The business of religion

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Christ (with TV head) on the cross by on Flickr.
Christ (with TV head) on the cross by on Flickr.

Whether it is exorcising demons, ‘auditing’ adepts using a crude lie detector, or getting paid to offer people a one way ticket to heaven, the economy of divine devotion is a big business. Jonathan H. Pienaar and Mandy de Waal investigated the supply and demand side of faith in the April 18 issue of Finweek, and counted the blessings accrued by Scientology; pentecostal ministers in Nigeria; the Zion Christian Church; and much, much more.

What was interesting to uncover during our research was the nexus between religiosity and poverty. Jon and I discovered that religion can be good for growing the wealth of those who feed the growing populist demand for faith in developing countries, but questioned whether  divine devotion was beneficial to a nation’s development.

Gregory S. Paul, a US palaeontologist, illustrator and author doesn’t think religiosity benefits nations, and has done scientific research to back up his hypothesis that religion is in fact ‘bad’ for economies. The dinosaur specialist who was credited for his work on Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, Paul’s recent work on the relationship between religion and society has earned him high praise.

Paul doesn’t believe that religions prosper in wealthy and successful societies, and created what he calls the ‘Successful Societies Scale’ to prove this. The tool analyses 25 socioeconomic indicators against data on religious practices in some 17 developed nations. “Only the least godly democracies enjoy the best overall socioeconomic conditions,” Paul stated on his web site, and added: “In history, the much more Christian US is the most dysfunctional first-world nation according to major indicators.”

Paul looked at a wide range of information to arrive at his results, and this data includes societal data like teenage pregnancies, infant mortalities and homicide rates. The most secular societies, he discovered, were those that had the highest socioeconomic scores.

“No socioeconomically successful and highly religious nation has ever existed, and the antagonistic relationship between benign conditions and the popularity of religion probably make it impossible for one to come into being,” Paul exclaimed.

Paul did the research to show that societies that don’t believe in a God or a higher being aren’t doomed, but actually prosper and fare much better from a societal well-being and economic perspective than more religious countries. “It’s not fear of death that drives people to be religious, and it’s not a God gene or a God module in the brain or some sort of connection with the gods; it’s basically a psychological coping mechanism,” Paul stated.

But let’s look at other data to see if it confirms Paul’s assertions regarding the relationship between religion and socioeconomic success. The WIN-Gallup International ‘Religion and Atheism Index’ measures global self-perceptions on beliefs and ranks the top ten atheist and the top ten most religious countries. The survey is based on interviews with more than 50,000 men and women from 57 countries across the globe spanning five continents.

The results?

The Top Ten Atheist Countries, according to the 2012 WIN-Gallup Poll:

atheist countries

(11 countries shown because of 4 tying in at 10%)

The Top Ten Religious Countries, according to the 2012 WIN-Gallup Poll:

religious countries

Now let’s look at a list of the list of top performing countries in terms of gross domestic product, as determined by the World Bank:



GDP (Millions of $US)


World 69,983,693n12 2011
1  United States 15,094,000 2011
2  China 7,318,499n2 2011
3  Japan 5,867,154 2011
4  Germany 3,570,556 2011
5  France 2,773,032n4 2011
6  Brazil 2,476,652 2011
7  United Kingdom 2,431,589 2011
8  Italy 2,194,750 2011
9  Russia 1,857,770 2011
10  India 1,847,982 201

Nigeria comes in at 41 with a GDP of US$ 235,923 million on this list; Ghana at number 84 with a GDP of US$ 39,200 million; and Armenia is at number 125 with a GDP of 10,248 of US$ 39,200 million. Conversely China, Japan and Germany top the atheist rankings, and score amongst the highest in terms of GDP rankings, showing a strong nexus between economic prosperity and a lack of religion.

The WIN-Gallup survey shows that the poor are more religious, and people in bottom income groups were 17% more religious than those in top income groups. “It is interesting that Religiosity declines as worldly prosperity of individuals rises,” the survey read. “While the results for nations as a whole are mixed, individual respondents within a country show a revealing pattern. If citizens of each of the 57 countries are grouped into five groups, from the relatively poor to relatively rich in their own countries, the richer you get, the less religious you define yourself,” said the WIN-Gallup authors.

Religion is on a downward trend. Globally, those claiming to be religious have dropped by 9%, while atheism has risen by rises by 3% “Most of the shift is not drifting from their faith, but claiming to be ‘not religious’ while remaining within the faith,” the survey read. “Religion becomes less central as people’s lives become less vulnerable to the constant threat of death, disease and misfortune,” Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart write in their book, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. But political scientists and sociologists agree that wealth is a strong causal factor that explains why religion erodes, but concede that there are a myriad of other influences that contribute to this loss of faith.

Download a preview of the “Business of Religion” edition – Finweek-Eng_18-April-2013_preview.

Read more about Gregory Paul’s thinking on The Science of Religion.