Ditch religion to boost prosperity, study finds

A 1925 poster by russian artist dmitry moor portraying religious belief as a driver of enslavement.
A 1925 poster by Russian artist Dmitry Moor portraying religious belief as a driver of enslavement.
GHI / Universal History Archive via Getty Images

In a finding that carries strong ramifications for several countries undergoing bursts of repression and isolationism, a study in the journal Science Advances reveals that tolerance of individual rights may be the strongest predictor of economic growth available.

The finding was a surprise result arising from the examination of a century of data concerning human beliefs, conducted by anthropologists from the University of Bristol in the UK and the University of Tennessee in the US.

Damian Ruck, Alexander Bentley and Daniel Lawson set out to resolve a question that has long challenged historians. 

Several studies have found a link between a nationwide decrease in religious activity and an increase in economic development. Across the globe, countries that tend to be highly religious also tend to be the poorest.{%recommended 7230%}

However, the question of which came first – the laying of the economic egg or the sickening of the religious chicken – has never been resolved. The question is stark: does increasing national wealth cause a decline in religious belief, or must the widespread abandonment of religion take place before economic growth can happen.

Using data drawn from two massive data sets – the European Values Survey (EVS) and the World Values Survey (WVS) – and then extrapolated backwards to cover the entire twentieth century, Ruck and his colleagues found the evidence lay strongly with the latter scenario. This was against the weight of expectations.

“This implies that changes in the everyday importance of religious practices preceded changes in economic development in the twentieth century,” the researchers write.

They concede that the results do not identify secularisation as the exclusive driver of economic growth, and readily admit that other factors such as rates of tertiary education also function as reliable predictors of increases in gross domestic product. 

However, the data do firmly show that economic growth did not occur before the adoption of secular beliefs. Instead, the opposite happened throughout the century – although both trends, they note, “could have been driven by something else”.

And that something, they suggest, may well be tolerance for individual rights. Ruck and his colleagues found that, in particular, data concerning divorce and abortion – assumed to be indicative of women’s rights in general – was a better predictor than secularisation of GDP growth per capita.

The reason the “tolerance factor” is so tightly linked to economic improvement, they suggest, isn’t complicated. It means that “that more people are included in economic activity”.

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