ the purpose of which is to open up access to resources and institute ‘free markets’ of the kind that are ripe for exploitation by Western (and largely US corporations), in almost exclusively their own interests.

But the answer is not democracy itself, but rather the means by which democracy operates to mitigate and ameliorate the tensions and frustrations arising from poverty and income inequality, its purchasing of the quietism of the masses by enabling some portion of the wealth and power of society – generated by markets and the capitalist economy – to trickle down to the lowest levels that makes all the difference both in providing for political stability and reducing the influence and appeal of religious fundamentalism.

Democracy is not the answer – its the tendency for a healthy democracy to lift the yoke of poverty from the masses just enough to ensure that their basic drive for self-improvement can be met, by redistributing – out of necessity – some portion of the wealth generated by the markets to the poorest in society, alleviating the pressures of poverty and income inequality, that makes the whole thing work and provides for relative political stability.

Sunny closes his piece by asking:

The question here is: how will atheists react? How will our definition of a secular society change?

The more apt question here is how will Western society as a whole react?

Will it continue on its current course and continue to allow and facilitate economic exploitation by global corporations, which are now largely detached from conventional notions of social and economic responsibility – to move us ever closer to the kind of religious and political conflagrations that lies at the heart of the direst of apocalyptic neo-conservative ‘warning’ while, at the same time, promoting the absurd notion (as advanced by Mad Mel Phillips, amongst others) that we should counter Islamic fundamentalism by ‘re-Christianising’ Britain and adopting a brand of religious fundamentalism more in keeping with our own history?

Or will we pull back from what, if left unchecked, are forces that could genuinely send up spiralling into a state of near perpetual warfare (ideological and actual) and come to realise that the real solutions lies in the simple expedient of depriving fundamentalist religions of the oxygen of poverty in which they have developed, evolved and currently thrive.

  • Leo

    An interesting perspective, i nevertheless disagree with your analysis of capitalism in relation to inequality. More specifically:

    “Democracy, and especially capitalism, manage inequality in a rather different manner by employing various means of

  • Diversity

    Capitalism is by far the greatest of Karl Marx’s inventions (who talked of capitalism before Marx?). Of course, it is a terrible economic system. I have been trying to encounter or invent a less awful one for the last 60 years. Even worse ones are easy to find, but I have had a deplorable lack of success in identifying anything that might be better.

    Capitalism does provide significant funds to redistribute. On how redistribution is best done, isn’t one of the problems of simple cash handouts that they still leave the poor getting the sticky end of everything from quality of health care to value for money in groceries? Perhaps the answer in principle (as always, the devil will be found in the details)is to pay people to experience more education (and I do not see why we pensioners should be left out of that experience). People with more education get much better value for the resouces that they have; and the strongest single predictor of better health and living longer is more years of education, not a higher income.

    Going back to where the discussion started, the thesis on the link between religion and inequality is interesting. One of the things fairly well established about economic inequality is that when you have corrected for differences in income level countries with greater inequality tend to have shorter expectation of life. A test of the thesis might be “Does greater reported religious experience correlate positively with dying earlier?”

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