Historically, rising wealth has coincided with a reduction in the power of religion. Today, the poorest countries in the world are among the most religious. Oil states aside, the reverse is also usually true. These observations have inspired the widespread assumption that wealth reduces religious fervor. However, one study has thrown that into question, concluding that an increase in non-religious values precedes and can predict economic growth, rather than following after.
A classic study of Trobriand Islanders found that those with more risky lives – fishing in the open ocean rather than in a protected atoll – were more superstitious. Sociologists have seen something similar with religion. People who are one bad harvest from destitution are more likely to seek God’s favor to save them than those less at risk. Moreover, the rich seldom like to be told their status has more to do with outside intervention than their own efforts, so the propensity to attribute success to the hand of the creator declines as material wealth rises.
However, University of Bristol PhD student Damian Ruck of the University of Bristol argues in Science Advances that we have the story the wrong way around. Using measures of secularization (that is the decline in religious faith) in 109 countries from 1910-2014, Ruck used the statistical technique of time-lagged regressions to see which came first.
Contrary to expectations, secularization preceded economic growth, rather than following it. Each standard deviation increase in a quantification of secular values was associated with an extra $1,000 of Gross Domestic Product per capita (adjusted to 1990 American dollars) over the subsequent 10 years and $5,000 over 30 years.
This pattern holds true across very different cultures, irrespective of which religion was declining. For some of the nations Ruck studied, data was missing for part of the period, but this was not the case for Great Britain, Nigeria, Chile, or the Philippines, all of which show the same pattern.
The strength of the relationship has increased with time; by the 1990s, the extent of secularization explained 40 percent of the differences in economic development between nations.
This would appear to rule out the possibility that economic growth causes religious decline, but that doesn't mean the reverse is true. Ruck acknowledges that some other factor could be driving both secularization and economic growth, with the latter a lagged effect. However, the most obvious suspect, education, did not prove predictive of secularization.
Instead, the paper points to support for individual rights, particularly women’s rights, as a strong possibility, predicting secularization well and economic growth better. The true wealth-creators may not be entrepreneurs, but those who stand against religious zealotry for tolerance and women’s liberation.