Friday, September 25, 2009

Religious Belief & Economic Inequality

Fig. 1: Scale showing successful societies in relation to degree of religious beliefs (from Free Inquiry, Vol. 29, No. 1 Jan. 2009)

One of the most circulated canards about religious belief is that most of humankind is invested in it. We are asked to believe the vast majority – for some reason- find it essential to link up with a religion to make their life meaningful. Of course, this is tommyrot and poppycock, and now there is ample statistical evidence to back it up – starting with a measure known as the ‘Gini coefficient’ which registers the degree of economic and income inequality in any given nation, referenced as a decimal. Or, more often (in non-technical venues) as a plain number between 0 and 100.

In terms of practical applications, a Gini index of zero would denote perfect equality. In terms of western industrial nations, most developed European nations and Canada tend to have Gini indices between 24 and 36, the United States' and Mexico's Gini indices are both above 40, indicating that the United States and Mexico have greater inequality..In the whole panoply of criteria, and the full spectrum of research, the Gini coefficient (the prime indicator of income inequality) is the key factor. To be specific, across the first world (of developed nations) lower economic and income equality correlates with lower religiosity. This pattern is “statistically progressive” according to a recent article in Free Inquiry (Jan. 2009) and “no exceptions are known”.

The warp and woof of advanced, collated sociological research into religiosity and secularism and sociological health as a function of either- is well documented in the aforementioned issue (Vol. 29, No. 1) ‘The Future of Religion’, p. 24. As noted therein, the thrust of this research is that religion is falling like tenpins in all first world democracies, with the exception of the U.S., and that the least dysfunctional societies are the least theistic.

The primary finding that runs likes a thread through all this research is that religious belief and activity is a superficial coping mechanism that is easily cast aside when the majority in a given society enjoy true (not faux) democratic government, and enjoy a secure, comfortable and middle class lifestyle.Those who claim the universality of religion or that it is integral to human nature commit the basic selection effects error, in that they conveniently overlook the data which show broad secularization of western Europe, Anglo-Australia, Canada and other developed nations.

Indeed, in 18 out of 19 of the most prosperous democracies the share of population reporting absolute belief in a god or gods ranges from between as little as a few percent to at most one-half. In some of these nations, mainly in western Europe, two-thirds proclaim to be either atheists or agnostics. Further, this de-Christianization is not accompanied by any offset via New Age spirituality or other spirituality (as seems to be occurring in the U.S)Recognizing how thoroughly most of the first world has been secularized is an important first step to solving the religious belief question. The next step, as sociologists note, is to account for the major exception – known as the “American Anomaly”- the only first world democracy wherein 2/3 of the population professes belief in God, and most hold atheists in low regard…..unlike in W. Europe where most religious are held in low regard.

The core of research (largely statistical) directed at this issue shows the primary reason the U.S. is a statistical outlier in religious belief is income inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient).
This index has seen inequality increase ever since Bush Jr. was handed his presidency, compliments of the five Supremes, in 2000.

Meanwhile, with its historically lower taxes, fewer public safety nets, more poor than rich (by more than a 25:1 ratio), the U.S. displays a greater disparity than any other nation. Moreover, it displays a much greater social pathology. Understanding the basis of this pathology doesn’t take a genius. As anyone with more than air between the ears can see, on examining state by state budget deficits now exploding – in every case “re-balancing” is being done on the backs of the poor, the disabled, the elderly and the homeless. Loss of health care, loss of jobs and loss of overall security results, as well as increase in drug use, violent criminality and prostitution.

Other factors and pathology –distress indices have already been well documented by Michael Parenti in his book, The Dirty Truths, and these include the U.S. having the highest rates in: teen pregnancies, STDs, infant mortality, suicides, homicides, rapes, incest, child abuse, marriage failure, alcoholism and drug use, as well as industrial accidents and disabling outcomes – establishing a large population of the chronically disabled and poor.

The conclusion is inescapable: given the mass insecurity and economic discomfort – which we’re seeing a lot of in this recession as more and more lose jobs and go to food banks- the victimized citizens will turn to the aid and protection of specious supernatural powers since they can’t expect any relief from government. Fig. 1 shows a graph of major industrial nations as they fall on two axes: the vertical measuring their success by the degree of security and sociological health in the populace, and the horizontal according to the degree of secularity or non-secularity.

As one can readily ascertain, the U.S. is relatively high on the non-secular (religious belief scale) but low on the health-success scale.

British philosopher Nicholas Humphrey, in his superb book Soul Searching, has an excellent explanation for this clinging to God and religion in the U.S.

"Religions and quasi-religions offer remarkably effective medicine for orphaned minds. As Jung said: 'They give a human being that sense of wholeness, which he had as a child, but which he loses when he leaves his parents"

In other words, for the much suffering religious believer in the States - who cannot depend on the government for his sustenance or support, God and religion offer a sweet teat to provide the comfort and nurturance otherwise missing. The irony is that these same sufferers pillory Europeans as having a Nanny state - but at least the Europeans have a genuine entity from which to elicit assistance, as opposed to a phantasm of the mind.

People-citizens without government support, who are unable to pursue learning interests even when unemployed (as they can in Germany and Norway, for example) are trapped on a treadmill that demands they expend energy – mental and physical- even when they have the time to pursue individual research that would disclose the sterility of their dubious faith.

