Radio Freethinker

Vancouver's Number 1 Skeptical Podcast and Radio Show

Wealth of the Religious

Posted by Ethan Clow on March 25, 2010

Last week on the show we were discussing a recent news story based on some research into which religious group has the richest members. You can read that report here.

The study in question was done out the United States has tried to determine which religious group is the most wealthy. The information was gathered from the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life and included 14 different faiths found in North America.

When looking at the results, Hindus and Jewish people had the most members who were in the $100,000+ group, the percent was around 46%. The second wealthiest was Hinduism with around 43% in the $100,000+ group. Each religion’s members were divided into five income levels, the highest being $100,000+, the lowest being “less than $30,000. We were concerned over the possibility of some stereotyping going on.

I figured it might be prudent to take a look into just what the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life is and does. So I checked out their website and did some sleuthing. According to their site, the Pew Foru

” conducts surveys, demographic analyses and other social science research on important aspects of religion and public life in the U.S. and around the world. It also provides a neutral venue for discussions of timely issues through roundtables and briefings.”

Although they claim to be neutral in many of the issues they present information on (abortion, gay marriage, death penalty etc) they consistently frame their approach to these topics with “what do religious people think of this controversial topic” which in my opinion may be indicative of a bias. Although in my cursory examination of their site indicates they are examining issues from a faith based mindset, they do include information on the non-religious and apparently do attempt to gain insight into what the non-religious think.

It does look like the site would prove very interesting to comb through and explore. The claims are not overtly religious and according to their organization they are a non-advocacy group.

In the story we talked about on Radio Freethinker, is actually part of a much larger study by the Pew Forum on America’s religious landscape. The study was also done in February of 2009. You can take a look at it here.

Some interesting points:

-The study is based on a sample size of 35,000 Americans.
-The study was conducted in both English and Spanish.
-For each question they asked, they asked 100 different people for each denomination. Therefore despite that Hindus make up only 0.4 percent of American society, they still asked 100 people who identified as Hindu. The same was done for Catholics, who make up 23.9 percent of the population, only 100 Catholics were asked.

One question that we had on the show was the way people were divided by faith. Fourteen faiths were represented in the original news story, the majority of them were Christian denominations, mostly Protestant, however Muslims were simply included as Muslims, same with Jewish people. Well, as we observed on the show, there are more than just Jewish people, there are orthodox Jews, Reformed Jews, and of course Muslims might be Sunni or Shia. However, when the questions on income were asked, these groups were lumped together as Jewish or Muslim. However, Protestants were divided into three groups.

When considering that Jewish people as a whole make up only 1.7 percent of the population of America, it is understandable why the study lumped all the Jewish faiths together but separated the Protestant faith into three blocks

However another question we raised on the show was the difference of culture and religion. For example, may people consider themselves to be cultural Jewish but not religious. According to the study, they based their data on what people told them. If someone said ” Catholics, for instance, are defined as all respondents who said they are Catholic, regardless of their specific beliefs and whether or not they attend Mass regularly.”

With regards to the results, Jews and Hindu’s having the most wealthy members the study suggested it was linked with education. Interestingly enough, the study indicates that 31% of those with less than a high school education are part of a evangelical Protestant denomination.

The study also suggests that religiously unaffiliated generally make up the smallest percentage of people in the lower educational levels, only 2% in the “less than a high school education” identified as atheists.

All in all the study suggests that Jews, Hindus and Buddhists are most likely to have higher degrees of education than other religious groups.

Now, we’re back to why that is.

Based on what I read of this study I don’t think stereotyping is going on. It appears that they’ve followed a relatively strict protocol for dealing with the data. We refrained from commenting on the show about what factors could influence certain religious groups to be wealthier or as the study suggests, more educated.

Perhaps a sociologist would be more qualified to interpret these results. However even a cursory understand of sociology should explain why the “poorest” religions, meaning the religions that had the most members in the lowest income bracket, $30,000 or less: were the historically black Christian churches, 47% of their members were in the $30,000 or less group. People who belong to traditionally black Christian churches were typically the target of political and economic oppression.

I would still like to see this study repeated with a few more controls. Mainly, I want to know exactly how they define a religious vs cultural Jew/Hindu/Catholic etc… I would also like to know how the different religious groups feel towards education. Are typically less educated groups happy with having a lower education? Do they desire to have more economic freedom to explore post-secondary education? I’d like to see the study done in several of the industrialized countries like Canada, the UK, France…see how it compares to the US and then more studies within the US with more defined controls and parameters.

While this has been a fascinating study to read about, it also serves as a good lesson about how deep a story goes. Often times to get the real information you have to dig deeper than the news item that appears in the newspaper. If the article references a study you should find that study and figure out if its quoted correctly. It’s also a good habit to get into as a skeptic to double check your sources. In this case, we found a document that could prove very interesting. So the rewards are often there waiting for you, with a little hard work and due diligence on the material, you could unearth some pretty amazing stuff.


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