The two collected data from 59 countries where a majority of the population followed one of the four major religions, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. They ran this data – which covered slices of years from 1981 to 2000, measuring things like levels of belief in God, afterlife beliefs, and worship attendance – through statistical models. Their results show a strong correlation between economic growth and certain shifts in beliefs, though only in developing countries. Most strikingly, if belief in hell jumps up sharply while actual church attendance stays flat, it correlates with economic growth. Belief in heaven also has a similar effect, though less pronounced. Mere belief in God has no effect one way or the other. Meanwhile, if church attendance actually rises, it slows growth in developing economies.
McCleary says this makes sense from a strictly economic standpoint – as economies develop and people can earn more money, their time becomes more valuable. For economic growth, she says, “What you want is to have people have their children grow up in a faith, but then they should become productive members of society. They shouldn’t be spending all their time in religious services.”
After Barro and McCleary’s initial work was published in 2003, other economists started looking more seriously at the impact of religious beliefs. Researchers based at the New University of Lisbon and the University of Illinois used a model that showed European industrial development between 1645 and 1850 took place roughly 35 years earlier in Protestant countries than Catholic ones. (The researchers posited that Protestant beliefs in economic success as a sign one might get to heaven inspired people to work harder and invest.) The German economist Sascha O. Becker looked at Prussia’s economic development and found that, at least for Germany, Weber was right about the Protestant work ethic: Protestants were more likely to be entrepreneurs than Catholics, and more likely to create bigger firms. (Becker argues the cause isn’t religious belief itself, but an accidental offshoot of Protestants needing to be literate enough to read the Bible.)
So what is it about religion that creates these economic effects? On one level, the connection seems intuitive: All the major religions extol virtues like self-discipline, sacrifice, and thrift. Some even preach that earthly success translates to good things in the afterlife, a kind of gold-plated stairway to heaven. Religion can, quite directly, affect what you earn – fundamentalists and evangelicals in the United States tend to have lower savings rates and incomes than members of other religions, in part because they have larger families and give away more of their money.
Belief’s influence on our economic behavior might even reflect biology. The special motivational power of hell, for instance, may lie deep in the human psyche. Ara Norenzayan, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, and his graduate student Azim Shariff set up an experiment that would make it easy for people to cheat on a difficult math test. They found that people who believed in an omniscient, vengeful God typically chose short-term suffering – that is, facing the test without the crutch of cheating – over possible eternal suffering. “Those who believed in a punishing God cheated less,” Norenzayan said in an e-mail. He considers his findings to be consistent with Barro and McCleary’s research.
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