There are many correlations in the world between religion or lack of religion and any other given thing, whether it be moral behaviour, happiness, wellbeing, or some other aspect of life.
Now, there is evidence to suggest that secularisation precedes economic growth. Whilst over time, studies have revealed a clear correlation between prosperity and lack of religion (the poorest countries are generally the most religious), the question has always been one of direction of causality. Recently, a study in the journal Science Advances reveals that tolerance of individual rights may be the strongest predictor of economic growth available.
Cosmos Magazine reports on this in “Ditch religion to boost prosperity, study finds“.
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”.
As the study itself discusses:
Previous studies have mainly focused on how education or personal income correlates with measures of religiosity such as church attendance in Western and/or European countries (9, 12–14, 28, 29). Rather than choosing WEVS questions assumed a priori to cover religion exclusively (10), we used EFA to allow the patterns of variation to emerge from all the WEVS data. Previous studies also tend to cover a relatively short time span. In contrast, our use of unsupervised factor analysis, from five waves of all available countries in the WVS, allows comparison of a century of change in cultural values across multiple non-Western religions and cultures. Specifically, we were able to test whether GDP per capita in decade t predicts the secular values of people born in subsequent decades.
Using birth year data from the WEVS, we find that the average value of our extracted factors, such as secularization or tolerance of divorce, abortion, and homosexuality, has coherence that distinguishes one generation from another through time. That is, the persistence of generational values is consistent with both the theory that intergenerational change is a coherent mode of value change (5, 17) and the theory that demographic shifts, rather than economics, drive modern cultural change (1).
Because religious beliefs and practices are culturally inherited (30), there may be positive feedback in secularization among generations raised with reduced exposure to religious practices (28, 29). These generational patterns affirm that cultural values change at the population scale; this is consistent with, for example, WEVS evidence for acculturation of migrants on a time scale on the order of a decade (31, 32).
Controlling for shared history did not substantially alter our findings, which accords with the observed correlations being either negligible or already very old by the start of the 20th century. The correlation between economic development and secularization, robust by the end of the 20th century, did not yet exist at the beginning of the 20th century (Fig. 3). In contrast, given the persistence of traditional values (7, 33) and specifically the deep ancestry of religious prohibition and cooperation (4, 34), the relationship between secularization and tolerance could be ancient, and we observe this already by the early 20th century.
The pace of change and its causality are important dimensions for future study. Studies of deep “cultural ancestry” on a time scale of centuries or millennia (30, 35) have suggested, for instance, that ancient religious practices preceded the subsequent development of socioeconomic stratification (36). In the 21st century, however, cultural transmission has been accelerated and reconfigured by technological changes (33), and future tipping points may not be readily predicted from 20th century trends (1). Acceptance of gay marriage in Western countries, for example, reached 85% by 2017 among religiously unaffiliated Americans (37). In sub-Saharan Africa, people describing religion as their only belief system declined gradually from 75 to 13% over the 20th century (38), and certain regions have seen recent abrupt declines in female genital modification (35). These unanticipated changes remind us to be open to unprecedented causal pathways between development, religion, and tolerance in the future.
I imagine religious types will defend this by invoking the more socialist ideas of Jesus and his pastoral leadership, against the claims of people who defend the Prosperity Gospel. Christians will defend capitalism when it works for them and retreat when it doesn’t, though I am sure the same could be said of the more socialist atheists and secularists.