Losing Your Religion Doesn’t Make You Rich – The Research Is Being Badly Reported


According to science – or according to newspaper reports of the science which is not quite the same thing – a country which loses its religion then becomes rich. This is not in fact what the science has shown. Rather, it shows that a classically liberal society becomes rich, a not-classically liberal one does not. This is something of a distinction, isn’t it?

It is a debate that has raged between scholars for more than a century: does a country become less religious after it grows richer or does secularism help capitalism to flourish?

Now a study has provided an answer: rejecting God can significantly boost a nation’s wealth. Academics at the universities of Bristol and Tennessee set out to test the theory that nations become more secular after becoming more prosperous and found that the process takes place in reverse.

Nice story and not what that science has found at all. Instead, what they did find is:

The findings revealed that secularisation precedes economic development and not the other way around. Although this does not demonstrate a causal pathway, it does rule out the reverse.

Furthermore, the findings show that secularisation only predicts future economic development when it is accompanied by a respect and tolerance for individual rights.

That “only” shows us that it is the individual rights part which is what creates the riches, not the lack of religion.

This accords with a more general observation of the world of course. Individual rights were not greatly in evidence in the Soviet Union, an officially atheist country, and it sure as hell wasn’t rich. I know, as you do, nothing about religion in North Korea but we’d both suspect a certain absence and it’s most certainly not a rich place. There’s also not much evidence of those individual rights.

Countries where abortion, divorce and homosexuality are tolerated have a greater chance of future economic prosperity.

Where those rights exist is also where people are likely to have individual economic rights. Not exclusively so, obviously, but we’d expect an association.

We could also call into evidence other places, say Hong Kong. A place which appears to have 50% of the population believing, largely in Chinese folk religions. And is also one of the richest spots on the planet.

Those individual rights thus being the thing in common, no?

Or as we might put it, it’s not the anti-clericalism which makes a place rich, it’s that libertarian version, classical liberal if you prefer, of freedom which does. You know, that version which says you can believe any damn thing you want to as long as it’s not done in the streets to frighten the horses? The limitation being that your beliefs cannot be imposed over the rights of others to do the same?