Religiosity and income in the U.S.

David noticed this article by Dan Mitchell reporting the well-known fact that people in richer countries tend to be less religious. What about states in the U.S.? We (that is, David Park, Joe Bafumi, Boris Shor, and I) look at it two ways.

First, here’s a scatterplot of the 50 states, plotting average religious attendance vs. average income. (Religious attendance is on a -2 to 2 scale, from “never” to “more than once a week,” and average income was originally in dollars but has been rescaled to be centered at zero.):


States that voted for Bush in 2004 are in red and the Kerry-supporting states are blue. You can see that people in richer states tend to be less religious, although the relation is far from a straight line. There is also some regional variation (more religious attendance in the south, less in the northeast and west).

Second, here’s a plot showing the correlation of religious attendance and individual income within each state. We get a separate correlation for each state, and so we can plot these. Here we plot the correlations vs. state income, using the same color scheme:

Again, there’s quite a bit of variation from state to state, but overall we see a positive correlation between income and religiosity in poor states and a negative correlation in rich states: To put it another way, in Mississippi, the richer people attend church more. In Connecticut, the richer people attend church less.

(See also here for more on income and voting by state, and here for more on income, voting, and church attendance.)

P.S. Typos fixed (thanks to commenters Derek and Sandapanda).

P.P.S. Colors of Iowa and New Mexico fixed (thanks to commenter David).

16 thoughts on “Religiosity and income in the U.S.

  1. David noticed this article by Dan Mitchell reporting the well-known fact that people in richer countries tend to be more religious.

    I read the Mitchell article, and it sure seemed to me to be saying that people in poorer countries tend to be more religious: <<Pew found that there is “a strong relationship between a country’s religiosity and its economic status.” The poorer a country, the more “religion remains central to the lives of individuals, while secular perspectives are more common in richer nations.”>>

    Was that your typo, or was I misunderstanding Mitchell's article?

    The article says: <<The United States is the “most notable” exception. Other exceptions are oil-rich, mostly Muslim nations like Kuwait.>>

    Before labelling these as exceptions, I would want to know what Pew was calling a "rich" and "poor" country. If the measure of richness was mean share of the GDP, I would be inclined to think that income inequality had a role to play. Oil-rich Middle Eastern countries are notorious for their high-living aristocratic minority and poor majority. They could be religious because of the many poor, and "rich" because of the small aristocracy.

    Can the "richness" of these countries be measured instead by median income, or some other measure that describes the actual wealth of the majority and is not skewed by a wealthy minority? If so, would the exceptions look less like exceptions by such measures?

  2. Please clean up this article it is confusing…
    First sentence: People in richer countries tend to be LESS religious…
    we see a positive correlation between income and religiosity in poor states and a negative correlation in RICH states

  3. Derek, Sandapanda:

    Thanks for pointing out the typos!


    Regarding your particular question, I don't know how things are in Kuwait, but the cross-national correlation does not necessarily imply that, within a country, that it is the poor people who are more religious.

  4. I think Iowa is mislabelled or really "miscolored" if that's a word. It is Blue when in fact it went for Bush in 2004, although not in 2000.

  5. David,

    Thanks for pointing this out. Maybe this was some sort of rounding error, I don't know. Also, Alaska and Hawaii are missing. Some polls skip Alaska and Hawaii, so maybe that's why we don't have them here.

  6. Statistically insignificant. Although it is conceivable that churches employ gangs of thieves to break in homes while the attendees are engaged in their weekly lemminglike activities, so that may account for their willingness to work for less: by owning less, they're not tempting the clergy to steal so much.

  7. Andrew, sorry, I was unclear. What I meant to say was that it seems to be that it's been left unclear whether the poor people are more religious, and that this ambiguity needs to be cleared up. I wasn't asserting that they were (nor were you asserting that they are not), only that it would flip the picture entirely if it were true, and that makes the cross-national surveys alone, in their present state, unhelpful.

  8. This reminds me of a study on Democracy in Italy by Putnam. Italy also exhibits distinct differences from north and south. Generally, northern Italy tends to have stronger and more effective government institutions and democratic processes than the south. Putnam found that a key difference is that in the north their is a tradition of civic engagement and public participation in democratic processes and decision making. In the south the "Patron" system is the model – the powerful one – that everyone seeks favors from. The north is more effective and richer. Is their a correlation with submission to religious ideology and a Patron?

  9. @derek:
    I don't think that's the case, because in spite of any criticism (of the level of democracy and liberrty) that the USA may be liable to, it seems clear to me that citizen participation tends to be very high in the USA as compared to most European countries. Yet they are the more religious ones.

  10. it seems clear to me that citizen participation tends to be very high in the USA as compared to most European countries.

    Clear to you, maybe. It isn't clear to me. I don't even know what you mean by "citizen participation". But consider e.g. the percentage of national wealth owned by the top 1% of the nation: <<"Perhaps our closest rival in terms of inequality is Great Britain. But where the top percent in this country own 38 percent of all wealth, in Great Britain it is more like 22 or 23 percent.">>

    Or consider the Gini coefficient. My point was that these measures completely undermine the simplistic sum of GDP divided equally by number of people, because GDP isn't divided equally among all the people. A nation that is paradoxically "wealthy" yet religious may be no paradox at all: it may be that it has a few Bill Gateses, and an awful lot of Joe Blows.

    Finally, this scatter graph of my own design plots the household income of the poorest tenth percentile against mean GDP, based on the article in <a href="; rel="nofollow">this Junk Charts thread.

    The mean is not a good clue to what's going on if you don't know the distribution.

  11. The fact that religious attendance is used as a marker is significant.

    In most red states, low church attendance is more likely to indicate sloth than a secular outlook. Also, lower caste adult baptism churches which predominate there often place a greater premium on current participation.

    In blue states, low church attendances is likely to reflect a secular outlook, with low church attendance quite likely accompanied by additional hours of work. Also, higher caste infant baptism churches, which predominate in most blue states, attach less stigma to "Christmas and Easter, Wedding and Funeral" attendance.

  12. RE: Comment by: derek posted November 5, 2007

    The question about Putnam's work is an interesting one, but many critics of Putnam's work have pointed out that the very same regions of Italy that he points to today as being more civic and trusting (and yes, less religious than the South), are the very same regions that formed the backbone of support for Mussolini back in the 1920s. So obeisance to authority need not always be related to degree of (Catholic) religiosity… depends on context.

  13. The south has always have a high church attendance. Grosing up in the South is similar to growing up Catholic in the middle ages. Relgion is a way of life. In fact, 30 years ago before the Dems started to cast off the south, they had some of the relgious folks and the Republcans were strong in states like Calfornia in So Cal like places like Orange County and San Diego which while having some large churches has always had church attendance below the national average. Both these counties voted for John MCCain a lot less than they did Reagan. The repubs are caught up heavily with Southern Relgious society and like the middle ages some people might not be that relgious but soceity in the south like the Catholic society of the middle ages demands people to attend church.

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