In a recent study for which he analyzed data from 114 countries, author Nigel Barber states that religion declines in developed countries due to "greater existential security." As quoted in Guardian Express, Barber, a biopsychologist, notes that the evidence from his extensive study indicates that "atheism increases for countries with a well-developed welfare state (as indexed by high taxation rates). Moreover, countries with a more equal distribution of income had more atheists."

The reasoning behind his study follows what he calls the "uncertainty hypothesis;" belief in the supernatural, he posits, may be a way for those who experience inequality and marginalization to control and master the uncertainty of life. According to Barber's theory, then, those who experience equality and flow along with the mainstream no longer require a belief in the supernatural. In fact, a complete articulation of his thesis predicts that with changing trends and conditions, by 2041, most of the world will view religion as 'irrelevant.'

Rooted in rationality and reason though this argument may be, Barber does not seem to take into account those who may have attained what they believe to be economic security while still retaining religious belief. Certainly, many examples of successful people who practice religion can be found worldwide as well as here in the United States.

In fact, that is the question posed by authors of a study published two years ago in Social Science Quarterly: "why have religious attitudes and beliefs retained their relatively large importance in the United States while declining dramatically in other advanced societies?"


Although historians may dispute how many movements of Great Awakening have seized the imagination of Americans, evangelical religious experiences have shaped many lives on this continent pretty much since the arrival of the first colonists. During the first Great Awakening, which corresponded to a similar movement in Europe and began in the early 1700s, the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist Churches blossomed partially as a reaction against the Age of Reason but also, perhaps, simply because new social structures were needed in a New World. The second Great Awakening began near the end of the 18th Century and reached its peak about half a century later; some historians believe an element of that particular revivalist movement may have been the need for class reorganization, as many of the "awakened" were those who previously disdained organized religion while some of their "awakened" ministers had not been ordained by any official church hierarchy. In either case, it cannot be disputed that waves of religious feeling have swept this nation repeatedly.

These facts, though, only support Barber's theory. After all, the United States in its earliest political manifestations — America existed long before the colonists arrived, after all — was a place of great insecurity. Colonial life was anything but safe, given the difficulty of farming, the antagonism (rightful though it may have been) of the native people, the primitive medicines of that period. Religious feeling in America, then, easily may have derived from the feeling of uncertainty. Yet, those feelings persist today even among those who may be seen to have attained economic stability.

Although many might argue that life itself, with its possibility of illness or accident, remains uncertain for all, this could explain the abiding religiosity for the majority in the United States. A recent study from UC Berkeley and Duke University finds that only one in five people surveyed state they have no religion, but the authors of "Economic Inequality, Relative Power, and Religiosity" advance a different, though similar, argument.

Patterns Of Power

Their theory of 'relative power' acknowledges that religion can be a source of comfort to the poor, but it is "religion's ability to serve as a mechanism of social control for the rich" that is of greater and graver importance.

To investigate their theory, the authors combined, examined, and analyzed data on religiosity collected in the five waves of the World Values Survey and three waves of the European Values Survey from 1981 to 2007 with data on economic inequality from the Standardized World Income Inequality Database. "The resulting data set includes well over 200,000 individual respondents in more than 175 society-year contexts in 76 different societies," wrote the authors.

What do they discover?

Because religion discourages interest in 'mere material well-being' and instead promotes an ideal of eternal spiritual reward, it helps, then, to preserve class structures. "For the wealthy, greater inequality both increases their attraction to religion and enhances their power to disseminate religious beliefs among the rest of the population," the authors wrote. "The results of this work reinforce the importance of understanding religion and religiosity as part of larger patterns of power and powerlessness."

Yet, where in these theories is the spirituality that so many people genuinely feel?

A mythologist, author, and lecturer, Joseph Campbell found that universal patterns exist in the mythology of all cultures and that the need for religion is essentially a need for truth about the self. According to Belden C. Lane, professor of theological studies, "Campbell frequently quoted the Hindu truth that 'I am the mystery of the Universe'...The stories of the gods are about me!" Although he harshly criticized Western theology, Campbell maintained that "myth is much more important and true than history. History is just journalism and you know how reliable that is."

Sources: Solt F, Habel P, Grant JT. Economic Inequality, Relative Power, and Religiosity. Social Science Quarterly. 2011.

Barber N. A Cross-National Test of the Uncertainty Hypothesis of Religious Belief. Cross-Cultural Research. 2013.

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