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What Third World Nations Tell Us About the Value of Religion

Joel is a journalist and researcher with a background in developmental and behavioral psychology, as well as cognitive development.

Luli Hassan Ali looks after her severely malnourished four-year-old son, Aden, and his six-year-old brother Mohammed, in a clinic in the Dagahaley camp in Dadaab.

Luli Hassan Ali looks after her severely malnourished four-year-old son, Aden, and his six-year-old brother Mohammed, in a clinic in the Dagahaley camp in Dadaab.

A Correlation Between Religiosity and Poverty

Conventional wisdom will say that the less well-off tend to be the most religious. Homeless people end up hanging out in Christian missions and on the doorsteps of churches. Inmates find God in prison. Church-goers are far more likely to be blue collar laborers while higher income white collar folks are probably sleeping in or playing golf on Sundays.

And the poor naked people in mud huts in South America are, no doubt, chanting tribal songs to their ancestral spirits.

Research shows that traditional wisdom may just be right.

A 2009 Gallup survey showed that there is, indeed, a strong correlation between national poverty and religiosity. Says Steve Crabtree of the Gallup Institute:

“Each of the most religious countries is relatively poor, with a per-capita GDP below $5,000. This reflects the strong relationship between a country's socioeconomic status and the religiosity of its residents. In the world's poorest countries -- those with average per-capita incomes of $2,000 or lower -- the median proportion who say religion is important in their daily lives is 95%. In contrast, the median for the richest countries -- those with average per-capita incomes higher than $25,000 -- is 47%.”

By way of comparison, about 65% of Americans claim that religion is important in their daily lives, which is still much higher than most wealthy nations.

In European and Asian nations with a per capita income of over $25K, only 34% of people are likely to say that religion is important to their daily lives.

Is Religion Important to your Daily Life?

Gallup, 2009

Per-capita IncomeYesNo
















Why is Religion so Prominent Developing Nations?

The explanation to this phenomenon is controversial. According to Gallup, social scientists postulate that perhaps religion is a healthy coping mechanism for the less-than-ideal living conditions and the struggles of everyday life.

Crabtree notes that a popular explanation places religiosity as the default characteristic of human nature, but as humans become better off in terms of education and living conditions, they begin to secularize, and the need for religion declines.

For instance, Polo Murillo of AXIOS Research says that this all boils down to education. That is to say, poorer countries have less access to education, therefore individuals within those countries are less educated in general. Murillo says that there is a negative correlation between education and religion, so one would expect less educated populations to be more religious.

However, says Crabtree,

“…these secularization theories have come under fire more recently for their inability to tell the whole story. Other researchers have shown that religion is in fact a powerful positive force for disadvantaged populations.”

The Positive Effects of Religion in Developing Nations

Crabtree goes on to cite previous Gallup data which shows that, in poorer countries, religious people generally have much more positive emotional health. They are, he says, more likely than non-religious residents to say that they experience enjoyment the previous day, and in the surveys, these religious residents experience less of a range of negative emotions. They experience more frequent instances of smiling, laughter, respect and support than the non-religious residents.

The data for this study is controlled for things like economic status, age, gender and race, and the positive trends persist.

The Positive Effects of Religion in General

Crabtree’s analysis is consistent with other studies on the nature of religion in people’s lives. For instance, Psychologist Luke Galen cites data that suggests that religion builds a structure which helps in things like goal-setting, self-control, corrective behavior, feelings of identity, self-worth and self-esteem, and an escape from loneliness.

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Studies conducted in the London School of Economics and the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands suggest that participation in religious organizations is strongly linked to sustained happiness. This study compared religious participation to a number of alternative routes to existential fulfillment – which included continual education – and found that religious participation trumped education in terms of personal fulfillment.

Additionally, numerous studies have positively correlated religious practices – such as prayer and worship – to sustained happiness and fulfillment for those coping with chronic conditions such as disease or handicaps.

Dr. Scott Moats, vice president for Academic Affairs and provost at Crown College in Minnesota, says of these studies, that when one broadens the definition of “happiness” to include such things as hope and personal fulfillment, religion can be said to be a decisive factor in happiness.

The bottom line is that the less ideal a person’s situation, the more fulfillment they find in religious practices.

More Wealth Means Less Religion

Interestingly, the opposite trend is also true. A study conducted by Psychology Science found that – as one would expect – wealthy nations had a higher rate of life satisfaction. However, poorer nations stoutly beat the wealthy ones in feelings of purpose and meaning. The study attributed this to the higher role religion played in these lower developed nations.

Pelhem and Crabtree, say that one can trace trends back to the 19th century to show that as countries become wealthier, they become more secular.

And in wealthier nations, religion seems to have a less significant effect on emotional wellbeing than in poorer nation.

The relationship between religion and emotional health is still positive in these well-off nations, but the positive effects are far less extreme. While in under-developed countries, the religious experience about ten-percent more positive effects across a number of emotional categories than the irreligious; in developed nations the differences trend closer to only 5%.

