For centuries now, religious institutions that once held immense amounts of power have been fighting cultural, social, and political forces that have limited their influence on society. While religious establishments in Islam and Christianity have been remained intact, there is a force that they have been unable to stop: economic growth.
The data above reveals that today less people are religiously affiliated than in the past. With a twenty-one percent decrease in religious affiliation compared to the “Greatest” generation, Millennials are departing from religion’s thousand-year-old hold. Moreover,while this data is specific to the United States, this trend can be seen across the economically developed world. A Pew Research survey found that about 135.2 million people in Europe do not identify with any religious or spiritual institution. This is a clear contrast to the Christian stronghold that Europe once was.
The decrease in people’s association with particular religious institutions, has occurred over a period of increased economic production. The chart below was compiled by economist Angus Madison.
It details the growth of GDP per capita throughout time. It reflects the observable correlation between GDP per capita and a country’s religious tendencies. Though one may not be able to conclude causation here, the association can be seen not only through comparing historical data, but also through religious differences between wealthy and impoverished nations.
Some of the world’s poorest countries are also the most religious. Countries like Nicaragua, where 90% of people are said to belong to Christian churches, and Niger, where virtually every person claims to be religious, have some of the lowest incomes per person on the planet. According to the World Bank, Nicaragua’s GDP per capita is roughly $1, 851 and Niger has a GDP per capita of about $415.60 (making it the fourth-poorest country in the world), while Western countries like Sweden enjoy a GDP per capita around $60,430.22. While this estimate assumes equal distribution, there is a clear correlation between poverty and religious affiliation. Sweden is the seventh-richest nation on Earth (based on GDP per capita), and it is also one of the world’s least religious countries. More than 75% of people there report no religious affiliation. To illustrate this using more familiar variables, comparing the $10, 307 GDP per capita of Mexico (where income inequality is prodigious) with the United States’ GDP per capita of $53, 041, it is easier to understand why 85% of Mexicans identify as Catholic.
Often, children of immigrants, with far better lifestyle than their parents could ever have dreamed of, lash out against their parents’ religious beliefs.. If we accept the correlation presented in the previous paragraphs, it should not be a surprise that some of the world’s most prominent atheist thinkers were brought up in upper middle class families.
Of course, correlation does not equate causation. However, the connection between GDP and religious affiliation should not be disregarded immediately. Such comparative analysis provides valuable insight about our current culture and society, as it allows us to see a degree of privilege associated with atheism. Atheism may sprout where there is a feeling of safety – where there is food security, and no fear of rampant bombings or rape. In the U.S., where social mobility is possible, the light at the end of the tunnel for millions is getting an education and a satisfying job. In places where there seems to be little hope for economic or social progress, it makes sense that billions of people would want to believe there is another world where there is finally rest and peace.