The opiate of the masses?

If anyone wanted to test the validity of Marx’s comment about religion being the opiate of the masses they would undertake a systematic global survey to ascertain how lower socioeconomic status (SES) harms or protects psychological well-being.

Now seven academic teams from universities in Germany, Denmark, Korea, Switzerland, the UK, USA and Australia have done exactly that in a paper published in PNAS last year.

The effect of lower SES on psychological well-being has long been assumed to weaken as nations develop economically. Max Weber and research in Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, Romania, Latvia, Singapore and South Korea tended to reinforce the view.

The authors say: “Recent evidence, however, has contradicted this fundamental assumption, finding instead that the psychological burden of lower SES is even greater in developed nations than in developing ones.

“So, why is that burden greatest in developed nations?”

The teams set out to test whether national religiosity explains the puzzle and find that “lower levels of national religiosity can account for the greater burden of lower SES in developed nations. This finding suggests that, as national religiosity continues to decline, lower SES will become increasingly harmful for well-being – a societal change that is socially consequential and demands political attention.”

In case you are wondering how robust their surveys were they drew on samples of more than three million people across a variety of nations.

There are a number of ways you can deconstruct the findings. The obvious is that the more secular a society the more likely the poorer are to be dissatisfied. The converse equally is that the more religious you are the more likely you are to accept your lot.

Putting aside the sort of prosperity Christianity espoused in the US, parts of Asia and Australia traditionally religion and religious leaders have tended to push the view that whatever happens your rewards will come in heaven, nirvana or their counterparts in other religions.

Diarmaid MacCulloch in his magisterial A History of Christianity describes the happy clappy, prosperity-based approach in the latter stages of his book. If you don’t want to read the 1000 pages plus there is BBC TV series as an alternative. If you attention span is even shorter see one of the clips of Morrison at prayer.

The teams looked at some earlier theories about the psychological burdens of lower SES including that because higher SES is a cherished value in developed nations people of lower SES fail to meet this value which is a blow to their well-being.

Instead, they test the proposition that it “is not a nation’s economic development per se that alters the psychological burden of lower SES but a tremendously important covariate of it – national religiosity.”

The Bible, the Qur’an and other religious texts all cast a bad light on higher SES and the authors cite the well-knowns: “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” and the Bhagavad-Gita “The demoniac persons thinks: So much wealth I have today and I will have so much more.”

The authors conclude that “In times of declining religiosity, this finding is a call to scientists and policymakers to monitor the increasingly harmful effects of lower SES and its far- reaching social consequences.”

Sadly, the monitoring will involve more than Scott Morrison wearing out the carpet alongside the bed praying and more emphasis on income inequality and policies which strengthen society rather than policies aimed at dividing it and blaming and punishing the victims.

A sidelight of the impact of religion on economic development can be found in a CEPR paper by Mauricio Drelichman, Jordi Vidal-Robert and Hans Joachim Voth on The Long Run Effects of Religious Persecution: Evidence from the Spanish Inquisition.

They find: “Religious persecution is common in many countries around the globe. There is little evidence of its long-term effects. We collect new data from all across Spain, using information from over 67,000 trials held by the Spanish Inquisition between 1480 and 1820 (a nice reminder that the Inquisition was around for a long time). This comprehensive new database allows us to demonstrate that municipalities of Spain with a history of stronger inquisitorial presence show lower economic importance, educational attainment and trust today. The effects persist after controlling for historical indicators of religiosity and wealth ruling out potential selection bias.”

They find that Spanish GDP is reduced by 2,000 Euro per capita thanks to the Inquisition and that: “Areas strongly affected by the Inquisition’s activities between the 16th and 19th centuries are today poorer, more religious, less educated and exhibit lower trust.”

Looking at the broader implications they suggest: “The negative effect of the Inquisition suggests that adverse shocks at a critical juncture can trap societies in permanently low equilibria, where high local conflict, low education and limited trust lead to low income, with the risk of undermining social capital and trust still further.”

They also suggest their findings imply that other areas where the Inquisition operated – Southern Italy, Spanish America, the Portuguese Empire and the Papal States – also areas of relatively low education, lower incomes and less generalised trust suggest similar mechanisms may be operating there.

And what does the research say about Marx – well it turns it on its head a bit and requires a significant shift in emphasis. After all in some parts of the world – such as the US – it is not religion but real opiates which the lower SES inhabitants turn to in response to low SES.

Anyway – as the Morrison Government is keen to include more of our Christian heritage in the curriculum this sort of research would help to give some balance about what that heritage actually is and what impact it has had on  our history.

 Both papers were drawn to the author’s attention by John Spitzer.