People Are Less Religious When Government Is Bigger

People Are Less Religious When Government Is Bigger

This is making the news. A guy we’ve seen before is up to his usual statistical shenanigans in the peer-reviewed paper “Religion as an Exchange System: The Interchangeability of God and Government in a Provider Role” by Miron Zuckerman, Chen Li, and Ed Diener (henceforth “Zuckerman”), in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Here’s the thesis: “An exchange model of religion implies that if a secular entity such as government provides what people need, they will be less likely to seek help from supernatural entities.”

The “exchange model of religion” fails automatically because the government—yes, even our most beneficent, caring, loving, wise government—cannot provide what people receive from “supernatural entities.”

The model fails if God exists, which He does, because government cannot sustain the universe, let alone balance the budget. The government cannot provide life after death, forgiveness of sins, or a justifiable reason for existence.

The models fails again if per impossible God does not exist, because then people receive nothing from “supernatural entities” and never will or can receive anything. This nothing at least makes it easy for government to provide it.

You would think, then, that Zuckerman’s paper is a short one. It is not. You would think it would have an appreciation for the nature of religion and its history. It does not. You would at least think it would avoid over-certainties and the mistake of equating correlation with causation. Alas, no.

Main event

We learn that “researchers” investigated how “the moralizing Big God of the Abrahamic faiths is a mechanism that helped small communities expand into large, cooperative societies of strangers” (my emphasis). Note the assured causal language. We learn about mechanisms but we do not learn that or if Big God is God, a fact which has consequences. The authors do not even consider the point. Science is often purposely ignorant in this fashion. This is no small point. The authors provide no proof of Big God’s non-existence, which we assume they take on faith.

To “researchers”, religion offers benefits, but not transcendence. Benefits like “sense of control”, “self-enhancement”, “self-regulation”. These provide evolutionary benefits, hence religion survives. Of course it could be evolution causes delusion in “researchers”, supposing delusion boosts the chance of breeding, a true statement which cannot be proved false.

Zuckerman thinks religion is akin to a stock market, “an exchange system” in which greater “religious commitment” results in greater access to “commodities”. This ignores the overwhelming sense of duty felt by the adherents of religions, where worship is provided as God’s due. Zuckerman says “Most religions promise the good life to their adherents”, which might apply to certain “prosperity” sects, but it does not apply to the moralizing Big God of the Abrahamic faiths. Christianity promises the sword and the cross.

“[R]eplacing God with government simply means that a moralizing God is no longer necessary for the survival of the group.” Bare physical survival is the sine qua non. To “the extent that the government is responsible for a just order, there is less of a need for God as the arbiter of right and wrong.” This at least is true: absent (an acknowledgement of) God, government must decide between all good and evil, all right and wrong. The State must become God. The State, being led by men, must make man God.

So much for the theory. How about attempts at quantifying the non-quantifiable? Zuckerman obliges.

People in various countries were asked “Is religion an important part of your life?”, with ad hoc necessarily over-certain numeric answers (on a scale of -7 to 42.3, in increments of π/2, how strongly do you agree with this method?). A country was labeled by its predominant’s religion by percent.

Zuckerman then pounced on the World Bank’s World Fact Book and pulled from it “quality of life and government services measures” for each country. Things like education and “number of physicians/1,000 population” and “log transformed” poverty. All these numbers were squashed into one Big “quality of life composite”. Because why not. As long as you in the business of quantifying the unquantifiable, you can do just about anything you want with numbers, no matter how disparate or unrelated.

Gini values per country were taken next. These express, in one single number, the entire complexity of “inequality”, because all you need is one number to express an entire economy. Other “researchers” think so, so Zuckerman thinks so, too.

Then, unquantifiable “life satisfaction, positive emotions, and negative emotions” were quantified and asked of people. Example: “Positive and negative emotions were measured by asking participants whether or not they experienced (an emotion) a lot during the previous day.” How scientific.

Finally, the whole shebang is tossed into a “hierarchical regression” to “to predict religiosity from the quality of life and government services composites and their interaction, adjusting for income inequality and religion.”

Which is nonsense. Great, flaming nonsense. As if entire countries and religions are perfectly homogeneous. Even their wee p-values cannot fix this (common) blunder. Another thing: this was not “quality of life”, it was not “government services”, it was not “income inequality”, and it was not “religiosity”. It was ad hoc single-numbers said to be these things. At best, these were loose and highly uncertain proxies for what could not be measured. At worst, well, you know the worst.

