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Religion and Economic Development Any Links?


The decline in the everyday importance of religion with economic development is a well-known correlation, but which phenomenon comes first?

A recent paper asks why the world’s poorest countries are also its most religious. Generally, secular countries tend to be richer than religious ones. Finding out why involves unpicking a complex knot of cognitive and social factors – an imposing task. So in recent times researchers ask a more straightforward question: was it the secular chicken that came first, or the economic egg?

In a paper published by the Scientific Advances, Damian et al (2018) showed that in the 20th century, secularisation occurred before economic development and not the other way around. Although this doesn’t prove secularisation makes a country wealthier, it does rule out the reverse. The arrow of time points in one direction, so economic performance cannot be expected to influence people’s opinions in the past.

Global Gallup surveys gave a clear view of the relationship between secularisation and economic development – that the world’s poorest countries are also its most religious. But before the days of modern surveys, the steam-powered scholars of the early 20th century had already noticed that industrialised societies tended to be less religious than agrarian ones; though they disagreed on the interpretation.

The early 20th century French sociologist Emile Durkheim believed that economic development came first. He saw religion as meeting society’s practical functions, such as education and welfare. But when prosperous societies started to meet these functions all by themselves, religion was pushed to the margins. On the other hand, a few decades later, the German sociologist Max Weber argued that religious change came first. He wrote that the Protestant Reformation unleashed a stampede of productivity and economic improvement because of the “Protestant work ethic”.

One major shortcoming preventing us from getting to a solution has been a lack of historical depth. To measure a complex concept like “secularisation”, comprehensive surveying is required. But this has only been possible in the majority of the world for just a couple of decades, since 1990. However, for the first time, researchers have found a way to dive deeper and cover the entire 100 years of the 20th century.

This temporal periscope presents itself when we bring together evidence from anthropology, political science and neuroscience: people’s beliefs and opinions form and harden during the first few decades of their lives. Therefore, despite a lifetime of ups and downs, a person’s religious belief will always reflect their formative years. They unwittingly carry a fossilised version of how secular the society of their childhood was, right into the modern day. So if you want to know how religious the world was in the 1950s, then just see how religious the people are who came of age during the 1950s.

Answers from the European Values Survey and the World Values Survey, which have asked people around the world about their religiosity since 1990. By pooling data for people who came of age at different decades of the 20th century, researchers were able to create a new secularisation time line.

A research led by Damian Ruck, a postdoctorate researcher at the university of Bristol did a comparison with 100 years of economic data. The results shows that, in Great Britain, Nigeria, Chile and Philippines at least, secularization leads to economic development. And the statistical analysis showed that this is the case in all of the 109 countries they measured.

The message is crystal clear: secularisation occurs before economic development and not after it. This means we can rule out Durkheim’s functionalist model, but we cannot declare victory for Weber. Any human society is a cacophony of tangled causes, effects and dynamic emergent phenomena. To seek a single cause for anything in this arena is a mug’s game., therefore several other variables should be recruited to measure shared impact and arrive at a sound conclusion. But in all, secularization leads religion as a necessary ingredient for economic development.

*Akwasi Mpanyinsem*
( Bsc. Mathematics, Msc. Economics)
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