Europe’s best (and worst) religious communities

European social landscapes mold around national borders. For the most part, cultural heritage overlaps with state organization so that we can get a pretty accurate picture of a person’s culture from knowing his or her nationality.

But what can we get just from knowing a person’s religious affiliation?

Religion, as it turns out, is not synonymous with faith. When compared, religion becomes an umbrella term for all purposeful and institutional forms of faith. This means community, culture, and heritage: but not necessarily personal beliefs. Those are simply called ‘faith’. The two are not conditional in their relationship (one can be Catholic by religion and atheist by faith) but we can safely assume that the latter influences the former just enough to affect how a person acts due to cultural immersion.

Based on that, I wanted to see if there is any relationship between the lives of Europeans and the religious landscapes in which they reside.

Trying to find good enough data on the topic gave way to some inconsistencies: not all countries publish information regularly enough (or at all) about their populations so as to make this post a scientific endeavor. The Vatican, for instance, is a theocracy that doesn’t publish reliable sociodemographics, so I left it out completely. And I had to include a few transcontinental countries that not everyone considers European (such as Kazakhstan) because the United Nations says that they’re European.

I rounded up 49 countries and looked at each and every one’s most recent censuses and sought out the dimensions of their major religious communities. Five major denominations kept coming up. By counting percentages, I established the rough majority in each country.

What religious majorities do European countries have

Above you can see what the numbers added up to. This means that most of the countries in Europe have primarily Catholic populations. What makes this view important is that it highlights something rarely touched: Europe is home to nearly as many countries that, due to their religious majorities, can be seen as being faithless (i.e. no religious affiliation) as it is home to countries with Muslim majorities.

European identities, both individual and collective, have changed and shifted with respect to the dominant doctrines of the age and area. And while it might be thought that the faithful have always been more prone to acting like good people, perhaps this is not the case.

European Countries Religious Majorities

A study published in Current Biology by Chicago-based researchers found that children from religious households (sampled from 5 continents) tend to be far less altruistic when compared to their peers from non-believing families. A religious upbringing was also associated with a more pronounced wanting to punish behaviours considered abnormal within a given community.

The most egalitarian countries are those that have no majoritarian religious community within their borders.

What this tells us is that institutions of congregation have over time changed and adapted themselves into rule providers and enforcers so as to create uniform cultural landscapes. In times past, one had to fix his identity by doing the same as his fellow, all the while distinguishing himself from his neighbor from across the mountain range. Given this, the punitive attitude of religious households might not be a bug, but a feature necessary for the survival of a community in times when pillaging was frequent and things like human rights were yet to have come about. And we see reminiscence of this even to this day.

Likening altruism to equality of income, I found that the most egalitarian countries (as measured by averages of GINI index values) were those that had no majoritarian religious community within their borders. Eastern Christians were the least egalitarian when viewed this way, leaving a wide gap between the poor and the well-off of society.

What religions are the most egalitarian

Even so, a study by a team at the University of British Columbia found that belief in a supreme deity does, in fact, encourage people to be altruistic and generous – but only when it enhances an individual’s reputation and/or the person has had very recent experiences that reminded him of his faith. This, in turn, is influenced by each religion’s cultural and behavioral inclination to outward-facing displays of devotion (e.g. Muslims practicing Salat, or public prayer, five times a day; Catholics attending service overwhelmingly on Sundays, making it a community affair; etc).

Seeing as how religious mindfulness has specific requirements for each denomination, it might be arguable that the more one gets reminded by his fellows of the importance of belief, the higher are the odds of that person being a good, honest, generous and overall moral individual. But paradoxically, the most egalitarian countries I found were those with the majority of their populations of no faith at all. This result comes into accord with the conclusions of Doctor Ingrid Storm of the University of Manchester, whereby morality is not rooted in religion. Her studies have found that religion gives way to only some moral values, and more so in countries where the greater part of the population tends to be religiously faithful as a reaction to a lack of faith in the state in which they reside.

The ethics that surround labour and capital seem to diverge along with the faiths of Europeans.

Yet as I mentioned, there should be a difference between the religious landscape of a particular area and the faith of each individual. A look at how people see themselves with respect to their ideas of faith shows Protestants as least likely to declare themselves as devout. Of course, one might argue that this insight is due to an overlap with the characters of certain cultural groups – to rather not boast one’s faith and instead be humble.

Such arguments are not new. Negative preconceptions aside, some have argued that quite a lot can be gained through observations such as the above.

How faithful do Europeans say they are

Max Weber’s work The Protestant Ethics and Spirit of Capitalism spread the notion that Protestant Christians tend to be more hardworking and produce goods/capital because of their religious inclinations. According to Weber, Protestants ‘invented’ capitalism due to their wanting to be good people in the eyes of God – i.e. if you can increase the wealth God has given you, then you increase the wealth of God himself. Weber argued that this materialistic attitude was disregarded by other religious groups.

European countries’ per capita GDP seem to accommodate a pattern directed by their religious majorities.

And true to what Weber (rather unscientifically) proposed, the ethics that surround labor and capital seem to diverge along with the faiths of Europeans. Eastern Christianity, for example, states that one should ideally live as a miser in order to please the ever present glances of the heavens. Muslims have explicit dogmatic instructions that would prohibit a large part of the modern banking system because Islam formally forbids either requesting or taking interest following a transfer of money. And so on.

So in an effort to see if wealth attainment matches with striving for the salvation of one’s soul, I found that when looking at measurements of nominal national production European countries seem to accommodate a pattern directed by their religious majorities.

What religions make the most money

Moving from left to right, the per capita GDP distribution closely follows religious communities as we progress from Western to Central and then Eastern Europe, all the while decreasing. Averaging out the numbers, Muslim majority nations seem to have the lowest national income.

