Religiosity and Poverty


In 2006, 2007, and 2008, the Gallup institute asked representative samples in 143 countries and territories whether religion was an important part of their daily lives. Across all populations, the median proportion of residents who said religion is important in their daily lives is 82%. Americans fall well below this midpoint, at 65%.

“Owners of dogs will have noticed that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they will think you are god. Whereas owners of cats are compelled to realize that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they draw the conclusion that they are gods.” ― Christopher Hitchens, The Portable Atheist

Out of the results, one interesting conclusion can be reached, namely: a population’s religiosity level is strongly related to its average standard of living. In fact, Gallup’s World Poll indicates that 8 of the 11 countries in which almost all residents (at least 98%) say religion is important in their daily lives are poorer nations in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. As a general rule, the poorer and underdeveloped a nation, the more religious its inhabitants are likely to be.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the 10 least religious countries studied include several with the world’s highest living standards, including Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Hong Kong, and Japan.

Social scientists have noted that one thing that makes Americans distinctive is our high level of religiosity relative to other rich-world populations. Among 27 countries commonly seen as part of the developed world, the median proportion of those who say religion is important in their daily lives is just 38%. From this perspective, the fact that two-thirds of Americans respond with 65% makes them look extremely devout in relation to their GDP.

What’s more, as Gallup’s Frank Newport recently pointed out, there is wide regional variation in religiosity across the 50 American states. The proportion of those who say religion is important in their daily lives is highest in Mississippi, at 85% – a figure that is slightly higher than the worldwide median (among all countries, rich and poor). Two others, Alabama (82%) and South Carolina (80%) are on par with the worldwide median.

“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

Lining up these percentages with those on our worldwide list allows us to match residents of the most religious states to the global populations with which they are similar in terms of religiosity. The results produce some interesting comparisons: Alabamians, for example, are about as likely as Iranians to say religion is an important part or their lives. And ironically, Georgians in the United States are about as religious as the Georgians of the Caucasus.