Research Around the World Links Religion to Economic Development

January 31, 2004
 (From the New York Times, 1/31/04
Forget investment and savings rates, worker productivity
and wage scales to determine which countries will become
richer or poorer. What really stimulates economic growth is
whether you believe in an afterlife - especially hell.
At least that's what two Harvard scholars have found after
analyzing data collected in 59 countries between 1981 and
"Our central perspective is that religion affects economic
outcomes mainly by fostering religious beliefs that
influence individual traits such as honesty, work ethic,
thrift and openness to strangers," the researchers, Robert
J. Barro and Rachel M. McCleary, wrote in a recent issue of
American Sociological Review. (They also happen to be
married.) "For example, beliefs in heaven and hell might
affect those traits by creating perceived rewards and
punishments that relate to `good' and `bad' lifetime
The data comes from six international surveys, including
ones by Gallup, the World Bank and researchers at the
University of Michigan. They include questions about
attendance in places of worship and religious beliefs.
There were four measures of economic development: per
capita gross domestic product, educational attainment by
adults, the urbanization rate and life expectancy.
Oddly enough, the research also showed that at a certain
point, increases in church, mosque and synagogue attendance
tended to depress economic growth. Mr. Barro, a renowned
economist, and Ms. McCleary, a lecturer in Harvard's
government department, theorized that larger attendance
figures could mean that religious institutions were using
up a disproportionate share of resources.
"It's all been rather surprising," Ms. McCleary
said."People didn't believe you could quantify aspects of
religion. We wanted to be intellectually provocative. We
see about five more years of study to get out all the stuff
we want. We're trying to raise interesting questions in a
different way."
Since the German sociologist Max Weber wrote about the
Protestant work ethic and the spirit of capitalism, social
scientists have argued that culture - including religious
habits - is part of the complex mix that determines a
country's economic health. What distinguishes the work of
Mr. Barro and Ms. McCleary, some scholars said, is that it
uses a sophisticated analysis of a huge set of data to
quantify the arguments of anthropologists, sociologists and
political scientists.
"The study's important less for what they found than that
they looked," said Mark Chaves, a professor of sociology at
the University of Arizona, in Tucson. "They are not the
first to look at this but they are the first to look at
this as systemically and as rigorously as they have. For
forever, people have been saying that culture matters in
analyzing economies."
"I think this is a new beginning for the rigorous
relationship between religion and economic development, "
added Mr. Chaves, whose forthcoming book examines how
religious congregations influence politics and culture.
"They've given us a data set and some tools to examine this
in a new way."
One of the motivations for undertaking the study, Ms.
McCleary said, was that empirical research on economic
growth typically neglected religion's influence.
The research team also wants to look at how religion
affects other political and social issues like democracy,
the rule of law, fertility and health. At the moment, they
have a paper on government and the regulation of religion
that is under review by the American Journal of Sociology
at the University of Chicago.
Some of their findings, which have been written about in
The Economist and The Christian Science Monitor, first
appeared in 2002 as a paper for the National Bureau of
Economic Research.
As the couple began their study, Ms. McCleary said, it was
clear that the widely discussed secularization thesis - the
idea that a country becomes more secular as it becomes
richer and more industrialized - did not apply to the
United States, one of the most religious nations in the
And over the last 30 years, many East Asian countries,
including Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea, have
experienced both rapid economic growth and the spread of
Christianity, Mr. Barro said.
"South Korea is a good example of that rapid growth and
more religion," he said. There the number of converts from
Confucianism and other Eastern religions to Christianity is
growing rapidly, he explained.
Some of the lowest levels of religiosity were found in
China and North Korea. The lowest levels of economic growth
were in sub-Saharan African countries. The former East
Germany (which includes Weber's birthplace) was one of the
lowest in both religiosity and growth.
But one of the major challenges to such research is that
countries that vary in their religious beliefs and
practices also vary in ways that have nothing to do with
religion, said Paola Sapienza, a professor of finance at
Northwestern University. "Are you really picking up
religion or something that correlates with it, like certain
laws or social and economic institutions?" she asked.
Last year, in the Journal of Monetary Economics, Ms.
Sapienza and her colleague Luigi Zingales, at the
University of Chicago, and Luigi Guiso, at the University
of Sassari in Rome, published a paper that did not compare
countries but looked at the relationship between religious
beliefs and the attitudes shown to foster economic growth.
"On average," they wrote, "religious beliefs are associated
with good economic attitudes, where good is defined as
conducive to higher per capita income."
But that study found that more religious people were also
less tolerant of other races and nationalities and had more
negative attitudes toward women. The study based its
findings on World Values Surveys data collected at the
University of Michigan.
Mr. Barro and Ms. McCleary also used data from the World
Values Surveys, which Ronald Inglehart, a political
scientist at the University of Michigan, has been taking
for more than 20 years. His surveys of 78 countries show
strong links between widespread public values and beliefs,
or political culture, and motivation to work, sexual and
religious norms and the presence or absence of democratic
"I find that belief factors play a major role in economic
growth, but here is one of the world's leading economists
saying so," Mr. Inglehart said, referring to Mr. Barro.
"When Weber argued that big breakthroughs in economic
growth were in Protestant countries, it was at a time when
many cultures were shaped by Protestant institutions. His
notion in the broadest sense is that belief factors play a
role in economic factors."
"This is a revised view of the Protestant ethic," he
continued. He noted that many mostly Protestant, wealthy
countries were now more interested in quality of life, and
that many Eastern countries were now more focused on
economic growth - with some populations even converting, as
Mr. Barro noted, to Christianity and specifically to
"Confucian countries are now the most Protestant countries
on earth, in terms of a moral imperative to work hard, save
money, to do well," Mr. Inglehart said.