It's Religion that Drives Some Countries to Succeed and Others to Fail

Roundup: Talking About History

Felicia R. Lee, wrting in the NYT (Jan. 31, 2004):

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 1999.

"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 behavior."

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."


comments powered by Disqus