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Does Wealth Make Us Less Religious?

According to a study from the Pew Research Center, the answer to this question appears to be yes. “In general, people in richer nations are less likely than those in poorer nations to say religion plays a very important role in their lives,” the authors report. The good news, I suppose, is that America is somewhat of an exception to this rule. But check out the overall trend:

US stands out as rich nation highly religious

It’s fascinating, and not all that surprising. We’ve known for decades now that the prosperous West—Europe in particular—has become increasingly secular. And although it is lagging behind, America is following suit.

Based on this data, there seems to be a clear correlation between wealth and irreligiosity, but is it a causal relationship?

Although there are undoubtedly other factors at play, my guess is that it is. As people become more prosperous, they become more comfortable with their lives. They find more satisfaction in the material realities of this world, which means they are less inclined to depend on God and look hopefully to another (future) world. Perhaps they think they’ve figured life out on their own. Life is great. I’m in control. Why do I need God?

I have found this to be true in my own life, especially during certain seasons. My life is filled with many wonderful things: material blessings, relationships, opportunities to find personal fulfillment…. Add all of this to the busyness of modern life and it is easy to get caught up in the goodness of the here and now. When my life seems to be going well, I am less likely to look to God for my provision. Instead, it is during the painful, lonely times that I cling desperately to God. In a prosperous country like the U.S., those times are simply shorter and less frequent than they are in an impoverished country.

But does that mean wealth itself is to blame? If greater wealth leads to less commitment to God, should we all take vows of poverty? I don’t think so.

While it is unwise (and perhaps unfaithful) to live in exorbitant luxury, prosperity is a fundamentally good thing. God did not intend for us to live in destitution—poverty, and all that comes with it, is a result of the fall. God calls us to subdue the Earth, to work the ground, to develop the world from a garden to a city. This development and creation of wealth is inherently good. It is a glimpse of the perfect world that is to come, though an incomplete one.

“No person or thing deserves our ultimate attention and dedication except for God.”

So, if wealth isn’t the problem, what is? Idolatry. By that, I don’t mean bowing down to a wooden idol or explicitly worshipping mammon. Rather, a much more common form of idolatry is the tendency to make a good thing ultimate.

No person or thing deserves our ultimate attention and dedication except for God. And yet, we foolishly—and sometimes subconsciously—make all sorts of things ultimate: wealth, success, happiness, marriage, charity, friendships, etc. None of these are bad (in fact, God created them for our good), but they are destructive when they become the recipients of all our affection. If we let them take the place of God, we might enjoy them for a time, but in the end we will find ourselves unsatisfied and unfulfilled. The trick is gratefully enjoying the good parts of life, without putting them on a pedestal.

In the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3), Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (New International Version). Interestingly, the New Living Translation puts it like this: “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.”

As we do the good work of alleviating poverty around the world, how do we avoid losing our souls in the process? It won’t be easy, but we must become poor in spirit. In an age of abundance, we must guard our hearts and continually remind ourselves of our desperate need for God.

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