Ireland was long an impoverished Catholic slave state, but since it’s high tech boom, the influence of Catholicism has ebbed to the point the Church could not prevent a pro-choice piece of legislation from being passed a few years ago. Ireland is now typically “Euro-secular”. Spain was reliably fascist until 1975 and the demise of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Now it is a Euro-secular state that has recently adopted gay marriage.

Meanwhile, the U.S. remains a religious anomaly because its socio-economic system is anomalous and pathological in contrast to Euro-first world norms, for example. In the U.S. by contrast to Germany - where unemployment isn’t catastrophic (since nixed workers are paid up to 80% of their normal wage benefits for nearly two years, 50% thereafter), the unemployed are ususally advised to pound pavements in search for work - rather than study at a college, even to merely improve their name. No surprise then that German unemployed workers are largely much better informed - especially concerning world affairs- than their American counterparts.

Most lower middle class people in the U.S. face serious risk of financial and personal ruin if they lose their insecure jobs and health insurance. (And as we know, in a cowboy capitalist nation like ours, a significant unemployment level is useful for profiteers & corporations since it means their wage costs and benefits packages can be lower. Thus, the army of the unemployed constitutes an unemployment “rent”- a term first used by Alan Greenspan in 1997) . Market specialists and strategists do NOT want employment rates high because they inflate the Employment Cost Index, and also:

"Inflation fears are especially acute ..because unemployment is too low. When available workers become scarce, employers must often bid more for their services and then raise consumer prices to make up for higher costs."
(The Baltimore Sun, p. 1E , Jan. 27, 1997, 'Employment Cost Is a Hot Number').

This addresses the question (asked by many) on why the DOW is still going up despite the unemployment rate hovering near 10%. Short answer, higher unemployment is a necessary fuel to the markets! As Greenspan put it in 1997, "every 1 million unemployed keeps the inflation rate down by 1%".
Personal bankruptcies involving just medical expenses number almost 1.2 million each year. A stat any other self-respecting nation would consider beyond shameful. Meanwhile, the need to acquire adequate wealth as a protective buffer translates into a Darwinian race to the top often built on debt. Until the recession began, the entire U.S. financial system was over-leveraged by 10-20%. It was precisely this, along with making bets on the debt being paid (known as credit default swaps) which incepted the bubble, and later, when the debts couldn't be paid, the collapse. Despite this, even as I write this another asset bubble is forming because no meaningful reforms (with teeth) have been implemented. Wall Street is prepared to carry on like it did before.

Advanced sociological research ) indicates the mere existence of strong income disparity (Gini coefficient of 0.4 or 40, or higher) creates widespread psychological strain. People in such nations, since income can no longer allow for necessities, must go into credit card or other debt to pay- say for medical emergencies.

In this economic morass, susceptible and vulnerable brains will be open to the palaver of religious doctrines and bunkum, as a kind of balm to salve the distress inflicted by a brutish, survival of the fittest society. Fundies, like the irrepressible dandelions on my lawn- especially proliferate, since their messages are at simpleton level and basically translate into "Believe in Jesus and get saved or else". Even if a person is the rankest child rapist, or foul mass murderer, it is no matter- since once the bounty of salvation is conferred, his soul's as pure as the driven snow. Look how Ted Bundy, who slaughtered over 200 women by some estimates, was "saved" at the last minute by none other than the Rev. James Dobson. What would those dead women think - IF there were an afterlife- at the thought of Bundy, with his leering grin - sitting on the right-hand side of God for eternity? Yet this is what the simpleton fundies would have you believe.

That so many in the U.S. middle class feel anxious and fearful enough to enlist the dubious assistance of a friendly “creator” – never mind ‘he’ exists only in their mashed up temporal lobes- is a testament to monumental gullibility, if not severe brain dysfunction. Interestingly, when surveyed, Americans claim levels of satisfaction and happiness similar to those in the Euro-secular advanced societies. This clearly suggests, as noted by the piece, that Americans use religion and their religious (or spiritual) beliefs as a form of self-medication to alleviate the chronic stress attendant on the knavish, neo-Darwinian society they inhabit.

I am sure while advanced Europeans in Germany, France or Norway merely need to go out into the fresh air for a walk to get high and escape their problems, most lower and middle class Americans get it by reading their bibles, or better- going out grabbing an unsuspecting free citizen- and "witnessing" to him or her. Once they have that poor citizen terrified of death and eternal torment in "Hell", I am sure those fundies go back and sleep the sleep of the just. Their problems resolved.

Thus, it is no coincidence that religiosity is low in every first world nation with universal health coverage and high in the only without it. What else can the hapless, beat-down American do – when denied coverage for serious illness – than seek the assistance of his imaginary god, who now also becomes his healer?

The conclusion from dozens of sociological and anthropological journals is inescapable: high levels of national religiosity are largely a symptom of a dysfunctional socioeconomic governance and circumstances engendered by that governance. High levels of secularism are largely a result of healthier, more secure governance and conditions that arise from those enlightened policies. In particular, taxes are relatively high - but are used for the betterment and support of the commonweal, as opposed to funding open-ended occupations, invasions, and tax cuts for the wealthiest. The latter must truly be amazed and secure that so many less well off citizens, who would otherwise be up in arms at their amassed and unholy wealth, are kept under full control through the use of a fantasy belief system.
"Religion is the opiate of the people"? No way, more like the Overseer of the people.

No comments: