Religion and Economic Growth Beyond Weber

Some economists refuse to be deterred by the intractability of religion to quantitative studies of growth and development. Robin Grier undertook a cross-national study of former colonies in Latin America in search of the elusive connection between religion and economic development, and found that (1) the growth rate of Protestantism is positively and significantly correlated with real GDP growth; (2) the level of Protestantism is significantly related to real per capita growth; and (3) former colonies steeped in the Catholic tradition (French and Spanish) performed significantly worse, on average, than former British colonies. Nevertheless, she rejected these results as verification of Weber: "Contrary to the Weber-ian hypothesis... my results show that religion is not the sole determinant of differential development and growth . . . Controlling for the level and growth rate of Protestantism does not eliminate the gap between the three sets of former colonies. As Weber's critics have pointed out, Protestantism seems to be only one of many factors which determine economic progress.''48

Robert Barro and Rachel McCleary also used a cross-country panel of data to test whether there is a correlation between religion and economic development. They found that measures of religiosity are positively related to education, negatively related to urbanization, and positively related to the presence of children. At the same time, increased life expectancy tends to be negatively related to church attendance but positively related to religious beliefs (especially heaven and hell). Treating church attendance as a measure of inputs to the religious sector, and religious beliefs as a measure of outputs, they conjecture that on the one hand increased church attendance signifies more resources used up by the religion sector, with less attendant economic growth, and on the other hand, that religious beliefs stimulate growth because they help to sustain aspects of individual behavior that enhance productivity. While this last point is certainly Weberian in spirit, Barro and McCleary make no attempt to defend the core Weberian thesis.49

Although these recent studies do not confirm or deny Weber's hypothesis, they nevertheless demonstrate abiding interest in the key relationship between religion and economic activity. Moreover, recent studies tend to follow Weber's macroeconomic orientation, which might be appropriate to contemporary availability of data. But historical research aimed at finding a causal connection that runs in the Weberian (macro-economic) mode has been hampered by the fact that aggregate quantitative indicators of economic prosperity are extremely scarce for earlier epochs. Two ideas currently vie for supremacy in historical empirical research. Economists J. Bradford DeLong and Andrei Shleifer focus on city size as an indicator of economic growth50; Daron Acemoglu, Simon H. Johnson, and James A. Robinson focus on urbanization rates as an indicator of economic growth.51 Both approaches emanate from, and build upon, a data set constructed by Paul Bairoch, Jean Bateau, and Pierre Chevre.52 Neither DeLong and Shleifer nor Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson examine the relation between religion and economic development, but each suggest a parallel approach to the problems involved in discovering a plausible connection.

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