Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Surprising Connections You Might Not Know Between Religion and Income Inequality

by Nomad

Religion may be the "opiate of the masses" but there's another side to this story and it's not pretty. If religion is indeed a drug, then who are the drug dealers? This post looks at the interesting connections between the ruling class, religiosity, and inequality.

Rich People, Poor People, and Religion

A recent study in the Social Science Quarterly reaches some interesting and unexpected conclusions about the relationship between income inequality and the rise of religion.
The authors of  the article Economic Inequality, Relative Power, and Religiosity analyzed countries around the world the levels of income equality and the level of religiosity over a two-decade span. Their conclusions are worth a closer look. 

Let's start by defining the terms. What exactly is religiosity anyway? The sociological term "religiosity" can be considered the overall religiousness of a given culture or nation or group. In other words, the degree in which religion affects our day-to-day life. 

In the study, there were twelve benchmarks, from the percentage of people who felt that religion played an important factor in their lives to a percentage of people who took time to pray, those that believed in Hell and sin and the number of people that believed in a Divine power. This evidence was matched with the levels of income inequality in the same countries.

Some of the findings in the study were less than surprising. For example, the authors found that Muslim countries were considerably more religious than other religious societies, and Catholic and Orthodox societies were more religious than Protestant ones. The lowest religiosity was found among Communist or formerly Communist countries.
Nothing shocking there.

The Surprising Thing

Other things they found confirmed what many of us tend to believe anyway. The study determined, for instance, that there is a very strong relationship between how economically developed a country is and its religiosity: less developed countries are significantly more religious.

But they also found something else. After reviewing the numbers, the authors concluded that “economic inequality is estimated to powerfully increase religiosity."
But get this, that effect is not restricted only to the less well-off. The increase was found regardless of income.
In other words, in economically skewed societies, both the rich and the poor are more religious. In fact, they found that, for nearly all of the measures of religiosity, when societies are more unequal, the richer people become more religious than the poorer people.
That flies in the face of what we think we know. The poor turn to religion, conventional wisdom tells us, because when faced with the intractable, long-standing inequality, turning to a higher power is just a search for reassurance and comfort.

H. Richard Niebuhr pointed out that the poor lack the economic and political power and turn to religion for solace. Niebuhr called it "churches of the disinherited." The less privileged, so the theory goes, needed religion the most to compensate for their lack of social and personal success.
Karl Marx famously said:
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation.
If poverty made life unbearable, then religion promised a reward in the afterlife. If social mobility was impossible in this life, then the poor could, at least, look forward to a happier kingdom in heaven where equality was based on the goodness of the soul, rather than the weight of the gold in the purse or pocket. This theory of why the poor should turn to religion social scientists call "the deprivation theory."

Rich Folk Need Religion Too

That theory, however, doesn't explain why the rich folk should become even more religious than the poor. The authors hypothesized that as societies become more economically unequal, richer people become more religious so they can disseminate religion to the needy. Those sneaks! That idea is called the “relative power theory.” 
As the authors note:
. . . many wealthy individuals, rather than simply allowing redistribution to be decided through the democratic process as such median-voter models assume, respond to higher levels of inequality by adopting religious beliefs and spreading them among their poorer fellow citizens. Religion then works to discourage interest in mere material well-being in favor of eternal spiritual rewards, preserving the privileges of the rich and allowing unequal conditions to continue.
The authors came to the conclusion that both the deprivation and relative power theories seemed to work in tandem.
In economically unequal societies, rich people promulgate religion to keep their own place in the hierarchy, and, rather than fighting for more equality, poor people accept religion as an easy form of solace.
The next question the authors attempted to answer of a chicken or egg type. Does income inequality create greater religiosity or does religiosity create greater inequality? After studying religiosity in the US from the mid-1950s to the present, the analysts found a distinct pattern.
When inequality increased in one time period it was followed by a corresponding increase in religiosity. So once the inequality was feature of a society, the levels of religious fervor soared. And the people at the top of the pyramid were the ones who sang loudest in the church choir.
In short,
Unequal incomes lead to societies becoming more religious.
And the opposite is also true, the study found. Increasing the average economic well-being of people makes them less religious. So first comes the inequality and then comes the spread of religiosity. 

This brings us to another question that the study compels us to ask. Do we have any real evidence that the people have benefited from the inequality between rich and poor actually propagate religion amongst the poor?

In the US, what we have seen is Far Right religion providing a justification for hoarding of wealth to the cost of the society as a whole.

