Gene Expression

God & welfare


Why should government welfare mean less religion?:

This was a question that Anthony Gill and Erik Lundsgaarde tackled by in 2004. They analysed the data from a range of countries, and found that the greater proportion of GDP that was spent on government welfare, the more non-religious people there were and the lower church attendance was. This held true even after statistically adjusting for other factors, like per-capita GDP, urbanization, government regulation of religion, and religious pluralism.

The standard explanation for this relation is that religion & government provide competing services, welfare. As government expands it presumably “crowds out” civil society welfare services, of which religious institutions are generally the most prominent. The author of the blog post above is generally skeptical of this model. I personally think it’s plausible, but the “rational choice” framework which it emerges from has generally been found wanting in many circumstances (e.g., general failure to explain religious dynamics in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism). So more exploration of the topic is needed.

But I was wondering, how about checking to see if there’s a relationship between religion & welfare in the United States? I found per capital welfare spending by state, percentage with “No Religion” from The American Religious Identification Survey, and queried how important religion was and what percentage were atheists from the Pew Religious Landscape Survey. I didn’t adjust welfare spending for background variables (cost of living, age structure, etc.), but I thought it would be instructive as a “quick & dirty” exploratory exercise. Charts below.


I didn’t put any trendlines because there really weren’t any trends. Perhaps cost of living has to be taken into account and such. But I think it is important to note that quite a few high welfare states are actually not very secular, especially in the Midwest and Northeast, while several very low welfare states in the West are very secular. New Hampshire and Vermont are basically the same religiously, but their welfare spending profiles differ, with liberal Vermont being among the top spenders and moderate New Hampshire being in the middle of the pack. If 1 = the lowest per capita spending on welfare, New Hampshire is 1.56 and Vermont is 2.51. Maine, which seems marginally a bit more religious than these two states actually spends more per capita on welfare than Vermont.

Raw Data:

State % No Religion % Atheist % Who Say Religion “Very Important” Per Capita Welfare Spending
Nevada 20 6 50 718
Colorado 21 8 44 738
Texas 11 2 67 866
Georgia 12 2 68 907
Montana 17 4 47 911
Utah 17 3 66 924
Virginia 12 5 59 951
South Dakota 8 5 56 957
Michigan 16 5 54 980
Arizona 17 6 51 983
Florida 12 6 57 992
Idaho 19 5 58 999
Indiana 16 3 60 1023
Missouri 15 3 59 1027
Kansas 15 4 61 1030
Illinois 15 4 53 1048
Oregon 21 9 46 1048
Washington 25 7 48 1048
Louisiana 9 2 73 1064
South Carolina 7 3 70 1105
North Carolina 10 2 69 1111
New Hampshire 17 9 36 1119
Alabama 6 1 74 1120
Nebraska 9 1 61 1132
Oklahoma 14 2 69 1137
Wyoming 20 4 47 1137
North Dakota 3 5 56 1146
Maryland 14 6 56 1159
Iowa 13 6 51 1184
Arkansas 13 2 74 1225
California 19 7 48 1225
Tennessee 9 2 72 1257
Mississipi 7 1 82 1289
West Virginia 13 3 60 1291
Wisconsin 14 4 47 1296
Connecticut 12 9 44 1323
Kentucky 13 1 67 1351
New Jersey 15 6 52 1426
Ohio 15 4 55 1450
Delaware 17 5 55 1455
New Mexico 18 5 53 1466
Pennsylvania 12 4 54 1628
Minnesota 14 3 52 1776
Massachusetts 13 8 44 1779
Vermont 22 9 36 1799
Maine 16 8 42 1889
Rhode Island 15 6 44 2014
New York 13 7 46 2236


  1. #1 Neuroskeptic
    June 28, 2009

    Is that correlation at a national level just because more “developed” countries have more to spend on welfare, and also tend to be less religious? What would happen if you just looked at EU countries?

  2. #2 razib
    June 28, 2009

    i don’t have time to look up the paper that that chart is based on right now, but i would add that *within* nations religious conservatism seems to correlate with a more free-market stance. the substitution model has a pretty decent explanation for why that might be.

  3. #3 Rob W
    June 28, 2009

    There’s also Marx’s theory as expressed in the “opium of the people” quotation, that people lean on religion to counterbalance unfairness and cruelty in the world. E.g., you may suffer horrible things now, but you’ll be rewarded in heaven; those horrible people may take advantage of you now, but they’ll pay for it in hell; when you are in pain and alone, there’s a loving deity there with you.

    Societies that are more successful at stopping injustice and providing for the needs of their people directly therefore cut off the underlying reasons for religious belief, and the need for people to rely on imaginary solutions.

