Can religion boost growth?

The sociologist Max Weber famously argued that religion can influence economic performance through its effect on character traits such as the work ethic. Barro and McCleary subject this view to a rigorous test. As with Barro’s earlier work on growth, the unique aspect of this research is the painstaking assembly of a new data set, in this case the data on religious beliefs and attendance at formal religious services drawn from six international surveys covering about fifty countries.

Barro and McCleary find that countries in which people have stronger religious beliefs, as reflected in a stronger belief in heaven and hell, have higher economic growth—a finding consistent with Weber’s thesis. However, once the impact of religious beliefs on economic growth is accounted for, greater attendance at formal religious services lowers growth. So attendance matters to the extent that it influences beliefs, but beyond that it uses up time and resources that detract from growth.


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