Good Works and The Gospel of Wealth

Back in 1889, full-time industrialist and part-time philanthropist Andrew Carnegie penned an article called "The Gospel of Wealth." In that piece, he argued that the newly established upper crust had a social responsibility to redistribute their surplus "in a responsible and thoughtful manner."
As the masses become more intelligent, they may be expected to criticize and denounce the growth of fortunes which fail to contribute largely to the public good, and finally to insist that they shall be made to do so.
This reaction was perfectly justified. There was, he wrote. nothing sacred about private wealth except that it was a good means for progress to be made. And progress, as he recognized it, demanded that those who benefited the most from the system must also "adopt that policy which is best for the general good."
He was certain in his support of noted economist Adam Smith's call for a cooperative effort from both ends of the wealth spectrum:
"The subjects of every state ought to contribute to the support of government as nearly as possible in proportion to their respective abilities."
For the rich that meant giving back. Philanthropy, said Carnegie, was key to making the life worthwhile. And, as Carnegie once said,
the man who dies rich dies in disgrace.
As a man as good as his word, Carnegie ultimately gave away about 90 percent of his fortune to charities and foundations. 

The Cult of Selfishness meets the Prosperity Gospel

Around the last half of the previous century, Carnegie's idea of intelligent philanthropy faced its greatest challenge. Amateur social engineers like Ayn Rand and others were calling for a cult of selfishness. Said Ms. Rand in 1964.
My views on charity are very simple. I do not consider it a major virtue and, above all, I do not consider it a moral duty.
As  a non-Christian and indeed an atheist, Rand could afford to drop centuries of religious doctrine. She explained her objection for all charity by painting all good works this way:
It is altruism that has corrupted and perverted human benevolence by regarding the giver as an object of immolation, and the receiver as a helplessly miserable object of pity.
Her critics were not impressed. They argued that without any moral impulse to aid the poor, (whether by secular conscience or religion mandate) the ruling class would choose to shirk their social responsibility.
Rand and her un-Christian ideas rather surprisingly found support among the least likely minority. The Christian Right. 

In America,  this idea that being poor was a natural state of affairs was given a stamp of approval by none other than the conservative Christians. Part of this mentality is related to American's conscious connection between their religious beliefs and their financial and work behaviors. "Do right by God and you will be rewarded" was a general idea. 

In a 2007 essay, Lisa A. Keister of Duke University's Department of Sociology points out that by and large, conservative Protestants tend to believe that money belongs to God, and people are managers of God’s money.
Underlying much of this research is an assumption that religion is connected to worldly goods, or wealth. Wealth is among the most fundamental indicators of well-being because it is relatively enduring and is related in some way to most other measures of achievement.
Therefore, the more accumulated wealth one has, the more God loves you. And, according to that warped logic, to be poor means you are morally deficient in some way. 

Author Cathleen Falsani, the religion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, notes:
The "Prosperity Gospel," an insipid heresy whose popularity among American Christians has boomed in recent years, teaches that God blesses those God favors most with material wealth.
For a religion that famously espoused the view that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to gain entry into heaven that's quite an about-face.
Few theological ideas ring more dissonant with the harmony of orthodox Christianity than a focus on storing up treasures on Earth as a primary goal of faithful living. The gospel of prosperity turns Christianity into a vapid bless-me club, with a doctrine that amounts to little more than spiritual magical thinking: If you pray the right way, God will make you rich.
The evangelical movement has long been criticized for its death grip attachment to the finer things in life. Remember Jimmy and Faye Baker and matching Rolls-Royces, gold faucets and the air-conditioned doghouse.

It's impossible to choose just one example but look at John Hagee, the founder and Senior Pastor of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas.

Hagee is not at all afraid of combining politics and religion nor of mixing financial advice and the Gospel. Recently he was ranting about those welfare parasites who use other people's money, saying they didn't deserve to live. If only such people as are found gaming the system must get off the proverbial couch and work.
Like his view on homosexuality, Hagee thinks "prosperity is a choice." It is part of God's plan that every true believer becomes rich.  
He ought to say that.
With a net worth of something like $5 million, Hagee's personal wealth reportedly includes a  $2.1 million dollar 7,969-acre ranch with not one, but five lodges, a managers house, a gun locker, a smoke house, a skeet range and three barns.  All this for promoting superstitious nonsense like the Blood Moon Prophecy and other end of the world scenarios.
That's quite a good gig. 

Hagee is not alone by any means. He may not even be the worst offender. Still as a leader of any Church is hardly the kind of model the community one should expect.

Lifestyles of the Poor and Jobless

This notion came into full bloom under Ronald Reagan who palled around with fundamentalists. In 1984, President Reagan had a chance to defend himself against allegations that he had no concern for the poor. He said on Good Morning America that 
“people who are sleeping on the grates…the homeless…are homeless, you might say, by choice.”

The French playwright, Jean Giraudoux, back in the 1940s mocked this fallacy in a way that the French do so well. In "The Madwoman of Challiot" a trash picker turned defense attorney who has been called upon by an ad-hoc court to defend the world's 1%. The charges: unbridled greed.
Impersonating the accused, he claims:
"Everybody knows that the poor have no one but themselves to blame for their poverty. It's only just they should suffer the consequences..."
Today the public is bombarded with Reagan's message, best regurgitated by Fox News Bill O'Reilly:
Most of the poor are in that circumstance because of poor personal decision making. This country offers great opportunity to everybody, but you must work hard to seize it.
Fox News is only highlighting that same cornerstone of conservative ideology popular since Reagan era. Poverty is caused not by low wages or a lack of jobs and education.  No, sir, it is caused by the lack of true faith, by bad attitudes and by faulty lifestyles of the poor. 

