Among the key formative experiences of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) is that of racial and religious conflict as happened in the 1950s and 1960s. To this day, Singapore’s PAP government remains wary of religion as an organising force for political ends. Yet, their economic policies may have had the effect of promoting religiosity, such that the ground is always fertile for the rise of political religion. The PAP’s governance may be producing the very conditions they fear most.
But you may ask: How does economic policy increase religiosity?
It is not as mysterious as it may at first seem. It has long been observed that income inequality correlates with religiosity; the greater the inequality, the higher the degree of religiosity. Generally, the hypothesis is that those who are worse off economically seek succour in religion. It comforts them, it gives them hope that perhaps in the next life, things will be better. It gives them a sense of self-worth on the intangible values side to compensate for the humiliations they suffer on the material side (“I may be poorer than you, but I am a better person than you”). The name given to this explanation of the correlation is Deprivation Theory. The more deprived the bulk of the people are, the more unequal the society, the greater interest in religion.
A variant of the hypothesis incorporates a twist to it, known as Relative Power Theory: Income inequality correlates with religiosity because religion is also useful to the richer classes in maintaining their privileges. Consciously or unconsciously, the better-off classes use and propagate religion to inculcate acceptance among the lower-income of their inferior status. Religion tends to promote a fatalistic view of life, whether cast as “God’s plan” or “You’re not succeeding because you haven’t prayed hard enough”, thereby reducing popular demand for economic redistribution. Additionally, the promotion of religion achieves buy-in by the lower-income classes of the conservative social values that religion often represents, thus channelling their vote-support towards rightwing parties which (surprise, surprise!) tend to champion free-market values — the very values that create and defend income inequality and oppose redistribution. The greater the inequality, the more the richer classes deploy religion to protect their interests.
Attractive though this hypothesis is, there hasn’t been a lot of studies done to validate it. Now, however, a new study by Frederick Stolt, Philip Habel and J Tobin Grant, all from the Southern Illinois University, lends it empirical support.
I wish to thank the reader who directed my attention to this study via email.
Titled “Economic inequality, relative power and religiosity“, it was published in the June 2011 issue of Social Studies Quarterly, a double-blind peer-reviewed journal. The work done involved lots of complex statistical and mathematical calculations, all quite beyond me, but trusting it as a peer-reviewed article, I think we can accept its conclusions as valid.
The study was
a multilevel analysis of religiosity across dozens of countries over two decades and a time-series analysis of trends in religiosity over half a century in the United States.
What the authors did was to
combine crossnational survey data on religiosity collected in the five waves of the World Values Survey and three waves of the European Values Survey (WVS/EVS) from 1981 to 2007 with data on economic inequality from the Standardized World Income Inequality Database (SWIID). The resulting data set includes well over 200,000 individual respondents in more than 175 society year contexts in 76 different societies.
They set off to do two things:
- To verify if religiosity really correlates with income inequality
- To test whether the the data is consistent with the Relative Power Theory, i.e. that the higher-income classes might be using religion to protect its interests in the face of inequality
First of all, one mustn’t confuse religiosity with religious affiliation. To put it simply, religiosity is the intensity of religiousness in a person. There is no single measure, but relevant measures would include how fervently he believes what his religion tells him, how closely he has shaped his behaviour to religiously desired patterns and so on.
As you can see from the following Figure 1 (taken from the study), on all twelve different measures of religiosity, there was a correlation with the Gini coefficient of net household income (the X axis).
The middle part of the paper goes into a complex discussion about teasing out other variables. For example, Muslim societies tend to have higher levels of religiosity compared to non-Muslim societies. Post-communist countries, for historical reasons, tend to have lower levels of religiosity. On the whole, the authors found that even after adjusting for these factors, the correlation between religiosity and income inequality still holds.
Then comes the truly interesting question. Is the correlation entirely explained by the deprivation theory (i.e. low-income people flock to religion for succour)? Or is there evidence to support the relative power theory (i.e. religiosity is promoted, consciously or subconsciously, by the higher-income as part of the defence of their privileges)?
To sort this out, we take note of one prediction from the deprivation theory, which is that high-income people would have less need for succour and religion. Levels of religiosity should be lower among the higher-income classes in highly unequal societies.
But that was the opposite of what the data showed. Empirically, the researchers found that on some measures of religiosity, the higher-income exhibited higher scores than the lower-income. On other measures, there was no statistical difference. On the whole the rich (in highly unequal societies) were more religious than the poor. See the example of one such measure at right.
As further support for the relative power theory, in societies with low inequality (i.e. low Gini coefficients), the rich were indeed less religious than the poor.
As the researchers wrote:
These results support only the relative power theory of religiosity. Looking across countries around the world over two decades, higher levels of economic inequality appear to make religion more attractive to the rich and to increase their ability to disseminate religion among the other members of their societies.
Reinforcing this, in their conclusion:
religion may serve as a comfort to the poor as deprivation theory suggests, but it is also and more importantly a means of social control for the rich. . .
many wealthy individuals . . . respond to higher levels of inequality by adopting religious beliefs and spreading them among their poorer fellow citizens. Religion then works to discourage interest in mere material well-being in favor of eternal spiritual rewards, preserving the privileges of the rich and allowing unequal conditions to continue.
Which sort of echoes what Seneca the Younger is supposed to have said (though authenticity is disputed): “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful”.
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As to how well the theory fits the situation in Singapore, I can’t say. I don’t know of any longitudinal surveys that measure religiosity by income categories. I seriously doubt if any has been conducted. But intuitively, many of us have the sense that religiosity has been rising. Muslims in the present generation observe the dress code more strictly than previous generations. Christian fervour seems to be greater today, with many instances of overzealous proselytisation. Intolerance seems to be increasing rather than decreasing. Against the backdrop of rising inequality as measured by the Gini coefficient — the outcome of economic policies pursued by the PAP government — we can’t help wondering if the study’s findings may well apply in Singapore too.