Researchers call it an exchange model of religion: If people can get what they need from the government (be it health care, education or welfare) they’re less likely to turn to a divine power for help, according to the theory.
But are people actually more likely to drop religion in places where governments provide more services and stability? In a new paper, psychology researchers crunched the numbers — and found that better government services were in fact linked to lower levels of strong religious beliefs.
Those findings held true in states across the U.S. and in countries around the world, researchers said.
The article, “Religion as an Exchange System: The Interchangeability of God and Government in a Provider Role,” was published April 12 in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Authors Miron Zuckerman and Chen Li of the University of Rochester and Ed Diener of the Universities of Utah and Virginia wrote that their findings suggest “that if the function that religiosity provides can be acquired from some other source, the allure of religion will diminish.”
The researchers also found something of a staggered link between the government services on offer and levels of religiosity in a given state. Between 2008 and 2013 in the U.S., for example, “better government services in a specific year predicted lower religiosity 1 to 2 years later,” researchers wrote.
“If a secular entity provides what people need, they will be less likely to seek help from God or other supernatural entities. Government is the most likely secular provider,” the researchers concluded. “We showed in two cross-sectional analyses, one using world countries and one using states in the United States, that better government services were related to lower levels of religiosity.”
How exactly did the researchers measure government service levels and how religious people are? The research relied on a mix of World Bank, World Fact Book, U.S. Census and Gallup data, researchers said.
Researchers measured government services by looking at how much each state or country spent on health and education as a percentage of gross domestic product. Then researchers compared those numbers with data about religion that Gallup collected from 455,104 people across 155 countries, according to the paper. That's nearly 3,000 respondents from each country, researcher said.
“If the benefits acquired in the religious exchange can be acquired elsewhere, religion becomes less useful,” researchers wrote. They added that, when it comes to the role religion plays in establishing predictability and control in society, “the power and order emanating from God can be outsourced to the government.”
Researchers adjusted their results to account for differences in quality of life and income inequality across countries and states. That way, they could attempt to isolate the relationship between two variables: government services and how religious a population is.
The findings “imply that the government can provide an extra layer of security … that might help people cope with future needs, both expected and unexpected, and as such, might reduce dependence on God or other supernatural entities,” researchers wrote.
The paper’s lead author, Zuckerman, has previously analyzed links between intelligence and religious beliefs. In 2013, he published a study with other Rochester researchers finding that the more intelligent someone is, the less strong his or her religious beliefs tend to be.
The paper combined the results of 63 other studies to reach its conclusions, researchers said. And Zuckerman, for his part, said he wasn’t surprised by the result.
"You have to realize that this relation is not new," Zuckerman told the Verge. "Studies from 1928 found [this]."