Why Developed Countries Deny God

by Benjamin Studebaker

I ran across a fascinating Pew survey today about the extent to which people in different parts of the world believe that belief in god is necessary to justify moral views. It is a rare thing to get such a comprehensive look at the philosophical and theological views of people all around the world. Even more interestingly, the Pew survey reveals important relationships between the kind of society we have and the way we think about moral philosophy.

To start, we can see that wealthier societies are less likely to believe morality requires a deity:

There are outliers (the US and China in particular), so we know that cultural issues also play a substantial role. Nevertheless, the curve is striking and the correlation of -0.76 impressive for this kind of statistical analysis.

Why might wealth play a role in diminishing the extent to which people feel god is morally relevant? I would suggest this is because people with more wealth have more opportunity  than people without. Large quantities of wealth endow people with a certain sense of worldly possibility, a sense that they are participants in a collective project of raising living standards and improving quality of life for themselves and others. Some of us think that the state should guide this project and some of us think that private enterprise should do the job, but in wealthy societies there is a general sense that we can make our lives and the lives of others materially better within short spans of time. This provides an implicit general agreement about what civilization is trying to do–we are trying to ameliorate suffering and further enhance opportunities for people to express themselves in the world. This is a humanist, worldly, and materialist project. Most importantly, morality naturally falls out of it. If I want you to try to make the world a better place for me to live in, I should reciprocate by myself attempting to make the world a better place for you to live in. Every worker spends his day making the world a better place for every other worker on the assumption that those other workers will spend their days making the world a better place for him. Whether this system of moral reciprocity is enacted through money or through sheer charitable kindnesses, it is always implied, and it requires no external moral arbiter, no god.

By contrast, people who live in poor societies are without that sense of possibility. They see themselves as having limited capacity to participate meaningfully within any project of seriously improving their lives or the lives of others, and they see other people in a similarly futile position. Since there is little legitimate opportunity to make one’s life better, the rational move for the poor person is often to attempt to exploit others through crime, elevating one’s own living standard by standing on the shoulders of those we oppress. This is the very essence of the corruption–moral, political, and economic–that threatens to pervade poor countries. Against this exploitative incentive, what can the world’s poor countries do? The sensible move is to convince those who cannot better themselves by legitimate means that if they better themselves by illegitimate means, they will be punished in an afterlife. Whereas morality in wealthy societies is a largely emancipatory system by which we ensure our lives and the lives of others go better than they would otherwise, morality in poor societies is predominately a tool for maintaining stability and preventing rampant crime and violence. Yet there is always an element of the poor morality that is exploitative, insofar as the leaders of poor countries invariably do not follow it. A country like Nigeria, which is quite poor and has 91% support for the belief that god is necessary for morality, is nonetheless run by corrupt charlatans. These corrupt leaders do not practice what they preach–they exploit their poor populations while preventing those poor populations from rising against them by appeal to mandates from god. This god tells them that “the meek shall inherit the earth” and that it is “easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven”. Believing these precepts, the world’s poor rejoice in what they perceive to be the nobility of their poverty. This is not to say that the poor morality is exclusively exploitative, it also gives the poor lots of advice that helps them to live in relative communal harmony with one another, but that there is exploitation in this is undeniable.

The Pew survey offers us a few more juicy tidbits. Young people, even in relatively poor countries like Lebanon, are uniformly less inclined to put god at the center of morality than their parents, and, within wealthy countries, more education means less godliness:

This makes sense. Countries that are today quite rich were much less developed 50+ years ago. These older generations grew up in the wake of World War II and in the midst of the Cold War, raised by parents who were themselves the children of the depression and the sliding living standards of the 30’s. Millennials grew up after the Soviets and Nazis were long gone, in an age in which the internet has been swiftly transforming life in ways that would have been inconceivable several decades ago. It is no small wonder that their sense of progress and possibility is stronger. That said, the sputtering of the global economy poses a threat to this trend. If true secular stagnation sets in and the sense of opportunity and possibility is removed, we can expect millennials to lose that sense of enthusiasm, to become profoundly disappointed with the world that is and become increasingly preoccupied with other worlds, the same worlds the stagnant poor have always appealed to for comfort, the worlds of their gods.

Even within rich societies, a college education increases so very vastly a person’s sense of efficacy and solidarity with the surrounding society that there is often a 10 to 20 point swing between populations of greater and lesser education.

What is most interesting about all of this is its empirical universality. The material conditions of a society, its level of wealth and opportunity, play a decisive role in determining the deepest philosophical beliefs of its citizens. The upshot is that structural conditioning is critical to formulating human beings as thinkers. Even if the reader thinks my attempt to explain these figures is ultimately wrong, the very fact that there are consistent figures that warrant explaining is evidence that we are much less free than we often like to think, that in many ways our beliefs and behaviors are determined in ways we cannot alter and sometimes cannot even perceive.