The secular community often bemoans the religiosity of Americans compared with their British and other European counterparts. A recent article from Gallup offers a perspective that is important to keep in mind. Steve Crabtree and Brett Pelham ask, "Are Americans among the most religious people in the world?" Well, "the answer depends on which ‘world’ you’re talking about."
If you’re referring to the entire planet, the answer is plainly "no." In 2006, 2007, and 2008, Gallup asked representative samples in 143 countries and territories whether religion was an important part of their daily lives… Across all populations, the median proportion of residents who said religion is important in their daily lives is 82%. Americans fall well below this midpoint, at 65%.
But before you point out the considerable effect religion has on U.S. society and politics, let’s change the lens to account for a basic insight multicountry surveys offer: a population’s religiosity level is strongly related to its average standard of living. Gallup’s World Poll, for example, 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.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the 10 least religious countries studied include several with the world’s highest living standards, including Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Hong Kong, and Japan…
Social scientists have noted that one thing that makes Americans distinctive is our high level of religiosity relative to other rich-world populations. Among 27 countries commonly seen as part of the developed world, the median proportion of those who say religion is important in their daily lives is just 38%. From this perspective, the fact that two-thirds of Americans respond this way makes us look extremely devout.
As pervasive as religion is in the United States, it’s important to remember that things could be worse, a whole lot worse. And, fortunately, religion in the U.S. is rather blasé and bland compared to the rock-em-sock-em militant (literally!) fundamentalism in much of the rest of the world.
Implicit in these findings is a possible solution for reducing the prevalence of religion in the world: raise the standard of living. My fiscally conservative and libertarian atheist friends should take note: It may be in your best interest to participate (through government aid or otherwise) in raising the living standards of people everywhere – including the much maligned working and non-working poor within our own borders.
The irony is almost palpable: If atheists, as well as Christians, follow Jesus’ admonition to "go, sell your possessions and give to the poor" it may well be the undoing of Christianity and religion in general. Taking this into account, our time may be better spent by reaching out to the less fortunate among us than crusading to keep crosses out of parks.