Europe’s highest average murder rate is among countries from Eastern and Southeastern areas.

Institutional circumstances might come in handy in explaining this. It’s no surprise that there are factors beyond the powers of an average individual that might stiffen his or her efforts in transforming labour into capital. One such factor is corruption, and I’ve found that countries with Protestant majorities have far less of a problem with it than do most others. At the opposite end, countries with Muslim majorities seem to be the worst hit by corruption.

What religions are most corrupt

Numbers aside, geopolitical conditions influence the ability of countries to cope with such systemic issues: rephrasing a previous mention, Europe’s history has been a battle of cultures as much as of ideas. Emerging economies from Eastern Europe have faced the need to restructure their integral values and norms as a result of a rough ending to an even rougher 20th century. These nations have (for the most part) renounced Communism and have nowadays Orthodox Christian majorities. Muslim-majority nations from the Far East or Southeast of Europe have suffered as stages for proxy wars and intra-statal genocides for the better part of recent history. In both cases what resulted was the creation of institutional voids and state fracturing that were quickly filled by those willing to take advantage of the lack of state coercion and take power into their own hands.

Countries where the majority of people declare themselves as devout followers also experience the worst amounts of social issues.

What stands as proof of this is that Europe’s highest average murder rate is among countries from Eastern and Southeastern areas – those worst hit by systemic restructuring and local conflicts.

What religions have the most homicides

So should it be surprising that countries where the majority of people declare themselves as devout followers also experience the worst amounts of social issues? Medieval Catholic monks from the greater part of Western Europe practiced an extreme of faith by (re)inventing maledictions: prayers specifically meant to curse those which would plunder the property of the church. In an era where state-run police had yet to exist and national crime control was a fantasy, Catholics instated means by which they could appeal to the darker side of human emotions. They started preaching vindictive forms of faith so as to maintain order in their worldly endeavors.

This all seems to coincide with the lack of systemic power Eastern and Southeastern European countries have at the present time. With the state limping along and its means of civil protection and order more often absent than not, it became a prerequisite of local communities to form functional rules that did not rely on the state itself. What was needed was a moral code based on something that might at the same time unite people into communities.

Religion filled that role, and due to this mechanism it’s to be expected that present-day devout countries encounter poorer conditions. This becomes all the clearer when looking at human development averages for each major religion.

What religions have the best standards of living

After the disappearance of the command-economy model, new free market policies in Europe’s East and Southeast gave way to wild exchanges of goods and services ungoverned by proper laws and with poor means of protecting private property. With respect to this, Orthodox Christianity continued its centuries-long means of social coercion – being more of a tradition than a form of faith and creating a doctrine more closely linked to customary law than to dogma or theology. It thus became a ‘tradition’ to express (and perceive) oneself as a believer, even though one did not act as such; all the while calling for God’s pity.

Similarly, Islam was at first a means of structuring clan-based societies so as to escape the perils of stateless anarchy – and has had since its founding a profound political substratum that might seem counterintuitive to Western, Aristotelian logic (i.e. whereby contradictions are bad and should be avoided). Creating an institution out of its religious chieftains by which they were also local political (and sometimes military) leaders, Islam developed into an apparatus for adapting to a harsh life, all the while giving its members the assurance that what they were doing was just in the eyes of the heavens.

Nations with developed social policies and strongly enforced national law systems gave way to more intelligent populations.

Given all this, I’ve found correlations between lack of faith and human development across the whole of Europe. And while it might be tempting to say that certain denominations more prone to faithful majorities are anachronic and unadaptable, the case can be made that such religious systems are still up and running precisely due to the profound issues their host nations face. In such contexts, religion becomes more of a means of escape from a hard life’s reality by appeal to the divine, and a sign of belonging to a community.

One last thing I wanted to see was the average IQ with respect to each country’s religious majority. The data isn’t all that surprising: nations with developed social policies and strongly enforced national law systems gave way to populations with more, well, intelligent members.

What religions are the smartest

My results agree with research published last year in Sociological Perspectives that found a negative correlation between religiosity and educational attainment (i.e. the more one takes scripture literally, the less he or she is prone to pursuing school).

The takeaways are simple: life’s better in countries with either Protestant majorities or no religious majority at all. These countries are more egalitarian, offer better means for an individual to develop as a productive member of the community, make for safer places to live in and provide people with enough security that religious affiliation on the whole declines by the year. Our conclusions come to support previous research presented last year at the American Physical Society that found (coincidentally, by using census data) an obvious trend that might lead in the future to more European countries having their majorities of no religion whatsoever. My conclusions come to support previous research presented last year at the American Physical Society that found (coincidentally, by using census data) an obvious trend that might lead in the future to more European countries having their majorities of no religion whatsoever.

Of course, one can look at such data and interpret it with various other correlations. I’d be happy to share my dataset with you, and grateful if you’d contribute to this topic. Tweet me at @alexgabriel_i

  • Jean Decety, Jason M. Cowell, Kang Lee, Randa Mahasneh, Susan Malcolm-Smith, Bilge Selcuk, Xinyue Zhou. The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World.Current Biology, 2015; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.09.056
  • Ingrid Storm. Morality in Context: A Multilevel Analysis of the Relationship between Religion and Values in Europe. Politics and Religion, 2015; 1 DOI:10.1017/S1755048315000899
  • S. Stroope, A. B. Franzen, J. E. Uecker. Social Context and College Completion in the United States: The Role of Congregational Biblical Literalism. Sociological Perspectives, 2015; DOI: 10.1177/0731121414559522
  • A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation
  • Ara Norenzayan and Azim F. Shariff. The Origin and Evolution of Religious Prosociality.Science, 2008; 322 (5898): 58-62 DOI: 10.1126/science.1158757

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