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A recent Gallup poll reveals the world’s most and least religious countries, along with some other surprises.

Illustration: Gallup Poll

Which countries come to mind when you hear the word “religious”? Israel? India? Istanbul?

Ok, ok, Istanbul isn’t a country, but it was the inspiration for that catchy tune.

Well, if you guessed any of the above, you didn’t hit even one of the countries that made the top 11 Most Religious Countries in the world in a recent Gallup Poll.

Coming in at the top spot was Egypt, followed by Bangladesh, and a host of African countries, along with Indonesia.

On the flip side, which are the least religious countries in the world?

Estonia had the lowest percentage of people who said that religion plays an important part in their lives, followed by a few fair-skinned places: Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. Rounding out the top five is a former Communist territory, the Czech Republic.

Even more interesting, according to the same poll:

A population’s religiosity level is strongly related to its average standard of living…(the 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.

And you guessed it, several of the least religious countries have the highest living standards, including Hong Kong, Japan, and the fair-haired triple whammy mentioned above.

What does this mean exactly? Is there a clear link between being devoted to a higher power and having no money in your pocket?

Of course, one of the problems with this purported correlation is the United States, which has both a high standard of living AND high marks for being religious.

What do you think – is there a real correlation between religion and standard of living? Share your thoughts below.

Feature photo: Steven Fernandez



About The Author

Christine Garvin

Christine Garvin is a certified Nutrition Educator and holds a MA in Holistic Health Education. She is the founder/editor of Living Holistically...with a sense of humor and co-founder of Confronting Love. When she is not out traveling the world, she is busy writing, doing yoga, and performing hip-hop and bhangra. She also likes to pretend living in her hippie town of Fairfax, CA is like being on vacation.

  • Julie

    Hmm– tough to parse this out without overgeneralizing, but I do think there may be a connection. Religion, especially today, tends to give hope to people who don’t have much in the way of optimism in their local environments. Faith can provide a reason and a context for their struggle that otherwise would be very hard to understand and all but impossible to bear. Very often (and religions have exploited this fact effectively), churches also provide people with the tangible resources and support they need to lead better lives: they bring people together in community, may provide food, education, clothing, and the like.

  • Stuart

    Or consider the flip side — having no money in the pocket may see more people turn to religion. It’s not so much that being religious makes your country poor (which seems to be the pose taken in this story) but rather being poor sees more people turning to religion!

  • Hank

    I’m on the same page as Julie. Poor socio-economic conditions spawn a need for hope – religion fills that need for many.
    However, just because something provides hope does not mean that it is true.
    To steal an idea from Matt Dillahunty: I want to hold as many true beliefs as possible and as few false ones. Religion seems to be good at bringing small groups of people together but great at dividing larger groups.
    While the religion/standard of living article was interesting, I feel that it is just as worthwhile to draw a comparison between religion/science and religion/peace (and science/peace- just for the heck of it.) Maybe the author of this article will tackle that assignment next. Of course, I must note, that just because a belief shows a correlation with peace, it does not mean that it is true.
    It is interesting to note that only about 7% of members of the National Academy of Sciences believe in a personal god- according to a 1998 article in the peer-reviewed science journal “Nature.” Maybe we’ll some day see philosophy replace religion just as chemistry replaced alchemy and astronomy took the place of astrology. Science is our best means of determining truth/reality. In this quest, faith is of little use.

  • Claudio

    Just today I read that the happiest city in the world is Copenhagen, and it is also the least religious in the world.

    Anyway, I agree with Stuart’s interpretation of this article. The correlation between standard of living and religiosity has been apparent to me for awhile, and is something I think about a lot. To put it mildly I am not very fond of organized religion, and many times I have seen how it takes advantage of the poor or gives them false hope of enrichment, so that they correlate financial stability with devoutness. Other times I have observed how poorer sections of several cities seem to have a lot more churches than their wealthier counterparts. I don’t think it’s a mere coincidence.

    At the same time it is true what Julie says – churches are an important and benevolent part of daily life in many parts of the poorer world, doing the work that the government should have been doing anyway. So it’s definitely a complicated issue.

  • Scott Jones

    This strikes me as logical.
    I would be interested to see the socio-economic vs religion comparison take place within the U.S, by state, and also by income level.
    I am pretty sure you would find that the higher the household income – the lower the correlation to religion.

  • Matt Mayer

    “Is there a correlation” is a purely mathematical question. “Is there causation”, ie “does poverty cause greater adherence to religion” or vice versa is a much harder point to prove.

  • Lucie J.

