02/25/2013 04:17 pm ET Updated Apr 27, 2013

Big Government Kills Religion

Atheism blossoms in developed countries but is virtually absent in poorer nations. One interpretation of secularization is that big government helps citizens to feel more secure and less in need of religious reassurance. In a new study, I have found the most compelling evidence yet for this possibility.

It seems that people turn to religion as a salve for the difficulties and uncertainties of their lives. In an earlier study of 137 countries, I found that belief in God was higher in countries with a heavy load of infectious diseases, making life difficult and uncertain. Moreover, fewer people believed in God in wealthy and well-educated countries where life is easier. Countries with a more equal distribution of income - and hence less social problems - had more atheists. Atheism was higher for countries with a well-developed welfare state (as indexed by high taxation rates).

Yet, the 2011 study had a weakness. The data were not collected in the same way in different countries and were not strictly comparable. In a study published in the February issue of Cross-Cultural Research, I analyzed Gallup data on the importance of religion in people's daily lives. The key advantage of the Gallup data is that the same polling methodology was used in each of the 114 countries for which they collected data in 2009.

My results in the new study mirrored those of the earlier one on belief in God. I found that more people reported that religion was important in their daily lives in countries with difficult living conditions. Moreover, as the size of government increased (as assessed by personal taxation rates) the importance of religion declined.

This was not because the government was suppressing religion as happened in Communist countries. I controlled for countries having a Communist past.
My study also controlled for whether a country was mostly Muslim (where atheism may be criminalized).

I showed that personal taxation rates are strongly predictive of the size of the welfare state (for the limited number of countries where both pieces of information were available). So religiosity declined in countries having a well-developed welfare state where ordinary people are protected against economic uncertainties. Religion also declined in healthier, better educated countries where income is more equally distributed.

Why is religion in decline in countries where ordinary people enjoy a better standard of living? It seems that there is less fear and uncertainty in people's daily lives. Consequently there is less need for religion to help people cope with the feeling that they have little control over their lives.

Economists may differ over whether large governments shrink, or grow, national economies, but welfare states reduce inequality and the psychological benefits of this are well documented . Citizens of more equal countries feel a greater sense of trust in others, are more civically engaged, more active in starting businesses, and less vulnerable to crime and other social problems.

The U.S. is unusual amongst developed countries in remaining highly religious. The reason may include a patchy safety net, historically high income inequality, a lack of social trust, and high levels of crime, poverty, drug addiction, and other social problems. The government is big enough but often takes from the poor to give to the rich (e.g., subsidies to corporations and social security payments to the wealthy elderly).

In general, though, big government makes people feel better about their lives. They worry less about what the future may bring and do not rely upon religion to create a sense that their lives are controllable. Big government translates into small religion.