More Money Means Less God - Except in China and the U.S.

Throughout the world, higher incomes translate into less religiosity, and vice versa. But that rule does not apply to the Americans, nor to the Chinese.

Is belief in God a prerequisite for moral behaviour? The answer to that question varies widely throughout the world. As shown by this graph, most people in poorer countries will say yes, while no is the more likely answer in richer nations.

For those of a religious persuasion, the result validates the sentiment expressed in Matthew 6:24 — “Ye cannot serve God and mammon (1).” People of a more materialistic bent will take it as proof of Karl Marx’s maxim that “religion is the opiate of the masses,” at least as long as they can’t afford more expensive diversions.

It's a strange map that makes close neighbours of Pakistan and Ghana, Russia and Chile, and Canada and Australia. What unites each pair is that they have similar attitudes toward God and morality, and comparable levels of per-capita income.

Pakistan and Ghana huddle together near the top left corner of the graph: poorest, and most religious (2). They are joined by a host of other low-income, high-piety countries, such as Indonesia, Jordan, Egypt, El Salvador, Nigeria, Uganda, Senegal, Kenya, and Bolivia. All have an average per capita GDP below $10,000. Religiosity is at or above 80 percent.

Russia and Chile are in the middle group of countries, together with Mexico, Argentina, Poland, and Greece. These countries are not very rich (average per capita GDP of about $20,000), but only half-religious (from just under 40 percent to a bit over 50 percent).

Canada and Australia are part of a more dispersed community of nations that also includes Italy, Spain, Israel, Germany, Britain, and France, with average per capita GDPs varying between $30,000 and $50,000, and levels of religiosity from below 40 percent to just over 10 percent.

Not all countries observe the median proposed by the graph too closely. India is quite poor, but relatively areligious. Malaysia and Turkey are relatively wealthy, but very religious.

But the two most remarkable countries on the graph are the two furthest outliers, each refuting one of both truisms quoted above. The U.S., the richest country of the bunch, is also way more religious than a lot of the other ones. It has the highest per capita GDP of any country on the graph — over $50,000. By that measure, its level of religiosity should be at 30 percent, around the median. In fact, it's well over 50 percent.

And China, relatively poor, is atypically areligious. The average per capita GDP is almost exactly $10,000, which would imply a piety score of close to 70 percent. In fact, the score is just over 10 percent, the lowest of all countries shown, ex aequo with France, equally areligious, but much richer.

Why are Americans more religious than Greeks, whose income is less than half of theirs? And why are Chinese, who are poorer than Brazilians, less than a quarter as religious? Perhaps both Marx and Matthew got it wrong... 

This map found here at the Pew Research Center.

Strange Maps #757

Got a strange map? Let me know at

(1) From the Hebrew ‘mamon’, meaning “capital, money, riches”.

(2) For the purpose of this text, 'thinking the belief in God is necessary for morality' is equated with 'religiosity'. Doubtlessly, those big on God and/or morality will have a more nuanced view on the matter.

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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