Napoleon on religion and inequality

“There is only one way to encourage morality, and that is to re-establish religion. Society cannot exist without some being richer than others, and this inequality cannot exist without religion. When one man is dying of hunger next door to another who is stuffing himself with food, the poor man simply cannot accept the disparity unless some authority tells him, ‘God wishes it so…in heaven things will be different.’”

—Napoleon Bonaparte, quoted in John Merriman, A History of Modern Europe from the French Revolution to the Present, Second Edition (2004), p. 522.

Is it an accident that conservative politics keeps such close company with religion?

I’m not talking about conspiracy as much as I’m talking about an ideology that fills a need created by another ideology. If it’s true that religion makes people more amenable to inequality, then it’s certainly plausible that a political ideology that tends to widen inequalities would become more religious.

Research does indicate a correlation between income inequality and religiosity. An article in Evolution (pdf) cites several recent studies, including one which

showed that income inequality both across countries and across years within the United States is positively and significantly correlated with each of 12 measures of religiosity. Further, timeseries analysis within the United States found that changes in income inequality appear to be causal, for income inequality in a given year affects religiosity in subsequent years, but not vice versa. Solt et al. argue that this correlation reflects social control by the wealthy, because in situations of greater inequality the rich actually become more religious than the poor. This may give the wealthy “the motive and the means to disseminate religion more widely throughout their societies” (p. 448), urging conformity and quelling discontent. (p. 2662)

But don’t worry. In heaven things will be different.


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