New research untangles the links between religion and support for redistribution

New research helps to unravel the complex relationship between religion and support for redistributive policies. The findings indicate that different facets of religion have different influences on attitudes towards redistribution.

The study, which has been published in PLOS One, also suggests that conservative political views can override some of the effects of religion in countries with stronger welfare systems.

“Religious traditions advocate compassion and caring for the needy and encourage charitable activities. We were interested in knowing whether religious compassion also translates to greater concern for income inequality and support for government redistribution to reduce it,” said study author Gizem Arikan, an assistant professor at Trinity College Dublin.

“We wanted to test this intuition because not everyone associates religiosity with increased support for government intervention to reduce inequality.”

“For example, religiosity is also associated with conservative political worldviews that are generally opposed to the idea of big government. Moreover, apart from faith and values, religion also provides individuals with a sense of community that also nourishes a sense of security,” Arikan said.

“Some suggest that when individuals feel like they have a strong community that they can fall back on during times of economic hardship, they are less interested in supporting government intervention to distribute income.”

For their study, the researchers analyzed data from 49 democratic countries included in the World Values Survey, which regularly collects data from people around the world on a wide variety of issues related to human beliefs and social behaviors.

Of particular interest, the survey asked participants to indicate how much they agreed with two statements about income redistribution: “Incomes should be made more equal” and “We need larger income differences as incentives for individual effort.”

The researchers found that the effect of religion on attitudes towards redistribution was mediated by several factors.

“Compassion and caring provide a link between religious beliefs and support for redistribution, but their effect on redistribution attitudes are weakened by conservative political orientations. Thus, religiously-based rhetoric that draws attention to social and economic inequality may not always be effective as in the case of the conservative backlash against Pope Francis’s campaign to raise awareness about inequality and poverty,” Arikan told PsyPost.

“Involvement in religious social networks also leads to less support for redistribution due to the sense of security such communities provide. Thus, despite all their charitable activities, participation in religious social organizations and networks actually distracts people from demanding larger scale solutions to income inequality.”

“Nevertheless, it may still be possible for religious or political leadership to connect religious beliefs to garner support for income equality by continuously stressing the importance of benevolence and caring for others. In particular, times of economic hardship may make religiously-based compassion messages more effective,” Arikan said.

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“Our analysis draws on cross-national survey data. While this has a number of advantages, it also means that we are unable to answer some interesting questions. For example, detailed data on denominational, congregational, or sectarian affiliation was missing, so we were unable to test whether individuals belonging to the same religious tradition but different denomination or congregation held vastly different attitudes,” Arikan explained.

“Religious leadership is important in shaping the community’s attitudes, so messages that the devout receives from religious leaders should also be influential in how they construct their attitudes towards income inequality and redistribution. Again, due to limited data, we are unable to test these effects and see whether followers of same tradition receiving different messages from their religious leaders hold different attitudes towards inequality and redistribution.

Despite its caveats, the study highlights the importance of considering multiple dimensions of religiosity.

“This research corroborates our earlier findings that show that the effect of religiosity on political attitudes such as support for democracy or immigration attitudes is quite complex and depends on which aspect of individual religiosity that is being considered,” Arikan said.

The study, “‘I was hungry and you gave me food’: Religiosity and attitudes toward redistribution“, was authored by Gizem Arikan and Pazit Ben-Nun Bloom.