Religion and US Progress


First off, a disclaimer: I've not read the book Don Boudreaux mentions in this post discussing a rejection of science at the new National Museum of the American Indian. Potentially, the book could answer the point I'm bringing up now.

That said, I'll barrel headlong into it and wait for a potential upbraiding if I get too far afield.

In classes and discussions elsewhere, I've heard the same argument the book makes; namely, that a population still that still heavily identifies with "mystical ideas" are at a disadvantage when it comes to development. Too much mysticism retards the progress of science, and thus of progress in general.

How, then, to reconcile this notion with the rather public religiosity of the United States as compared to most other developing nations? As this Pew Global Attitudes Study has detailed, the US still places a great deal of imporance on religion, and yet enjoys a very high level of per capita income.

Without being too anecdotal, I have to say I tend to reject the notion that this is simply the result of people believing they should appear religious, and thus they answer the questionnaire in the affirmative out of some sense of necessity or responsibility. I'd expect the effect to be much smaller than we actually see. Some place US church attendance around 40-44%. Or, if you happen to find the sources for that suspicious, even the avowedly partisan (in this fight, anyway) atheist groups put the number around 26%. But that still far surpasses the rate for countries with similar per capita incomes. For instance, it's 3% in Japan (again, using the potentially inflated numbers from the first report), and 14% in South Korea.

The issue strikes me as more than academic, since Iraq is soon going to have to deal with it head-on, and numerous other states are grappling with the tesions between the presence of extremist forms of Islam and general movements of modernism. Perhaps the issue is one of state-sponsored religion? Though, one would have to draw a fine line between a religion that appears in a constitution and an "effective" state religion that is imposed on the nation.

My guess, and so far in the confines of my office and busy day, that's all it has time to be, is that the question of religiosity of a population slightly misses the mark. (Again, this could all be old hat since the book addresses it, but I remind you again that I've only had time to order it, not read it.) The issue, I think, concerns more the effectiveness of state institutions. In lesser developed countries the church/mosque/community of worship often replaces roles that states have taken on in more developed places. Not only do they provide for spiritual well-being, the community of worship often assists in feeding and caring for physical well being. The state-based institutions in these places are simply unable to provide such goods, so the delivery of religion is intimately tied to the delivery of food, care, etc. In the more developed nations communities of worship are populated by those making a choice of how to spend leisure time. Other activities make sure you are clothed, fed, and cared for should the need arise. Strong, effective institutions make this more possible through provision of certain goods (roads, national security, delineation of property rights, etc.). The separation of church and state occurs not only because the state supports no religion above others, but also because they need not attempt to address the same issues.

Which, to be honest, raises a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg issue. Do people start moving away from religion when the state becomes stronger, or does the state become stronger because the people start having as much or more faith in it to deliver than the church or mosque? I'm not sure; but in the meantime it would seem to cloud our ability to say that reliance on mysticism (which, in this case, seems not too distinct from religion in general -- a belief in things unseen and an adherence to a spiritual doctrine dictated by a power greater than our own) is clearly an impediment to growth.

That said, Boudreaux's point about the rejection of science is salient. The crowding out of science for mysticism or religion could function as de facto imposition of belief, retarding progress of any kind. A deep intermingling of religion and the provision of relatively public goods enables coercion on the part of the religious or mystical leaders.


Doesn't much depend on whether the widespread religion under discussion actively or passively interferes with the production of scientists and businessmen?

If a religion makes it very difficult to apply deduction to logical problems, or if it is antagonistic to the methods and processes of scientific investigation, having a sufficient number of persons develop, learn, and apply the requisite engineering skills would be an almost impossible social task.

Most religions in America put no obstacle in front of gifted minds that is not easily overcome. Science and religion can coexist!

(Note that I haven't read the book either).

quick point. your arg is based on state vs church power, which is missing a universe of relations that do not include state/church institutions.

But then, don't we have to say that the factor involved in development is the KIND of religion? That is, those religions that are less flexible in terms of scientific modes of questioning will tend to hold back growth; this seems like the logical conclusion from your point.

I'm not entirely averse to that idea, though it puts one in the odd position of saying that certain religions are "better" than others (so long as the measure we're talking about is growth of per capita income). The state Wahhabism of a Saudi Arabia, for instance, doesn't give one much hope for future growth, even setting aside the massive reliance on a single, natural-resource good for their economy. Modernism, including scientific investigation, is frowned upon by the ulaama of the area (including Iran, as well).

But then, it really should be noted that cultures operating under Islam were some of the more technologically advanced just a few centuries ago. Math, language, navigation, etc; all these things saw great developments in Islamic areas. Then again, Christianity required an almost seismic shift to move into the Enlightenment, getting out from under religious rule that placed science at the feet of the clergy. Might we need to plot the growth of EXTREMIST religions against the trend in per capita growth or scientific progress?

Which, though I didn't realize, gets me close to where I started. The issue, if the above holds any water, isn't the religion, but the comingling of religion and state. A science unapproved by the church was possible in Enlightenment Christianity and very pre-Wahhabist Islam. Perhaps not because of the religion itself, but because of the option to rely on something other than the church/mosque to provide goods/services necessary to development.


Not sure what you're saying here. It's very true that I'm leaving out great swaths of things having to do with growth that might stem from religion or the state seperately -- as well as(and most significantly) the individual.

My only point was to suggest that identifying a direct (and inverse) relationship between the level of religiosity and development in a nation itself misses at least a few things I thought interesting enough to highlight.

I'm very fond of the "all else being equal" part of policy analysis.


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This page contains a single entry by published on September 21, 2004 10:27 AM.

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