Religion, Peace and Prosperity

Is there a correlation between religiosity, peace and prosperity?  Comparing Nigeria, Ghana and China sheds light on this question.

According to the most recent Win-Gallup International’s Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism 2012, the country with the most people believing themselves to be religious in the world is Ghana (96%) followed by Nigeria at a close second (93%).  

The religiosity index shows the percentage of a population who describe themselves as being religious irrespective of whether they attend a place of worship. The index is the result of sampling 50,000 men and women from 57 different countries on five continents.

Comparing this year’s index with trend data from 2005, Ghana did not experience a change in religiosity. Nigeria experienced a 1% percent decrease in religiosity.

Generally, 59% of the world’s population consider themselves religious while 23% regard themselves as not. 13% consider themselves convinced atheists. Worldwide, religiosity decreased by 9% while atheism rose by 3%. Regionally speaking, in North America and western Europe, 57% and 51% of their populations consider themselves  religious respectively. Africa and Latin America were the two top regions with 89% and 84% of their populations considering themselves religious. China scored lowest in the religiosity index and highest in the atheism index at 47%.

Correlation between religion and prosperity

The index reports that religiosity is higher among lower income groups. Those in this group are 17% more likely to describe themselves as religious. The results suggest that the more prosperous people become, the greater the tendency to experience a decline in religiosity ceteris paribus.

Ghana-China Paradox

This assumption that the more prosperous a nation gets, the less they tend to describe themselves as religious does not hold for the extremes poles of the 57 countries, which are Ghana and China. Since 1992 Ghana has been growing economically. In 2011 Ghana was assessed by the World Bank as having moved from a lower income to a low-middle income country. If the assumption was true, there should have been at least a minute percentage change in religiosity trend. But this is not so. There has been no change for the past seven years.

China is the other extreme pole scoring the least in the religiosity index. Again if the assertion were true for all, then 86% of Chinese non-religious folks should be more prosperous but again this is not the case. Out of China’s population of 1.3bn, only about 300m live at standards comparable to the West whilst the vast majority – 1bn – live in poverty according to Dambisa Mboyo.  This discrepancy notwithstanding, it generally makes sense that with increasing prosperity comes a waning in religiosity.

Correlation between religion and peace

Ghana and Nigeria, which scored highest in the religiosity index, present another paradox when considering the question: does the level of religiosity in a nation promote or detract from peace?

In recent years Nigeria has had a lot of religious riots which has seen the death of many people. Because of the religious label put on these riots by the media and other actors in the political sphere, one cannot help but wonder if an increase in religiosity is necessarily positively correlated with the absence of peace especially within the West African context.

When we compare the findings of the 2012 religiosity index with the Global Peace Index (GPI) 2012, we realise that the answer to the question stated above is NO. High religiosity perception in a nation does not necessarily lead to promotion or absence of peace.

In the Global Peace Index 2012, Ghana ranked 50th out of 158 nations while Nigeria ranked 146th out of 158. If concentration of religiosity was positively correlated with conflict, then Ghana with a higher religiosity percentage than Nigeria should have received a relatively similar peace index ranking with its neighbour. But this is not so.

This is not to say that society turns a blind eye to the fact that many deaths in recent years in northern Nigeria came about  as a result of conflicts between alleged adherents of the Christian and Muslim faiths. Rather what is being advocated is a broader analytical net with which to perceive the causes of so-called “religious conflicts”. Maybe there are factors outside religion within the political, economic, and social environment which account for these violent outbursts between adherents of different faiths.

China’s alleged courtship with religion

Former senior Time magazine correspondent, David Aikman, wrote a book entitled “Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Changing the Global Balance of Power”. He relates an incident from when the then-president and head of the Communist Party of China, Jiang Zemin, attended a private dinner in early 2002. At the party he was asked, “Comrade Jiang, if before leaving office you could make one decree that you knew would be obeyed in China, what would it be?” The Chinese leader’s alleged response was, “I would make Christianity the official religion of China”.  Maybe Jiang Zemin was cracking a joke. On the other hand, he might have meant what he said. If he did, what could be a probable motive for such a desire? My guess would be to harness the gains of “the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

This was a book published by renowned sociologist Max Weber where he set forth his belief that people work better when their value system has been influenced by protestant doctrine which espouses certain values beneficial to industry such as trust and hard work.

China wants to develop so it can feed and take care of its 1.3bn citizens and it is very possible that one avenue through which it might like to aid economic prosperity for its masses is to develop the “protestant ethic” in their psyche which would affect social and work culture and eventually produce a better standard of living for all. This is predicated on the assumption that religion has certain tools with which the psyche of adherents can be persuaded to the advantage of broader society – attaining higher ethical standards that influence the way adherents behave and conduct their affairs in the greater society.

The idea of religion being associated with economic prosperity and social work was aptly captured in a BBC article by Christopher Landau entitled “China invests in confident Christians”. In this article Professor Xhuo Xinping confirmed the fact that this idea exists within China. The article further explains that though the Communist Party itself does not believe in the existence of a God, it does not mind spending money in building churches so that the country can harvest the perceived benefits of religion.

The director general of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, Wang Zuo’an, is the Communist Party senior official responsible for this policy. According to him, there were at least 20m Chinese Protestant Christians worshipping in the state-sanctioned churches in 2010. This number has probably increased since that time. 

As to whether this great nation which boasts of the world’s highest number of convinced atheists will reap the perceived gains of religion remains to be seen.

Conclusion

One wonders whether the growing decline of religiosity worldwide as shown by the index is positive or negative for the globe. Going by inferences made from “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”, in regions like Africa where as many as 89% consider themselves religious, will religiosity help to promote a certain value system and ethical compass that promote trust and hard work and hence become a driving force behind economic prosperity? In other regions where religiosity is on the decline, does this mean values will deteriorate and consequently result in negative work values that undermine their economic prosperity? The jury is still out on the matter. Time will tell.

What we do know is that religion, irrespective of our individual views, is here to stay. It might diminish in importance with growing prosperity in certain regions of the globe but it will not entirely be stamped out. Even in places where it is at an all-time low,  it is possible that a trend could develop in these states to adopt China’s model by promoting religion as a driver of social and economic development, despite the beliefs of the majority of their citizens.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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