Field of Science

European Christians don't want government to reduce income inequality

You may have seen the article by Jo Stiglitz, Nobel-Prize Winning Economist, in the current issue of Vanity Fair, in which he rips into the yawning chasm of wealth inequality that now exists in the US. Dan Ariely (of Predictably Irrational fame) is also in the news, talking about his study in which he showed that US citizens don't actually know how unequal their nation is, and that regardless of political persuasion they'd like it to look more like Sweden.

Now, inequality is a complex social problem, but regular readers will know that the link to religion is something that fascinates me.

Countries with higher income inequality also tend to have citizens who pray more and who go to Church more often. Now, one explanation for this is that, when wealth disparities are large, life can get more stressful - especially (but not only) for those at the bottom of the heap.

However, there's also evidence the religion actually drives wealth inequalities. Countries with more religious people spend less on social welfare, but it's not clear whether religious people actually prefer it that way.

That's where a new analysis by Daniel Stegmueller, a sociologist at Goethe University in Frankfurt Germany, and colleagues comes in. They looked at data from 16 Western European countries that took part in the European Social Survey in 2002-2006. One of the questions asked in the survey was the extent to which people agreed that "The government should take measures to reduce differences in income levels".

People who said they had a religious affiliation (Catholic, Protestant, or'other') were less likely to agree. That held even after adjusting for a wide range of other factors, like age, income, social class, employment status, children, and whether the respondent was on a temporary contract. They also adjusted for the political climate of the country (social democratic versus liberal, and social conservatism).

The interesting thing was that the difference between Catholics and Protestants was quite small, and much smaller than the difference between the religious and the non-religious. The effect is quite large - equivalent to five more years of education or increasing household income by €500/month.

Now, there are three reasons that the religious might be less keen on social welfare. The first is that they may get social support from their fellow Church members, and so be less interested in state support. But, in this analysis, churchgoing had no effect on support for welfare.

Another possibility is that believers may think that God will take care of them. Or they may think that their god will favour them, and so they will not end up at the bottom of the pile. That's certainly a possibility that is not ruled out by this analysis.

But the third possibility is that religious people may resent the idea of giving money to people who aren't part of their 'gang'. That wouldn't be surprising - it's well known that countries that have a large mix of ethnicities have lower support for government welfare. People don't mind paying taxes to help their own kind, but they're not so keen to see their money going to help 'them'.

Indeed, Stegmeuller found that more religiously polarized countries (defined by the difference in religiosity of religious group members compared with non-members) had lower the support for social welfare.

So religious polarisation reduces support for social welfare. But the surprising thing was that it had no effect on the link between individual religious affiliation and rejection of governmental intervention to reduce inequality.

Even in the least religiously polarized countries, religious people are still just as opposed to the idea that the government should try to reduce inequality.
Stegmueller, D., Scheepers, P., Rossteutscher, S., & de Jong, E. (2011). Support for Redistribution in Western Europe: Assessing the role of religion European Sociological Review DOI: 10.1093/esr/jcr011

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. The "us vs them" argument resonates strongest with me. It wasn't that long ago the here in the US the republican party worked to destroy social programs because of those "welfare queens" driving around in their tax payer funded cadillacs. That specific issue wasn't based on religion but race, which is what we are currently dealing with here, though now its the Hispanic community that gets the blame.

  2. Perhaps some of the religious perceive redistribution as an act of harm. This would be inline with the notion that taxation being theft or extortion, and thus an act of harm.

    Alternatively, they could also be against it because it violates karma. Specifically, taking things from things from people who worked for it and giving it to people who didn't work for it. (Along the lines of what Jonathan Haidt described.)

  3. It seems to me that the religious commonly feel that charity is the province of religion, and they don't like the government honing in on their turf.

  4. Two thoughts:

    (1) Cross Purposes
    As with countries with large ethnic mixes, maybe religious folks just don't feel money taken from them will support what they value. They may not mind sharing with other groups, but not groups with cross purposes.

    So perhaps countries with peoples of significantly polarized cross-purposes doen't want their incomes involuntarily obscuded ("tax") to support perceived contrary purposes.

    There, I took "religion" out of the picture and captured more fish.

    (2) Inequality
    Your economic stance is clear with terms like: inequality, yawning, chasm, rips and unequal. More nuanced attention to differences of cross-purposes and the dangers of monolithic rule may clarify the issue.