Coupled with the ever-handy (though discredited) trickle-down theory, this justification for the vast accumulation of material wealth became institutionalized into American society (and much of the rest of the world).
The result of this mentality is the vast income inequality we see today.

By Covetous and Grasping Men

Believing that the rich were blessed however begs the question: What about the poor? If God is rewarding the rich for being morally superior, then why would He punish the poor? Even noted charity worker Mother Teresa had her own rationalization:
"I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people."
Hats off to the 2.6 million deaths of children under 5 each year due to under nutrition. We owe them a debt of thanks for sharing their suffering so that people like "spiritually superior" Donald Trump- who has been deemed the least charitable billionaire - can buy a $100 million Boeing 757 or God-blessed Russian business tycoon Roman Abramovich can purchase his $1 billion Super-Yacht. We have become inured to the idea that vast sums can be thrown about on luxuries while people go hungry.

This self-justification of selfishness has grown so powerful in the US that when Pope Francis dared to question the wisdom of maintaining such a vast chasm between the rich and poor, the Far Right wildly castigated the Catholic pontiff as a Marxist. 

Yet the Pope deftly cited various Scripture and early Church writings on the subject without once quoting Communist doctrine.
The truth was that Christian religion, despite the often shady history of the Catholic Church, has always had a special relationship with the poor and disenfranchised.  

Pope Leo XIII back in 1891 established the Church's view of income equality in Rerum Novarum
It has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men.
That Pope pointed the finger of conscience at one group in particular:
the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.
Indeed, the New Testament makes it clear that favoritism for the wealthy over the poor has no place in Christianity. The Book of James states:
For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, "You sit here in a good place," and you say to the poor man, "You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool," have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?
Even the Bible can't explain the inequality. It demands only that we (and especially the leaders of the Church) not participate in it.
Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?…
Keeping the status quo comes with risks that the short-sighted 1% would prefer to ignore. Pope Francis observed:
"We cannot wait any longer to resolve the structural causes of poverty in order to cure our society of an illness that can only lead to new crises."
New crises? Francis didn't enlighten us on what he meant. However the implication is clear enough. He was talking about a revolution à la Franque.

Foreshadowing and Warnings

It is no coincidence that the widespread civil unrest erupted in the Islamic world. One can imagine these unstable Middle Eastern nations as laboratory experiments for the rest of the world. 

For it is here that vast income inequality -backed with the support of the military, the police, and the government controlled media is most extreme. It is here too that religion has long taught complete submission to a higher power and where secularism is viewed as a threat to social order. 

The revolutionary wave of demonstrations, protests, strikes, marches and rallies that began on 18 December 2010 we know as the Arab spring was an omen for all economically unbalanced societies. 
As one source notes:
In addition to demands for more economic and political inclusion, the “revolution” in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) had been sparked by a refusal to any longer tolerate the gross socio-economic inequality perpetuated by long-entrenched “elite” in power.
High-income inequality allowed the rich to wield stronger political influence, thereby subverting institutions designed to make the society fairer. From limited access to public sector jobs with high levels of unemployment  to the corruption of the justice system and police brutality, to regularly rigged elections, all semblance of a free society was perverted. 

Religion which had once been so useful a tool in the pacification of the poor could not rescue the situation when the ruling class lost control. It only served to create further confusion and division.

Polybius and Voltaire

The theory that ruling class uses religion to maintain their hold on power over the poor isn't particularly new.
As we have seen in other posts, the religious leaders in the South made use of carefully chosen passages of the Bible to justify one of the most inhumane institutions of all- slavery. Later they used the same passages to support segregation and laws against interracial marriage. 

In fact, the idea goes back even further. In fact, it predates Christianity. Polybius, a Greek historian of the Hellenistic Period, noted that Roman leaders understood that religion, or superstition, could be used as an effective means of crowd control.
If it were possible to have an electorate that was composed exclusively of wise men, this chicanery might perhaps be unnecessary, but, as a matter of fact, the masses are always unstable and always full of lawless passions, irrational temper and violent rage; so there is nothing for it but to control them by "the fear of the unknown" and play-acting of that sort. I imagine that this was the reason why our forefathers introduced among the masses those theological beliefs and notions  in punishment after death that now have become traditional.
It's depressing to think that after two thousand years the same techniques are still being played on the gullible poor and are so successful that even the Pope gets put in his place for pointing them out.
One French philosopher understood the principle of social control through faith well enough. According to one tale, Voltaire once told his mistress, Marguerite.
“Whatever you do, don’t tell the servants there is no God or they’ll steal the silver.”
In one respect, Voltaire was fortunate. He checked out of this Earthly realm in 1778. The fruit of France's income inequality fully matured in 1789 when the poor stopped caring about God and the joys of the afterlife in heaven. He was safely in his grave by the time the long disenfranchised poor woke up and started constructing scaffolds in the squares of Paris.