  4. #4 Carlie
    June 28, 2009

    There’s also the correlation here between religiosity and abstinence-only education. Very religious states also have high rates of teen pregnancy and childbirth, which often mean higher state support expenditures.

  5. #5 deadpost
    June 28, 2009

    “but i would add that *within* nations religious conservatism seems to correlate with a more free-market stance.”

    Interesting. I wouldn’t have thought that but rather thought that the association between capitalism and Christianity was specific to the circumstances of the West.

    I mean, I’ve never heard that in say, a Muslim or a Buddhist country, the equivalent of the “religious right” goes hand in hand with supporting increased economic freedoms.

  6. #6 Don
    June 28, 2009

    The case of California is interesting in that the interminable battle raging over the budget is in large part over welfare, which the Democratic majority supports and the Republican minority opposes. I wonder if California’s rank would change were the budget balanced with the cuts to welfare (and without increases in fees and taxes).

  7. #7 Art
    June 28, 2009

    “…people lean on religion to counterbalance unfairness and cruelty in the world.”

    If this were true, Marxism would be the greatest driver of religious faith in history.

    I would suggest that in order for a government to impose a large welfare state, there must first be a deliberate re-culturalization of society – a Gramscian “march through the institutions” – during which religion is attacked and denigrated. Socialists rightly recognize, as another commenter noted, that religious belief “corrolate[s] with a free market stance”.

  8. #8 Hisham Z
    June 28, 2009

    It would also be interesting to see how religious belief correlates with per capita spending on education per state.

    While welfare is a major area that can overlap with religious and state institutions, education is another.

    Maybe a combination of the two areas could give greater insight into the role that religious institutions play in each state.

  9. #9 Tom Rees
    June 29, 2009

    One reason there’s no observable effect might be that the spread of religiosity is quite small for US states compared with the international sample.

    Actually the correlation is also pretty difficult to show on a national level, because there are all sorts of confounds (older populations have higher welfare spend, for example, and ethnically homogenous regions are more in favour of welfare). I’ve tried replicating Gill & Lundsgaarde’s results using WVS data and ILO government spending data, and it’s there but quite weak.

    Also, the thing about religion is that attitudes are set during youth. So there’s a cohort effect, leading to a substantial lag. What you really need to look at is welfare spending over the past 30 years or more. But those data don’t exist on an international level except for OECD nations. Guess they do for the USA though?

  10. #10 Rob W
    June 29, 2009

    @Art: That’s something of Marx’ approach — get rid of religion first, so that people will be forced to seek happiness in reality (presumably according to his vision).

    The biggest problem is that aggressive top-down solutions where the government forces sweeping cultural reforms onto the populace is… well, do I even need to get into the details? A government with the power to make those kinds of changes is pretty much guaranteed to abuse it in frightening ways.

    I’d much rather convince the religious people to help getting proper social support systems in place, raise the general quality of life and level of “fairness” in society, and let that naturally erode the power of religion (with assistance from individuals under freedom of speech, of course, but no government crackdown..).

  11. #11 TGGP
    June 30, 2009

    I’m surprised no one has linked to “The Political Economy of Beliefs: Why Do Fiscal and Social Conservatives/Liberals Come. Hand-in-Hand?” by Daniel L. Chen and Jo T. Lind.

  12. #12 Clark
    July 1, 2009

    Note that things are a tad complex in American religion sense many are for fairly socialist welfare programs but just don’t want the government to do it. That is I think in the US you have to take note that the movement against State Religion affects all this. Thus some religions, like Mormons, have strong welfare programs and were outright communitarian in the 19th century. (Ending because of federal force ironically)

    I suspect though that other facts simply apply. So, for instance, you have a cultural tendency towards social welfare in areas like Scandanavia simply because there was more necessity for it. (i.e. individualism of the sort available in the US tended to get you killed way up north since the environment was so much less friendly – everyone had to work together)

    It’s interesting since welfare can have a strong religious component or a strong anti-religious component. (The more Libertarian styled thinking that tends to arise with a focus on free will) But I think that religious justifications tend to come after the fact and just think the issues are pretty complex.

    Also note that state differences can tweak things a lot. So Utah is a pretty conservative state but has a lot of kids which leads to more expenses. (People are generally more willing to pay for a kid’s welfare than an adult’s) I’m also not quite sure what counts as welfare in that chart’s stats. (I’d have guessed Utah would be far, far lower)

  13. #13 windy
    July 5, 2009

    So, for instance, you have a cultural tendency towards social welfare in areas like Scandanavia simply because there was more necessity for it. (i.e. individualism of the sort available in the US tended to get you killed way up north since the environment was so much less friendly – everyone had to work together)

    Nah, we have social welfare in N Europe so that we don’t have to deal with other people.