Maybe you don’t. Because after this analysis came “Structural Equation Modeling”, a regression technique used to (falsely) infer cause. Falsely. What it does is measure correlation of all the ad hoc quantified questions to which researchers give fancy names, then it reifies the names into the things, and then forget all the associated uncertainties. I won’t here critique that technique in depth. But see Uncertainty. What we’re left with is a slurry of wee ps and unobservable regression coefficients, from which causality is wrongly inferred (in so many words).

After all this, they did much the same for data from the once-United States. I’ll ignore most of this, except to note a wee p-value led them to say “Higher average quality of life was related to lower baseline religiosity”.

The problem reading that is that everybody forgets the reification. You really do think “quality of life” was perfectly measured on each individual, and that “religiosity” has been unambiguously defined, then perfectly measured.

Let’s move to the conclusion. “[T]he 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.”

This is false in one respect, as noted above. Government cannot provide the most important things. As long as people realize they need these important things, they will look to God (and the entities that bring them closer to God, like the family) and not the State.

But their conclusion is also true in a trivial sense. Indeed, it is so obvious you wonder why Zuckerman bothered doing a study. Everybody already knows that as the State increases, religion must go into hiding. Everybody already knows the State is a jealous god, punishing and aborting the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate the State.


  1. ccmnxc

    Totally off-topic, and I apologise, but Briggs, have you addressed anywhere the studies done on intercessory prayer which concluded there was no significant difference between a control group of sick patients on the one hand and a group which had a congregation or congregations praying for them on the other? Or do you know if any good treatments of these studies? Thanks!

  2. brian (bulaoren)

    I once met William Safire. I was too young and callow a dinner guest to know how much fun a conversation with him would have been. He did coin a very useful term though; M.E.G.O.; That is to say; My eyes glaze over.
    When I try to read utter rubbish, I just can’t keep my mind on the matter. My bad, I reckon. Modern thought requires that shit and shinola be treated equally. So now, the question is; “Will mortals give up religious fath, in exchange for bribes?”
    Ask Moses!

  3. brian (bulaoren)

    I’m bad? Anyhow, will people be bribed to abandon their faith? I fear they will.

  4. JohnK

    Speaking of hierarchical regression, I hear that it’s now All The Rage and Just The Thing in certain circles. I’m thinking SPSS got a new feature.

  5. Ken

    “There are no atheists in foxholes” goes the saying — in extreme situations, people invariably gravitate to deity for something better.

    Low quality of life (e.g. war with death randomly distributed all around and potentially immanent, and less extremes of “low quality”) clearly prompts “religiosity.” So it should be no surprise that the opposite way of saying this, as noted above, “Higher average quality of life was related to lower baseline religiosity,” is true.

    As for people being “bribed” to abandon their faith — isn’t that what the likes of Joel Osteen are doing?For the mere price of asserted belief–“faith”– and none of the traditional self-sacrifice/-improvement requirements– one is promised all kinds of earthly goodies from the celestial santa. That’s what “religion” IS about!

    BRIGGS says: “Zuckerman thinks religion is akin to a stock market, “an exchange system” in which greater “religious commitment” results in greater access to “commodities”.” And that is so true.

    BRIGGS also says: “This ignores the overwhelming sense of duty felt by the adherents of religions, where worship is provided as God’s due.”

    Briggs’ error there should be obvious: Where Zuckerman says “religion” or “religions” he’s lumping them all together, bona fide faiths with true doctrines along with cults, charlatans and so forth. Briggs, revealing an almost neurotic defensiveness, isn’t distinguishing between the true religions from the heretical.

    Most adherents of modern “religions” that self-identify as “Christian” are anything but “Christian” based on their actual behavior and doctrines when those are examined in detail.

    The “trick” (if that’s the right word) is to distinguish between bona fide “religions” and distinguish those from the abundant heresies. Then not react as if an attack on the heretical, when identified under some banner headline that is so vague it really means nothing, actually applies to one’s own situation.

    One sees this all the time among “Christians” (or other members of other self-identifying groups). Typically, some “Christian” observe some other member self-identifying as “Christian” come under some attack by some out-group member (e.g. an “atheist”). Very often the results are insanely comical when they realize they’ve defended some heretic, or jerk, who got what they deserved.

    (I recall a coworker that jumped to the defense of another [the “jerk”], because they were the same sort of “evangelical Christians” when the jerk was verbally attacked by yet another coworker for parking illegally in the underground garage and boxing in a number of cars, again, later proven on video, which elicited a number of other complaints by other coworkers about various other abusive behaviors/statements many of which were documented in email. The jerk was forced to retire and the defender lost all credibility within the company and also left.

