Inequality & institutions

Tom Rees, Income inequality drives church attendance:

...we find that attendance rates are particularly high in countries with more socioeconomic inequalities and fewer social welfare expenditure. This effect equally applies to both poor and rich people, which is in line with the idea that because of economic mobility and the possibility of unemployment in the (nearby) future also the more affluent population feels more insecure in countries with more inequalities and without a well-developed social welfare system.

We also see that people with a lower income and who are unemployed attend religious meetings more often, and we find an enduring effect of growing up in times of war. In summary, the results of our study suggest that personal and societal insecurities play a crucial role in explaining cross-national variation in religious attendance.

This isn't too surprising of a finding, it has cropped up elsewhere. It offers up avenues for naive theorizing about how the welfare state serves as a substitute for organized religion. As Tom notes institutional affiliation & attendance does not track religious belief perfectly; there is a tendency in many societies for those of higher socioeconomic status to exhibit more fidelity in terms of religious attendance & affiliation, but less in belief.

What I'm interested in is connecting this to the earllier finding that material wealth is not very heritable among hunter-gatherers, and, not very heritable in some modern nations (such as Scandinavia). As I have said hundreds of times, one model which I believe needs to be examined closely is that the 5-10,000 year period between the rise of agriculture, and its subsequent fall within the last few decades as the primary activity of the human species, has had a critical role in shaping human cultures. Richard Dawkins occasionally makes reference to "Bronze Age Religions," but what he really means are the religions which arose in the world of agriculturally based polities characterized by a tiny elite controlling large numbers of peasants. I suspect that many of the institutions which we take for granted as "normal" arose specifically to meet challenges relevant to the world of the peasant and his rent-seeking overlord.

The last 200 years in the West had seem a shift back toward a more equitable distribution of income, as unskilled laborers have closed the gap with those at the top of the skill & economic pyramid, at least until the 1970s. There has also been a democratization of political power, and at least a rhetorical shift toward an acknowledgement of the idea of egalitarianism. And so we have seen an "unwinding" of the positions which many institutions which arose during the pre-modern once had over our lives, from the church, to the authority of clans headed by the paterfamilias, and even the primacy of the man over the woman.

This does not mean that we live in Utopia. Not only is the post-industrial world radically different from anything hunter-gatherers would have faced, but the world before agriculture was likely quite nasty and brutish in its own ways. The collapse of the power of broad-based institutional religions which tied together massive polities into fictive kinship units may not lead us down the path to scientific materialism. Rather, it seems entirely likely that supernaturalism is rooted in the age of the hunter-gatherer,. With melting of the structure of institutional religions, supernaturalism may well flower and bloom in a more decentralized and "bottom-up" fashion. We lay at the cusp of the transition into an age of social and cultural innovation like no other. Interesting times.

More like this

Do higher levels of education in more socioeconomically disparate states reduce the attendance?

By Katharine (not verified) on 09 Nov 2009 #permalink

It's worth looking at shamanistic religions. They seem to have rather skimpy pantheons, but a large number of powers localized in the landscape -- mountaintops, caves, springs, deep pools, groves of trees and ancient single trees, astronomical events, magical creatures, and various other anomalies. The powers behind these sites are usually pretty monstrous, oversized, and savage, more like forces than persons, but sometimes benevolent, and they don't seem to have personalities and life stories, like the pagan Gods.

By John Emerson (not verified) on 09 Nov 2009 #permalink

> melting of the structure of institutional religions
Including the Religion of Peace? Leftist, anarchists and former punks in my, um, multicultural Berlin hood (bicultural, really, in all relevant regards, say no more) are converting eagerly--if not, they're interested and in awe. Esotericism was formerly no. 1. The proles left in the hood are converting, too. Interesting times, any which way.

You should read North, Weingast, & Wallis' book Violence and Social Orders -- talks a lot about this stuff. There's a precis up at the Mercatus website (search weingast), and Weingast was interviewed at EconTalk (search his name).

Basically, hunter-gatherers are a primitive order -- incredibly violent, no real organizations. Agriculturalists are a limited-access order -- violence is controlled by elites splitting up the land to create rents, and thus having an incentive to preserve the peace between themselves. Industrialists are an open-access order -- organizations can be created at will, and anyone can enter, unlike the organizations of a limited-access order. The open-access state exists to provide public goods.

That sounds like what's going on here -- a difference between limited-access and open-access societies. If the church is providing public goods in the poorer societies, then it's doing what the modern state does. But probably not -- no highways, public education, social insurance, etc.

One major difference between limited and open access orders is that relations are personal in the former but often impersonal in the latter. You have to go to church in poorer societies because you need to rub shoulders with people who can do something for you. In an open-access market order, you don't need to do that, since those roles are split up among a ton of people who you don't have to ever meet in person.

It'd be interesting to read this relative to different regions and different faiths. I suspect in some places this move is inverted where church is where you meet people and thus is important for business socializing. (i.e. people who aren't even religious will go for its important social purposes)