What are economists learning about religion?

by on June 20, 2004 at 4:54 am in Religion | Permalink

Harvard economist Robert Barro has been engaged in a major project on economics and religion. Here is an interview, outlining what he has learned. Here are some results:

1. Religious participation is negatively correlated with economic growth.

2. For the most part religious belief (as opposed to participation) is not correlated with economic growth. Belief in hell is positively correlated with growth, however.

3. Religious pluralism makes people more religious. In other words, the more options available, the more likely that religion will be found appealing.

4. As a country becomes wealthier, its people tend to become less religious (the U.S. is an outlier here; we are remarkably religious for our level of wealth).

Here is the part that surprised me most:

We look at the consequences of having an established state religion. On net, we find that that is actually positive, both for church attendance and for religious beliefs. To some extent, that goes against what Adam Smith said. Smith stressed that established religion would promote monopoly, poor service, and decreased service attendance. He particularly inferred that from looking at the Anglican Church in England.

We find, however, that the net relationship is actually positive, and we think that is basically because state religion tends to be accompanied by the state subsidizing religious activity in various ways. I think an economist, particularly Adam Smith, would generally accept the idea that something that is subsidized will tend to occur more often than something that isn’t. It’s the same as saying that something that is taxed will tend to occur less often.

Here is Barro’s home page, with links to many of his writings. Here is a plug for my colleague, Laurence Iannaccone, who works on related issues and has been conferring with Barro.

Thanks to the ever-excellent www.politicaltheory.info for the link.

Addendum: Here is a recent Barro lecture, thanks to Andrew Grossman for the tip.

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