A new study finds that a shift away from religion may make countries more prosperous. The decline in the everyday importance of religion with economic development is a well-known correlation, but which phenomenon comes first? Using data on countries ranging from Albania to Zimbabwe, the survey presents 100-year time series of secularization in different nations, derived from recent global values surveys, which they compare by decade to historical gross domestic product figures in those nations.
Researchers have found evidence that a rise in secularization generally has preceded economic growth over the past century. "Our findings show that secularization precedes economic development and not the other way around,” said Damian Ruck, the study's lead researcher at the University of Bristol. “However, we suspect the relationship is not directly causal. We noticed that secularization only leads to economic development when it is accompanied by a greater respect for individual rights.”
Secularization without respect for human rights cannot cause the same effect on economic development. The study suggests that maybe both changes (economic development and secularization) are driven, with different time lags, by a factor such as education or advances in technology. They also tried to find so-called ultimate driver to economic development.
Tolerance of individual rights appears to be closer to an ultimate driver, in that more people are included in economic activity, especially women. The tolerance factor, which is most highly loaded on individual rights for divorce and abortion and therefore likely to correlate with women’s rights generally, was a better temporal predictor of GDP per capita than the secularization factor.
Besides tolerance, education is a possible driver of both economic development and secularization. It is not the coincidence that the poorest nations tend to be highly religious. On the one side we have religion which means lack of education, little tolerance, and few advances in technology. When a religious factor is removed or its effect reduced, there is prosperity in all these fields. And the prosperity in these fields leads to economic development.
"Very often secularization is indeed accompanied by a greater tolerance of homosexuality, abortion, divorce etc,” said Mr Ruck.
“But that isn't to say that religious countries can't become prosperous. Religious institutions need to find their own way of modernizing and respecting the rights of individuals," he concluded.