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Gods Own Country: Does Religion or Secularization Predict Economic Growth?

In a recent blog entry Problems Expand with Solutions, I described the psychological process whereby people fail to recognize progress. In short, as we progress as a society, people sustain the same level of concerns to an ever decreasing problem, despite manifest changes that occur. Therefore to most, problems feel as pressing as ever, despite the enormous progress societies have made in term of equality, poverty, human rights, wealth, technology, medicine and quality of life. A recent study on the nature of social progress by the the University of Bristol where I am a consultant lecturer, delivered in partnership with the University of Tennessee caught my eye.

The study really concerns itself with the idea of the "Great Escape." When considering economic growth and poverty it is easy to forget that the natural state of mankind is to live in absolute poverty. Our remote ancestral fore bearers scraped by on a humble existence of trying to sustain themselves 1,000 calories a day. As such, the question should not be why is there poverty in the world as this is that natural order for human existence for hundreds of thousands of years. But rather, what creates wealth?

Wealth is a surprisingly recent development in human history, with the vast majority of global wealth having been created in the last 150 years and largely in the the West. Whilst other regions have or are catching up, why was the West the first region to make the Great Escape from the normative pattern of abject poverty? Was it the rise of secularization or was it the decline of religion? While it is well documented that rich countries tend to be secular whilst poor countries tend to be religious, it is still unclear if secularisation causes wealth or the other way around?

The subject has long been debated by classic scholars of social science including French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who claimed that religion fades away once economic development has satisfied our material needs, whereas German sociologist Max Weber, argued that changes in religion drive economic productivity. The debate continues to this day. Researchers from the Universities of Bristol (UK) and Tennessee (US) used data from birth cohorts from the World Values Survey to get a measure of the importance of religion spanning the entire 20th century (1900 to 2000).

The findings revealed that secularisation precedes economic development and not the other way around. Although this does not demonstrate a causal pathway, it does rule out the reverse. Furthermore, the findings show that secularisation only predicts future economic development when it is accompanied by a respect and tolerance for individual rights. Countries where abortion, divorce and homosexuality are tolerated have a greater chance of future economic prosperity.

Damian Ruck, the study's lead researcher in the University of Bristol Medical School (Population Health Sciences), said: "Our findings show that secularisation precedes economic development and not the other way around. However, we suspect the relationship is not directly causal. We noticed that secularisation only leads to economic development when it is accompanied by a greater respect for individual rights.

"Very often secularisation is indeed accompanied by a greater tolerance of homosexuality, abortion, divorce etc. But that isn't to say that religious countries can't become prosperous. Religious institutions need to find their own way of modernising and respecting the rights of individuals."

Alex Bentley from the University of Tennessee, added: "Over the course of the 20th century, changes in importance of religious practices appear to have predicted changes in GDP across the world. This doesn't necessarily mean that secularization caused economic development, since both changes could have been caused by some third factor with different time lags, but at least we can rule out economic growth as the cause of secularization in the past."

Materials provided by University of Bristol.

Damian J. Ruck, R. Alexander Bentley, Daniel J. Lawson. Religious change preceded economic change in the 20th century. Science Advances, 2018; 4 (7): eaar8680 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aar8680

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