    Correlation works both ways, right? So how about saying – as the standard of living increases, religion starts to play a less important role. But it’s not so simple – the role of the state is important (e.g. in post-communist countries religion was banned for a long time, so naturally people stayed away from it), while in other countries religion is actively promoted by the state … also, religious organizations are more likely to recruit the poor into their ranks by offering them e.g. healthcare or education or at least some spiritual consolation – the Catholic Church and their involvement in 3rd world countries is a classic example.

  • Cindy

    That actually seems to be an interesting idea. I was actually looking for a research topic for a class, and this seems perfect. So, assuming I get the professor’s approval on the topic, I’ll try to come back and post my results here.

  • Christine

    Great, Cindy, can’t wait to hear what you come up with!

  • John Pelley

    “The Standard of living” is purely relative. Any religion which touts materialism, even though it calls itself Christian, is anything but. We need to work with nature and increase our standrd of living according to God’s plan and not Madison Avenue’s plan

    • Paul

      Which God. I assume you have no proof of existence - yet you speak as if you do.

      Surely any human would agree with basic measurements of standard of living - having
      done that – then start putting personal spin on it. If the basic measurement is to reflect
      material comfort along with safety / health / stability  & education it’s legitimate and
      should be universal. With this tool we can try & determine reasons & solutions.

      Leave religion out of it as its contribution to standard of living only clouds the issue.

  • DHarbecke

    @Scott – Depends which religion! There are some that believe God favors the righteous with bling. I wonder how that attitude affects the overall standard of living of everyone else in the community…

    “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” – The Bible.

    “Send money, or God will call me home!” – Oral Roberts (paraphrased). He ended up raising over $9 million. Hallalujah!

  • Tim Patterson

    Interesting question. When I was in rebel territory in Myanmar I was really impressed by how devout the local people were, and how important religion was in their lives. These folks are in a tight spot, caught between China and the Burmese junta, but when they were caroling or in church they had this light of hope and peace about them that was truly special.

    Great post, Christine!

  • Carlo Alcos

    Maybe in these wealthy countries, people don’t have time for God. They’re too busy working.

  • Matt

    Just to reiterate a point that was made above, the question you meant to ask isn’t whether there is or is not a correlation, which is pretty simple to figure out — as this study showed, there clearly is a correlation, which simply means a measureable statistical relationship. What I think you actually mean to ask is whether this relationship has some sort of causal basis to it, i.e. whether religion actually leads to poverty or whether poverty leads to religion. The alternatives are that there is a confounding variable which causes both a propensity for religion as well as high rates of poverty, or that the correlative effect actually works in the opposite direction and that having a high rate of poverty leads to religion (or having wealth leads people to abandon religion).Realistically, it seems much more likely that education serves as a confounding variable — poverty-stricken societies tend to be worse-educated, and people with less education tend to be more religious.

  • Christine Garvin

    Hi Matt,

    Actually, I did mean to ask the question of correlation, using the United States as an example of the fact that this purported correlation doesn’t necessarily always hold up.

    But I do think the answer to why that is the case has to do with the casual relationship, and that this is the larger, and probably more important, question of the results of this study, and one to which people have been pondering in this thread.

    Thanks for your feedback!

  • Carlo Alcos

    I agree with Matt. My first thought as I read this was about education. In educated/wealthy nations you are more likely to question things and have an open mind, and have access to more world views and interaction with other cultures. You learn how many different ways there are to live your life.

    In impoverished countries religion is more ingrained in culture, something passed generation to generation, where you don’t question it and you only know one way to live.

    Or that’s my take on it anyway.

  • Tim

    Maybe the analysis needs to consider a broader time frame, to wonder what the lingering effects of past religiosity are. The Evangelicalism of Northern Europe was not so long ago pretty severe, and my guess has always been that even if children there today don’t go to church or consciously even think about religion, they are still affected by a culture that was formed by it. I think this would be true of almost any culture. I’ve certainly seen it in families and individuals.

  • JDD

    “Correlation does not prove causation.” ~ Statistics 101

  • Alex McIntosh

    This rule is fact for many countries; the less Religion a society adopts, the better it’s people will fair. Live by what is real and obvious in the physical world rather than leading your lives by story books written thousands of year ago. The exception here is as stated, the USA. America is a highly religious nation, and this is probably mainly due to it’s terribly poor education system (e.g. US high school students scored lower on average in Maths and Science tests than students from middle eastern Jordan and can only compete on a level of third world countries). The reason why USA fairs so well within all the developed nations is because of the H-1B visa – Most students within the Universities of America are NOT American. They are foreign students holding together the fabric of society in that country and still the general population are really not aware of this. It is the other countries of the world that are keeping America afloat :/

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