The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Does Church Attendance Make You Poorer?

I saw a writer, with whom I generally agree, making the claim that religious attendance increases income. The brief argument given was social interaction raises income. Social interaction is generally a good thing economically but not all social interaction is equal. For instance, let us assume, as I think is the case here, that religious interaction exposes people to values, which are counter, productive and destroy what small benefits may normally be expected from interaction.

As I have argued in Different Drummers and Economic Prosperity social diversity actually encourages innovation and thus greater prosperity. But many religious sects, especially evangelicals, demand social conformity, which encourages poverty, not prosperity.

For example, evangelical theocrat Bryan Fischer penned a whole column attacking diversity and demanding social conformity all, of course, in the name of liberty. He claimed, “Perhaps the most sinister and dangerous lie the left has beaten into the brains of unthinking Americans is that there is strength in diversity. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Now, the claim I am refuting specifically said it was religious attendance, not beliefs per se, that was economically beneficial. But what does the data show? Let’s start with the information on household income of various religious groups — including agnostics and atheists.

Agnostics and atheists are not prone to attending religious services where Southern Baptists, Assemblies of God and Jehovah’s Witnesses are very prone to attending services. But the sects with the highest attendance rates are near the bottom of the chart and liberal Protestants, non-Christians, and non-believers are at the top of the economic ladder. Only 10% of members of the Assemblies of God had household incomes in 2014 over $100,000, but 30% of atheists did. Those in 2014 with household incomes under $30k was 43% for the Assemblies of God members but 24% atheists and 22% for agnostics.

The highest household income rates by religious affiliation are among Jews, but they also have very low attendance rates at religious services. Only 20% of all Jews say they attend synagogue at least once a month. So, the group with the highest income has extremely low attendance rates at religious services.

At the other end of the spectrum are Jehovah’s Witnesses who have the highest religious attendance rates, with 85% of them attending services at least once per week. But in terms of household incomes they are the poorest in the Pew survey with only 4% of households having income over $100,000 in the 2014 survey but with 48% coming in under $30,000.

Next to Jews, Hindus had highest household incomes but Pew found that only 18% of them attended services weekly while 31% said they rarely or never attended. The next groups at the top of the economic ladder were members of the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA). Both are pretty mainstream liberal sects. But where among Protestants 33% of members of mainline denominations go to church regularly, 58% of evangelicals do.

If you look at the chart of household income you will find all the evangelical denominations listed are below average in income, while above average in religious attendance. The six groups at the top of the household income chart all have low attendance rates; two are non-Christian groups, two are liberal Protestant groups and two are groups of non-believers. All this seems to disprove the thesis that income is higher for church attendees.

Finally we can look at the median income of the various state and their attendance rates at religious services. In income is higher due to church attendance than the median income of the states with highest attendance rates should be higher than the median income in the states with the lowest attendance rates. It’s pretty straightforward. We can also compare it to the median household income for the entire country — which is $70,784.

The 10 states with the highest attendance rates at religious services are Utah, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, West Virginia, Virginia, Oklahoma and Georgia. Looking at the map for median household income by state we see that of the 10 states with the highest attendance rates eight of them have median household incomes below the national average and only two are above. Combined these 10 states average a median household income of just $62,183.

In contrast the 10 states with the lowest religious attendance rates are Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Hawaii, New York, Oregon, and Washington. Where 8 of the states with highest religious attendance rates had household incomes below the national average, the opposite is true in the states with the lowest attendance rates — 9 of them have median household incomes above the national average. The average median household income for the states with the lowest attendance rates is $79,815.

So the states with low religious attendance are $17,632 higher. If there is a correlation between religious attendance and economic prosperity it is the opposite of what the religious wish to be the case. Church attendance corresponds with lower income, not higher.


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A blog for the Moorfield Storey Institute: a liberaltarian think tank.

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James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.