To what extent has religion contributed either to the perpetuation or eradication of inequality? Is it, as Marx contended, the "opiate of the masses" or might it be, as evidenced in liberation theology, the catalyst for social change? Over the past two decades Pope John Paul II has assailed the inequalities between developed and developing nations. In Durango, Mexico, in 1990, for instance, he argued that capitalism had neglected its ethical responsibilities and challenged industrialized countries and big business to stop "hoarding" and to start distributing wealth fairly: "The excessive hoarding of riches by some denies them to the majority, and thus the very wealth that is accumulated generates poverty." In 1986, American Roman Catholic bishops adopted a pastoral letter proclaiming that poverty levels in the United States were "a social and moral scandal," and stated that the government must do more to create jobs and to help the poor.

When thinking about the civic activities of religious faiths, what undoubtedly comes to mind are their charity programs for the poor. Indeed, among the arguments heard in the dismantling of the welfare state is how churches and established charities are more effective and efficient in their delivery of aid to the less fortunate. In addition, there is the influence of churches upon the civic motivations of their members. In an analysis of Americans' volunteerism, using the results of the 1996 NORC General Social Survey, it was found that strongly religious individuals were significantly more likely to have volunteered for two or more causes (45%) than those not very religious or having no religious affiliation (27%). Among the religious faiths, Jews (44%) are most likely to be high volunteers, followed by liberal Protestants (41%), moderate Protestants (39%), fundamentalist Protestants (33%) and Catholics (29%).

On the other hand, religion and religiosity were found to have weak or nonexistant relationships with attributions of the poor and attitudes toward whether the government should do something to reduce inequalities between the rich and poor. When NORC interviewers asked Americans in 1996 if they or any members of their household had given money, food, or clothing to the homeless or street people, we find:


FUND PROT 37% 47% 33% 37%
CATHOLIC 40 45 41 41
MOD PROT 40 29 29 33
LIBERAL PROT 42 37 31 35
TOTAL 39 44 35 38

Religion's role in maintaining inequality

Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet.
--Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)

The idea of god has never bound the individual to society, but has always bound the oppressed classes by a belief in the divinity of the oppressors.

Arthur Schlesinger, in The Cycles of American History (1986), observes that "the great religious ages were notable for their indifference to human rights in the contemporary sense--not only for their acquiescence in poverty, inequality and oppression, but for their enthusiastic justification of slavery, persecution, torture and genocide."

Is it the case in the United States that the most disenfranchised are most likely to believe in an afterlife? Click here to see.

And is there a religious compensor effect--does, for instance, religiosity increase the likelihood of being happy for those at the lower rungs of the stratification order? Looking at responses from the combined 1973-94 General Social Surveys we find:


STRONG 22% 34% 44% 53% 39%
SOMEWHAT 15 28 36 48 32
NOT VERY 13 24 33 46 28
NO AFFIL 13 24 31 31 24
TOTAL 16 28 38 48 33

Case study: the Indian Hindu Caste System

"The Caste System and the Stages of Life in Hinduism"

"Broken People: Caste Violence Against India's `Untouchables'"

Religious Commitment and Social Class

Religious Faith as Status Reaffirmation: Religious Affiliations of American Classes

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