I've noticed that in places where governments are bigger and more encompassing, those societies tend to have lower rates of religious adherence. However, I never thought of conducting a study on the relationship between the two. Leave it to the academics to explore the topic, and come up with that very conclusion: that bigger governments are associated with lower rates of religious adherence.
“Religion as an Exchange System: The Interchangeability of God and Government in a Provider Role,” was published April 12 in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The researchers crunched the numbers and controlled the data, and found that there is a link between better government services (read: bigger government) and lower levels of strong religious beliefs.
Authors Miron Zuckerman and Chen Li of the University of Rochester and Ed Diener of the Universities of Utah and Virginia wrote that their findings suggest “that if the function that religiosity provides can be acquired from some other source, the allure of religion will diminish.”
The researchers also found something of a staggered link between the government services on offer and levels of religiosity in a given state. Between 2008 and 2013 in the U.S., for example, “better government services in a specific year predicted lower religiosity 1 to 2 years later,” researchers wrote.
At the end of the article, the researchers wrote a rather insightful, yet concerning, conclusion.
“If a secular entity provides what people need, they will be less likely to seek help from God or other supernatural entities. Government is the most likely secular provider. We showed in two cross-sectional analyses, one using world countries and one using states in the United States, that better government services were related to lower levels of religiosity.”
In essence, the way I interpret this finding is not so much that religious adherence completely diminishes, but that the nature of religious beliefs changes: in societies with smaller government, it's more necessary to rely on God to provide in situations that seem hopeless. But when the government becomes that last hope, it's no surprise that one's focus can easily turn towards the ubiquitous and easily seen power of the State over the invisible God.
When government provides that extra layer of security, God seems to become unnecessary. After all, if you lose your job, that's what unemployment insurance is for. If you can't afford medical care, that's what "universal healthcare" is for. And if there are criminals out there threatening your community, "just let the police take care of it."
All these notions draw attention away from God, because people no longer feel like they need to lean on Him for provision. In essence, the government usurps God's seat, and the population worships the government (albeit in a different form). When the answer to almost all problems in a society is to "pass a new law" or to "create this program," it's a sign that the population is worshiping the government as the (ostensibly) omnipotent and omniscient being.
This is an extremely dangerous phenomena, for when people are no longer allowed to criticize the government (after all, if the government is our Lord and Savior, it can't possibly be wrong, and anyone that says otherwise is a heretic), that's when societies plunge into all sorts of darkness.
What causes this to happen? I don't exactly know. Is is more government that puts downward pressure on religious adherence, or does lower religious adherence put upward pressure on the size of government? It could be either or, but the result is still the same.
Christians will often send missionaries to foreign countries, places that are stricken with poverty, and have had little religious influence. However, there is a crisis of faith in the West that is being largely ignored. While we send missionaries overseas (which is good to do, don't get me wrong), it seems that we're too often forgetting that we must also witness to those around us, our family, friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens. Especially when government is usurping God's throne, it is most critical that believers share the Gospel right here.