Religion Needs the Poor

A new study by the Pew Research Center predicts that the global percentage of those who are religiously unaffiliated will decline in the next coming decades. It is a prediction that seems on face value to go against trends of an increase in those who are ostensibly less religious than in previous decades – especially in Western nations.

One theory is that existential security is inversely proportional to religious commitment. Put simply, “existential security” is the level at which I feel my life is at risk. It’s a good measure of happiness as well.

So if I live in a society where healthcare is universal, for example, and quality of life is stronger and more secure, my religious commitment will likely decline. I will also have more access to birth control and engage in less risky behaviors. These are the pockets where religion has less a hold on the community. When we take away those social securities, behaviors are more risky, people are less healthy, poorer, and more desperate. Existential crises are petri dishes for religious experimentation, for religion to be a social carrier, and the psychological desire or assumed need for a God or salvation. A less economically advantaged nation will naturally have a higher probability of existential insecurity.

(S)ocial vulnerability and lack of human development drive both religiosity and population growth. This means that the total number of religious people continues to expand around the globe, even while secularization is also taking place in the more affluent nations (Norris & Inglehart, 2006, p. 64).

The happiest nations are by far not the most religious. These trends are deep in the sociology of religion literature. However, one variable to bear in mind is the way that different religions carry societies. In previous centuries, Christianity carried both wealth and social mobility in the West. It is not an effective carrier in these societies as it once was. Islam and its network of banks and other social mechanisms designed to institute and maintain existential security are creating different patterns of religious behavior and may actually aid in its expansion.

Some social theorists have suggested that as countries develop economically, more of their residents will move away from religious affiliation, as has been seen in Europe. But there is little evidence of such a phenomenon in Muslim-majority countries. Moreover, in Hindu-majority India, religious affiliation is still nearly universal despite rapid economic and social change.

It will be interesting to see if Islam follows a similar pattern. As it carries people into a more existentially secure state of mind, will it continue to have the same sway over belief?

Even with this variable accounted for, the relationship between having one’s life at risk and becoming more religious seems to be continually supported in what we are finding out about patterns in religion worldwide.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, indeed.

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