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Religion Can Be Positive for Economic Progress, and Negative Too
A conversation with Rachel McCleary and Robert Barro

Rachel McCleary is Lecturer in the Economics Department at Harvard University, Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. She is author of The Wealth of Religions: The Political Economy of Believing and Belonging.

Robert Barro is Paul M. Warburg Professor of Economics at Harvard University, Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. He is author of The Wealth of Religions: The Political Economy of Believing and Belonging.

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Are the type of religion practised and religiosity an unequivocal determinant of a country’s economic performance today?

Robert Barro: I think saying that there is an unequivocal relationship is too strong. I think the relation is more nuanced. We found that religious beliefs that sustain traits such as work effort, thrift and honesty promoted economic growth. We also found that just more attendance at formal religious services, often called church attendance, was actually negative for growth. Of course, beliefs and attendance tend to move together across countries and over time. If you look at a typical pattern in which they move together, you will not find conclusive evidence of their association with economic growth. So, in that sense, the overall connection between religiosity, including both beliefs and participation, and economic growth is not very strong. We also found some evidence, and others have found some evidence, that certain types of regulations associated with formal religion can be negative for economic progress. That seems to be true particularly in Muslim countries that sustained certain regulations that were negative for markets and the economy more broadly.

Rachel McCleary: A religion that involves a high investment of your resources will have a negative effect on your economic productivity. Pentecostalism and neo-Pentecostalism, for example, which are growing very rapidly in Brazil, Guatemala, and other parts of Latin America, are very resource-intensive —you go to church on Sunday, your children are educated in the church, you participate in church-related social activities, such as Bible reading, and so on. Of course, they support each other. For example, they help people of their congregation with food and some churches have a used clothing network. All these are all very good, very positive, but they aren’t necessarily productive activities. They are what we call mutual aid. It is a transfer of goods as opposed to producing something. For a religion to contribute to economic activity and productivity it has to teach its members to work hard, to save, to invest in human capital.

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