    This kind of emotional response based on a group identification and not actual behavior routinely creates a variety of problems, too often with the innocent being the victims. The amount of abuse a member of a religious group member can dish out and get away with, because other in-group members identify the asserted [but not exercised] religious values and not actual behavior, is well documented to the extreme. One might think that a group based on religious values would enforce high standards of behavior among its members, at least discretely, but the facts show the opposite is the case — they will protect the guilty to extremes to maintain the group’s image of wholesomeness [pretense] and, typically, will only act when circumstances beyond their control force them.

    M. Scott Peck identified “pretense” as a common denominator of the evil. That, in other jargon, is associated with the focus of so-called “Shame Cultures”, mostly found in Mid-Eastern and Asian societies; to be contrasted with the so-called “Guilt Culture” most of us take for granted in the ‘West.’ What’s curious is that Christianity has been observed as a major factor in shifting values from the Shame- to the Guilt-Culture, but within “Christian” institutions the shame-culture often rules — hypocrisy at an extreme).

  6. Uncle Mike

    Half a pie is better than none. I dream of Gini. Take my log, please.

    It takes a quack to measure the imaginary. Your average academical pee-er can’t tell the difference though, even with a calculator!

  7. Ye Olde Statistician

    @ccmnxc: You ought to be aware that almost daily in thousands of Catholic masses prayers are offered up for all the sick, everywhere. There is no notion of praying for miraculous cures or that these prayers are subject to inverse square laws vis-a-vis their effectiveness regarding such cures.

    And of course, that goes to the same misconception that “religion” is all about securing goods and services from a divine vending machine as Ken and others appear to believe. (Or that the actions of individuals regarding parking have anything to do with the matter.)

  8. John Watkins


    ‘Briggs, revealing an almost neurotic defensiveness…’

    Um, no, I think that would be you, Ken. All anyone has to do is mention The One and Only Big God and you go bananas. Every time. At great length. All the while ignoring the real question of the day. Every day. Did you have a bad childhood or something that might explain this neurosis?

  9. Joy

    YOS, Christians pray, too! So do people in fox holes.

    Atheists care about the family, too.
    Many atheists are ‘pro life’. Many Christians are ‘pro abortion’, at a guess, since many Catholics have abortions.
    These things can’t be counted. Especially when people don’t tell the truth.
    Faith is personal and private, for many.
    The most perfect person I ever knew never spoke about her faith. She was my receptionist. She passed away from brest cancer in 2014. I think her way was the right way.
    I used to go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve with her. Mother of three girls. She was pretty close to perfect. I’m going back to doing what she would do. “take no notice”.

  10. imnobody00

    I won’t comment the sophistry of this article and the disgusting suggestion of increasing the government so people stop trusting God.

    When I was a little boy, my parents had a friend who was a (Catholic) missionary in the middle of Africa. Quite a character: a blend between a prophet, a peasant and a hippy. He died there. God bless his soul. He used to say about the people of his native village in Southern Europe: “If the harvest is good, they will stop believing in God”.

    We usually forget about God when things are good. This is why faith is weaker in rich countries. Of course, things are not always good and tragedy is inevitable. When a loved one dies, when one is sick, when people suffer, no amount of bribes from the government will give us what God gives us. And I am only speaking about natural things like consolation. I am not thinking about spiritual things, here and in the hereafter.

    @ccmnxc Are you really about that? Because there are multiple studies about intercessory prayer. Maybe our gracious host will can discuss that:

    @Joy. You must refer to Evangelical believers because Catholic are Christian too.

  11. Ye Olde Statistician

    Joy: I was referring to the fallaciousness of those so-called “experiments” that pretend to find no relationship between “being prayed for” and “recovery from illness” by pointing out the impossibility of scientific control. There is no way to ensure that those that are not being prayed for are not in fact being prayed for by someone, somewhere. Perhaps by a seven-year old girl praying earnestly for the health and well-being of “everyone, everywhere.” I mention the petitions at the Mass because I can personally attest to them, whereas I have no personal experience with others.

    You are perfectly correct to note that oft-times these things cannot be counted because many times people do not tell the truth, or are at best relying on memory.

  12. Joy

    John b,
    You missed the point, but then you still believe in “our gracious host.”
    I do not.

  13. Joy

    A materialist would tend to think naturally, that prayer and it’s effects can be measured.
    Spirit is immaterial, by definition immortal.
    When prayers are answered it is rarely in the way which is expected. It can be almost instantaneous and comic, at times.
    One thing I’m sure of is that God has a sense of humour. There is something in a message of humour that tells me that whatever is afterwards is warm and happy. That’s all I’m saying, on the Michael 2 Rule.

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