  5. Did they add up the proponents/opponents of welfare and the [non]religious over different regions before or after computing the correlation? I'm asking because both religiosity and poverty e.g. in Germany are strongly dependent of the geography (the eastern part is full of atheists and poor, which is likely to cause more support for welfare and thusly might introduce an omitted-variable bias).

  6. I think that we're hitting aganist one of those correlation-is-not-causation issues here.

    I think that there are a numbers of explanations to the fact that some people are aganist direct intervention of governement to reduce wealth inequality. These explanations don't exclude each others, and are positive collerrelated with religion.

    My preffered ones are these two. First, religious people tend to adopt a "just world" worldview and they seem to reason in term of "morals". So, a poor or an unemployed is seen as a "lazy sinner" and, thus, not worth of help. Second, religiuos people seem to be more tolerant to hierarchies. So inequalities don't hurt them, they find them normal rather than a human artifact.

    Besides, in different contexes those explenations may have different strength. In Poland (high gini index) probably race is not an issue.

    Looking back to religion, it is to be said that christian hierarchies do not encourage grassroot movements which strive for more equality. In contrary, they defend the status quo when it is favourable to the Church, however it is bad to low status people.

  7. I think the authors may be looking at the issue backwards. Two hundred years ago, all European societies were all socially conservative, meaning Christian and non-social-democratic. Most people didn't see government as the pre-eminator provider or guarantor of social good. Insofar as they were concerned about this-worldly good, they tended to look to churches and private charities.

    Modern European Christians have tended to preserve this outlook to the present day. Religion hasn't caused them to adopt a conservative view on social policy, it's just kept them the way they were, the way most people used to be.

    In fact, the decline of Christianity is better seen as the causative agent here. Post-Christians transferred the other-worldly idealism of religion to the this-worldly idealism of socialism and social democracy. In place of salvation, a just society became the transcendent good.

    Post-Christians thus became natural supporters of all manner of government programs designed to achieve a juster society, including policies to reduce income disparity. Problems arose when these programs proved ineffective, or had unexpected side-effects, or became unaffordable due to slow economic growth. Since the basic impulse behind these programs was essentially religious, their supporters have been extremely reluctant to examine them critically. All of which leads us to the social-policy deadlock of the last few decades.

    Meanwhile, the prejudices of the pre-modern Christians - biased towards self-help and skeptical of massive government intervention - comes to look more and more like simple commonsense, regardless of its metaphysical basis.


  8. William, the generally accepted 'sociological' theory is that Protestant Churches are supposed to be anti-state welfare (as it is outside their control), Catholics are supposed to be more amenable to it as they see it as as a state-funded arm of the Catholic Church (because the church is more closely aligned with the state in Catholic-majority countries).

    Which is why it's interesting that in this analysis, there's no real difference between Catholics and Protestants. Times are a-changing!

    But yes, in general I do agree the the religious might not like state welfare because it means they have less to spend on charity (and less to gain from it) - see Atheists are generous, they just don't give to charity

  9. Sabio: 1) yes, absolutely. The religious polarity effect is just an example of how polarisation in general reduces welfare preferences. The classic example - as I mention in the post - is ethnic differences. Often religion and ethnic differences align, of course.

    2) I think everyone agrees that too much inequality is a bad thing. The question is how much is too much!

  10. Ralf, the statistical model they used was pretty complex, but yes, they did control for individual wealth. They also controlled for unobserved national differences, as well as for national differences in the strength of the 'catholic' and 'protestant' effect, and a whole bunch of other stuff.

  11. Anon No.1: Yes, also agree with he "Just world" viewpoint - which is something I've also covered previously (see Why the religious vote right wing I think you're also right when it comes to the established Church. But of course there is nothing to stop believers setting up their own, radical, levelling Church. It does happen sometimes, but it's very rare. Which in itself is interesting.

  12. @ Tom
    You said, "I think everyone agrees that too much inequality is a bad thing. The question is how much is too much!"

    I'd add that it also matters on HOW that degree of tension-causing inequality is addressed. Two states can have the same degree of differences in incomes brought about by different means, resulting in different senses of fairness and tolerance.

  13. Organized religion and social inequality both have largely evolved from the Neolithic. A symbiotic relationship perhaps. Living in the US, it continues to amaze me how opposed the middle and lower middle class here are to unions, and to programs from government or even general social programs aimed at income or opportunity equality – all while buying up lottery tickets. They have no real prospects of wealth, but really want wealth to have privilege. They insist their fantasies remain spectacular, and consistently vote against their own (real) interests. Yea Sara!


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