Why are people in rich countries less religious?

Over 80 per cent of Ethiopians said religious faith was very important

It's often been said that the Gospel should, "Disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed." It sounds great in theory – Jesus offers relief and joy to those who have been downtrodden, while making sure that those in power and authority realise they need to be humble.

This old aphorism was brought to mind by a piece on the Telegraph website this week. In the article, entitled 'This graph shows how strongly people around the world feel about religion' we were told that, "Only 21 per cent of people in the UK said religion was very important in their lives."

This lack of importance attached to religious faith is mirrored in other industrialised countries like South Korea, Germany and Australia. We here in the UK are also in the company of countries like Russia and China which oppressed religious affiliation for generations. In the US, the figure for people saying religion is very important is higher at 53 per cent. But that is still much lower than in many other nations around the world. Countries like Ethiopia, Pakistan and the Philippines have populations for whom well over 80 per cent see religion as important in their lives.

The Telegraph doesn't offer us any convincing analysis of why this might be. "Many feel Britain is becoming a less religious country," the article says. Well, knock me down with a feather. But even a casual examination reveals an interesting, if not cast iron, conclusion. Countries which are poorer and less developed tend to be much higher up the table of those who affix high importance to religious faith, whereas those at the bottom of the table are mostly prosperous and more industrialised.

Should we be surprised when we look at these data? I reckon not. If the Gospel is supposed to comfort the disturbed, then wouldn't we find a greater reliance on faith in places where life is, in economic and social terms, harder? I suspect we would. What about disturbing the comfortable? Well, that's not quite as attractive a proposition...

Of course the survey only deals with 'religion' rather than Christianity. So we're lumping in the Abrahamic faiths, as well as other world religions, local folk religions, ancestor worship and so forth.

The countries at the top of the list of people who felt religion was most important

However, this doesn't necessarily invalidate the idea that we should expect those who are materially poorer to be more devout. While richer countries have more access to material goods, which make people feel more satisfied, it appears that people find more 'meaning' in religious faith.

In an Atlantic article looking at some psychological research on this phenomenon, the author said, "The researchers found that this factor of religiosity mediated the relationship between a country's wealth and the perceived meaning in its citizen's lives... it was the presence of religion that largely accounted for the gap between money and meaning."

In other words, there may be something psychologically significant about a belief in the transcendent which offers more meaning to people than wealth – in spite of the good things wealth can provide.

Anyone who has travelled outside of the Western world and worshipped with Christians can probably attest to the depth of faith they've experienced. In my own brief trips to parts of Africa and Asia, I have certainly found a strength of devotion that is much rarer here.

Even so this isn't restricted to other parts of the world. Here in the West, there are areas which have seen religious devotion that outstrips the rest of the country.

Think about the Welsh revival of the early 20th Century which took place primarily among the working class coal miners of the valleys. Think about the passionate religiosity of the Civil Rights Movement across the poorer parts of The South of the United States.

Obviously, just because a country has a large number of people who attach an importance to their religious faith isn't in itself a good thing. I have no doubt that if this survey was conducted in territory currently controlled by ISIS, many people would answer that, yes, religion is very important in their lives. The motivation of ISIS fighters isn't simple. But those who suggest ISIS has no basis in Islam are surely burying their heads in the sand.

Trinity church, Wall Street. People in wealthier countries say religion is less important but are they happier?

In the same way, Christians would be foolish if we failed to acknowledge that the horrors perpetrated by the Inquisitors, the Crusaders and the Conquistadors were nothing to do with Christianity. Had you asked the men responsibly for these calamitous schemes how seriously they took their religion, they'd have told you that they took it very seriously indeed. One of my favourite places in the world is a beautiful spot just north of Jerusalem. Nabi Samwil - the Tomb of the Prophet Samuel - is the highest point in the Jerusalem area. When the Crusaders reached this point and they first saw the Holy City, they are said to have wept. They did this before slaughtering many, many thousands in the city itself.

So, what can we learn from these figures overall? I suspect there's a different lesson depending on where we sit on the faith spectrum.

We are one of the richest countries in the world, yet English children are some of the unhappiest in the world. Atheist progressives should realise that a society which doesn't as a whole take religion very seriously isn't necessarily a better society.

On the other hand we Christians should be wary too. Many of us are hopeful that we can see a turnaround in the decline of the Church in the West. But are we willing to have our comfort disturbed in the process? Becasue there's a chance that's what may follow.