Forget investment and savings rates, worker productivity and wage scales to determine which countries will become richer or poorer. What really stimulates economic growth is whether you believe in an afterlife -- especially hell.
At least that's what two Harvard scholars have found after analyzing data collected in 59 countries between 1981 and 1999.
"Our central perspective is that religion affects economic outcomes mainly by fostering religious beliefs that influence individual traits such as honesty, work ethic, thrift and openness to strangers," the researchers, Robert Barro and Rachel McCleary, wrote in the October issue of American Sociological Review. They also happen to be married.
"For example, beliefs in heaven and hell might affect those traits by creating perceived rewards and punishments that relate to `good' and `bad' lifetime behavior," they wrote.
The data comes from six international surveys, including ones by Gallup, the World Bank and researchers at the University of Michigan. They include questions about attendance in places of worship and religious beliefs. There were four measures of economic development: per capita GDP, educational attainment by adults, the urbanization rate and life expectancy.
Oddly enough, the research also showed that at a certain point, increases in church, mosque and synagogue attendance tended to depress economic growth. Barro, a renowned economist, and McCleary, a lecturer in Harvard's government department, theorized that larger attendance figures could mean that religious institutions were using up a disproportionate share of resources.
"It's all been rather surprising," McCleary said."People didn't believe you could quantify aspects of religion. We wanted to be intellectually provocative. We see about five more years of study to get out all the stuff we want. We're trying to raise interesting questions in a different way."
Since the German sociologist Max Weber wrote about the Protestant work ethic and the spirit of capitalism, social scientists have argued that culture -- including religious habits -- is part of the complex mix that determines a country's economic health. What distinguishes the work of Barro and McCleary, some scholars said, is that it uses a sophisticated analysis of a huge set of data to quantify the arguments of anthropologists, sociologists and political scientists.
"The study's important less for what they found than that they looked," said Mark Chaves, a professor of sociology at the University of Arizona, in Tucson. "They are not the first to look at this but they are the first to look at this as systemically and as rigorously as they have. For forever, people have been saying that culture matters in analyzing economies."
"I think this is a new beginning for the rigorous relationship between religion and economic development, " added Chaves, whose forthcoming book examines how religious congregations influence politics and culture. "They've given us a data set and some tools to examine this in a new way."
One of the motivations for undertaking the study, McCleary said, was that empirical research on economic growth typically neglected the influence of religion.
The research team also wants to look at how religion affects other political and social issues like democracy, the rule of law, fertility and health. At the moment, they have a paper on government and the regulation of religion that is under review by the American Journal of Sociology at the University of Chicago on government and the regulation of religion.