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Inequality & institutions

Gene Expression
By Razib Khan
Nov 9, 2009 2:37 PMNov 5, 2019 9:42 AM


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Tom Rees, Income inequality drives church attendance:

...we find that attendance rates are particularly high in countries with more socioeconomic inequalities and fewer social welfare expenditure. This effect equally applies to both poor and rich people, which is in line with the idea that because of economic mobility and the possibility of unemployment in the (nearby) future also the more affluent population feels more insecure in countries with more inequalities and without a well-developed social welfare system. We also see that people with a lower income and who are unemployed attend religious meetings more often, and we find an enduring effect of growing up in times of war. In summary, the results of our study suggest that personal and societal insecurities play a crucial role in explaining cross-national variation in religious attendance.

This isn't too surprising of a finding, it has cropped up elsewhere. It offers up avenues for naive theorizing about how the welfare state serves as a substitute for organized religion. As Tom notes institutional affiliation & attendance does not track religious belief perfectly; there is a tendency in many societies for those of higher socioeconomic status to exhibit more fidelity in terms of religious attendance & affiliation, but less in belief. What I'm interested in is connecting this to the earllier finding that material wealth is not very heritable among hunter-gatherers, and, not very heritable in some modern nations (such as Scandinavia). As I have said hundreds of times, one model which I believe needs to be examined closely is that the 5-10,000 year period between the rise of agriculture, and its subsequent fall within the last few decades as the primary activity of the human species, has had a critical role in shaping human cultures. Richard Dawkins occasionally makes reference to "Bronze Age Religions," but what he really means are the religions which arose in the world of agriculturally based polities characterized by a tiny elite controlling large numbers of peasants. I suspect that many of the institutions which we take for granted as "normal" arose specifically to meet challenges relevant to the world of the peasant and his rent-seeking overlord. The last 200 years in the West had seem a shift back toward a more equitable distribution of income, as unskilled laborers have closed the gap with those at the top of the skill & economic pyramid, at least until the 1970s. There has also been a democratization of political power, and at least a rhetorical shift toward an acknowledgement of the idea of egalitarianism. And so we have seen an "unwinding" of the positions which many institutions which arose during the pre-modern once had over our lives, from the church, to the authority of clans headed by the paterfamilias, and even the primacy of the man over the woman. This does not mean that we live in Utopia. Not only is the post-industrial world radically different from anything hunter-gatherers would have faced, but the world before agriculture was likely quite nasty and brutish in its own ways. The collapse of the power of broad-based institutional religions which tied together massive polities into fictive kinship units may not lead us down the path to scientific materialism. Rather, it seems entirely likely that supernaturalism is rooted in the age of the hunter-gatherer,. With melting of the structure of institutional religions, supernaturalism may well flower and bloom in a more decentralized and "bottom-up" fashion. We lay at the cusp of the transition into an age of social and cultural innovation like no other. Interesting times.

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