Washington monthly had an interesting article using data from the Pew Global Attitudes Project, showing an inverse correlation between the wealth of nations and the religiosity of their peoples.

As with so many other things the U.S. is an outlier (and Kuwait is also curiously anomalous), but the trend is clear.

It’s a curious thing—Maslow’s hierarchy of needs posits that self-actualization is something that can most easily be pursued once our basic needs for food, shelter, security, etc. are already taken care of. History also suggests this to be the case. For example, it was only when ancient Greece had developed an urban culture in which relatively rich landowners had time to reflect (in their urban mansions) that Western philosophy began to emerge. And at roughly the same time in India an agricultural revolution following the introduction of iron tools (more forestry cleared for fields, more efficient plowing) allowed that a large population of mendicant religious wanderers could be supported (the Buddha being among them). Without surplus wealth to support the Buddha and his monks his teachings would have been lost (assuming that he’d even tried pursuing a spiritual life—he might have been too busy trying to earn a living).

pew-survey-wealth-religiosityBut maybe this survey just highlights the difference between religion and spirituality, with poverty leading to the embrace of more conformist doctrines that both give hope (the carrot, the opiate of the people) and keep a potentially troublesome population in cowed fear (the stick, hell as a punishment for disobedience), while in a more wealthy culture people are free to pursue a more genuinely spiritual path that involves self-examination and a critique of social norms.

On the other hand, perhaps wealth is a distraction from religion and spirituality—I’ve met very few wealthy Buddhists. Although perhaps it’s not so much wealth that does this but the pursuit of wealth. Perhaps the pursuit of wealth becomes a quasi-religion in its own right and takes away or suppresses more genuinely religious needs.

Perhaps we need just enough wealth so that we’re free enough from anxiety to think about what constitutes a meaningful life, but not so much obsession with wealth that we become unreflective. Perhaps that’s what the idea of voluntary simplicity hinges on—finding that appropriate balance of material comfort and existential discomfort.

By Bodhipaksa. Visit his websites http://www.bodhipaksa.com and http://www.wildmind.org.
image: Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND)