A few weeks ago, one of my professors was lecturing about a Latin piece titled, “The Requirement.” After Columbus, Spaniards would journey to the New World, and seeing that it was their duty as good Catholics, they would try to convert the natives. In order to do so, they would read this beautifully written text which basically said, “While we will not force you to convert, we will kill you if you don’t.”
The Atlantic's March issue shows this graph from a Pew Report, indicating that as countries become more affluent, they are less religious (or, perhaps, as they become less religious they are more affluent).
There might be a variety of reasons for this. One might be that in regions where the state is weak, religion offers the promise of justice and order, and weak and corrupt states are commonly associated with poverty. But I also think it has something to do with the reality of economics.
Note that Kuwait is, like the United States, more affluent than would be suggested by the countries on the rest of this graph. Kuwait has oil money and this, for me, suggests one other reason there is a correlation between religion and wealth.
If oil or farming or timber or fishing is the basis for your wealth, your relationship to wealth is different from that of a community dependent on innovation. In a land-based economy, there is little evidence of wealth accruing from a strong science program or creative thinking. In fact, dogmatic assertions and force are the basis of wealth. (e.g., "This land is ours! And we have the force to back up our claim over it.") It is little wonder that in such communities, dogmatic assertions and force are the basis of religion as well. (e.g., "This is God's will! And we have the force to back up such claims.")
In simpler land based economies, dogmatic assertions structure life. In more complex information and entrepreneurial economies, dogma merely obstructs the deal making, problem solving, and creativity necessary to creating wealth.
And as a community becomes more economically advanced, a new emphasis becomes apparent. By the end of the Enlightenment in the West, the basis for community had changed. In Medieval times, the purpose of public life was people pleasing God, the narrative of a theocracy; by the end of the Enlightenment, the purpose of public life was people pleasing people, the narrative of a market economy. It is in this sense that prosperity is a threat to religion, but only a particular kind of religion. Post-Enlightenment religion is a private affair, to be practiced in voluntary communities; it is not a public matter.
I suspect, though, that religion will continue to hold steady, perhaps revive, even as we become more prosperous. People need a coherent narrative and the vocabulary of souls and salvation are still among our best hopes for making sense of our lives as something more than the day to day struggle to pay the mortgage. Life is bigger than the market place. Dogma will continue to wane; religion may not.