Maslow’s hierarchy and religiosity in developing countries


First a quick run down on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Most people are familiar with the concept and have seen the visual above, but here is a quick reminder.

Maslow (1943) stated that people are motivated to achieve certain needs. When one need is fulfilled a person seeks to fulfill the next one, and so on.

The deficiency, or basic needs are said to motivate people when they are unmet. Also, the need to fulfil such needs will become stronger the longer the duration they are denied. For example, the longer a person goes without food the more hungry they will become.

One must satisfy lower level basic needs before progressing on to meet higher level growth needs. Once these needs have been reasonably satisfied, one may be able to reach the highest level called self-actualisation.

Every person is capable and has the desire to move up the hierarchy toward a level of self-actualization. Unfortunately, progress is often disrupted by failure to meet lower level needs. (source:

So what happens when the lower level needs are never met? I have observed this phenomenon myself while living in Ghana. The basic needs or deficiency needs as Maslow referred to them, for most of the population who are lucky to live on $1 a day, are a daily source of struggle. Enormous amounts of energy are spent finding a way to feed yourself and your family, shelter is often unsafe and heavy rains or storms render it useless in some instances. What should be a simple wet season turns into an environmental disaster and loss of food, shelter and life for hundreds.

I lived there for a year and regularly struggled with being an observer of such abject poverty. Incredibly beautiful and loving people hampered by extreme corruption. Sometimes driving through different communities, watching the women clean down and set up their tiny wooden tables to sell products that may give them $1 profit to feed their family at the end of a hard day, I could feel a very palpable sense of desperation in the air and it hurt me deeply. Sometimes the feeling was too strong for me to leave the house, and so I stayed, buried in my pain free book world.

In terms of religion, Ghana ranks as number 1 on the Global Religiosity Scale with Nigeria a close second, with a whopping 96% of the population identifying as religious. (source: WIN-Gallup International GLOBAL INDEX OF RELIGIOSITY AND ATHEISM – 2012). One take away point from the research is that RELIGIOSITY IS HIGHER AMONG THE POOR: People in bottom income groups are 17% more religious than those in top income groups. It is interesting that Religiosity declines as worldly prosperity of individuals rises. While the results for nations as a whole are mixed, individual respondents within a country show a revealing pattern. If citizens of each of the 57 countries are grouped into five groups, from the relatively poor to relatively rich in their own countries, the richer you get, the less religious you define yourself. Not surprisingly Australia doesn’t get a mention in the top 10 religious countries, but we rank equal 8th with a few others in terms of Atheism.

People in Ghana simply could not fathom that I wasn’t religious. They would observe that I wasn’t a muslim and then would ask which church I went to. “I don’t go to church” – “but you aren’t a muslim, so you must be a christian”, I would restate my original comment to which they only had one response, if you aren’t a muslim, then surely you MUST be a christian?! I never wish to disrespect anybody’s choice as I believe we are all free to choose, so I was respectful in my response, simply stating that I wasn’t either. It was as if I was speaking a language they couldn’t understand, they simply could NOT take in what I was saying. Occasionally my husband would overhear the discussion and pipe in with “she’s a yoga”. They weren’t sure what that meant, but being defined by some kind of belief usually brought them some kind of closure.

So why are these developing countries so religious? I don’t know for sure, so this is very much an observation from my perspective. I feel that if basic needs aren’t met then the temptation is great to look outside of one’s self in order to find a way, a hope, something to believe in because surely there has to be more than this? Children die all too often in Ghana and other developing countries, but preventative health care is almost non existent. “Man proposes, god disposes” is an often touted saying. Nobody ever asks what causes a persons death and I was often looked at strangely for questioning what people died of over there – “man proposes, god disposes”. NO! NO! NO! NO! What ever happened to personal responsibility? What about accountability? What about freedom of choice? I get very upset when I saw people placing themselves in dangerous situations, because “inshallah” (god willing).

One story I often relate is of someone who was staying in our house. We had cooked rice the night before and went out the next day and there were leftovers in the switched off rice cooker the next evening. Remember this is Ghana, hot hot hot and I am talking about leftover just above room temperature rice. He was scooping rice out of the cooker onto a plate and about to microwave it. I tried to stop him, and told him how dangerous rice was, what a breeding ground it was for bacteria and food poisoning. He laughed at me and kept scooping the rice “inshallah” I will be fine. I got very upset and angry, but he kept insisting that “inshallah” he will be fine. I understand the thinking of god’s will, but surely god gave us a brain to be able to make an informed discerning choice! If there is a god, wouldn’t he suggest that you at least mitigate risks when you could?! I raced outside to ask somebody to tell him, but they all just smiled at me and said “leave him – inshallah he will be fine”. It was so infuriating!!!!

So, is this what happens when people lose hope of ever getting their basic needs met, either consciously or unconsciously? I believe it is. The idea of moving up the hierarchy doesn’t enter one’s consciousness if you are not sure if even tomorrow you will have food for your belly. And if long term you know your needs will never be met, maybe on some sub conscious level one looks to another being/belief/power to meet those unspoken needs that we don’t think we can aspire to on our own. This could explain why the research finds that as people have more, they rely on religion less.

The sad part for me is if we don’t take personal responsibility, then who are we as human beings?

What is the solution to empower these incredible people to realise they are powerful beyond measure without the oppression of organised religion and enforced mental slavery?

I don’t have the answers. I only have questions.


One thought on “Maslow’s hierarchy and religiosity in developing countries

  1. Pingback: Ranting about religion in Africa | Rae-Anne

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