Pelhem et al link this lower trend in developed nations directly to the lower religiosity of these nations. The religious individual in the wealthier nation will find less acceptance and a smaller community of like-minded individuals with which to relate. In Latin American countries, for instance, the religious individual may rightly assume that any random person they meet will hold the same approximate values and sentiments as they do, but in wealthy nations, the religious individual is overtly discouraged from sharing their values and sentiments in the public forum.

Ultimately, religious people in poor countries experience less worry and less depression than wealthier countries, and roughly the same levels of sadness and anger – despite their poorer conditions. The only area in which wealthy nations trend higher is “enjoyment”. As one might expect.

There are many things that may be said about this. Skeptics of religion are likely to say that this data is demonstrative of the fact that religion is an invention to help people cope with difficulty. And that, as difficulty reduces, education and scientific inquiry take the place of superstition and mythology. Be that as it may, it’s worth noting that the religious believer in the poorer countries still have a higher overall fulfillment than the non-believer in a wealthy nation. So if science and education are filling the gap, they haven’t done an adequate job.

But Which Religion?

While these studies certainly look positive for the religious believer, it’s worth noting that no controls were taken for which religion. This doesn’t really help the cause of a particular religion if it is shown that any given religion could fill the same essential role in terms of giving purpose and meaning to life. It might demonstrate the importance of various behavioral practices, but not the veracity of any given belief.

For that information, it’s worth looking into additional data.

In their study on emotional satisfaction among indigenous religious communities, the Gallup institute found that sub-Sahara African countries stood out among the world. Within this region, three countries in particular showed particularly dramatic rates of religiosity and the associated satisfaction. These were Uganda, Ethiopia, and Burkina Faso.

While Islam has been a mainstay in Africa for around a millennia, Christianity has been on the rise and is now the dominant religion in this area. Thus its effects on the religious outlook of countries in this region are not insignificant.

So far as the three countries that stood out in these surveys, Uganda is currently four-fifths Christian, and Ethiopia is 63% Christian. Burkina Faso is only about a quarter Christian, with Islam still dominant.

It’s also worth noting that Christianity is represented in practically every country in the world, Christians make up 30% of the world’s population – such that, even in countries where some other religion is dominant, there will inevitably be at least some small subculture of Christians in representation. Consequently, the effect Christianity has on the data in these surveys is not inconsequential. Further, studies on the positive social and emotional effects of religion have almost entirely been conducted in countries with a strong Judeo-Christian tradition, and so tend to be biased in that direction. In a 2017 study by ten Kate, de Koster, and van der Waal, it was found that religious Muslims had a much lower life-satisfaction rating than the average secular person, while Catholics had a significantly higher life-satisfaction rating than the secular individual. Now this study was conducted in Holland, which is extremely secularized, so the religious population is relatively small. The study attributes the lower life satisfaction of Muslims to their underprivileged social position. The study does not control, however, for the fact that the religious residents are a very small subset of this culture, so Catholics may have a stronger traditional foothold, but are far from generally accepted in the culture. And as shown in the Gallup data, religious people living in secular cultures experience less overall positive effects from their religious affiliation than do religious people living in Third World Nations. Yet, still higher than secular residents do.

In a UK study conducted between 2012 and 2015, Christians who regularly attended church were tied with Hindus for reporting the greatest levels and happiness and life satisfaction as compared to the non-religious and other religions.

Of course, regular church attendance seemed to be the key factor, as those Christians who did not attend regularly were only marginally higher than secular individuals in terms of life satisfaction.

Once again, this was linked to the social support structure received by members of the faith group. This is consistent with other studies which show things like lower rates of divorce, suicide, depression and even general illness from church attending Christians versus those who do not attend.

The paper "Religion and Well-Being" expands the positive benefits of religion beyond mere church attendance, saying that “intrinsic religiosity” is also a strong predictor for life satisfaction. This study was incredibly detailed, taking into account multiple sub-groups within religion and culture, and also examining various beliefs within these groups that directly contributed to outlook. Ultimately, the study concluded that, of the wide variety of subgroups studied, older people, Blacks, women, and Protestants are the most satisfied with life.

The study proposed that the lower rates of satisfaction among Catholics and Orthodox Jews may have related to things like intrinsic religious guilt, or a cultural longing for a homeland.

The Bottom Line

From all of this, one may conclude that – while belonging to a strongly supportive sub-culture with social supports is universally more beneficial to mental health, other factors such as frequency of attendance, cultural acceptance and specific religious beliefs about things like the afterlife and God’s love versus God’s wrath all contribute to higher levels of wellbeing.

So here is what one may conclude:

  • Wealth tends to discourage religion
  • The more religious a country is, the more religious individuals feel accepted
  • Participation in a like-minded community contributes to emotional well-being
  • Positive beliefs about God, personal worth and the afterlife contribute to emotional well-being
  • Of the various world religions, Christian religions tend to have more positive effects on emotional wellbeing, with Protestant religions scoring highest among Christian belief systems

May one conclude from this information that Christianity is true? No. What one may conclude is that the ideas and practices related to Protestantism are the most existentially satisfying of all the known belief systems in the world.

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