“These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.”

Jesus Christ, quoting Isaiah

It’s always good to see a serious piece of university research take precedence on the front page of a leading newspaper, even if the headline writer misrepresents it. Such was the lead article in last Thursday’s ‘The Times’ under the headline: ‘Losing religion can be seriously good for your wealth.’ 

The research was done by the Universities of Bristol (UK) and Tennessee (US), and set out to test contrasting ideas about the impact of religion on economics and vice versa as put forward by Max Weber and Emile Durkheim. Here's the press release if you don't want to read the full report.

So this week we consider whether the headline writer of The Times was right to draw that conclusion, and whether the research itself is sufficiently well-founded to merit the attention it has attracted.

The nub of the research findings from Ruck, Bentley and Lawson from the Universities of Bristol and Tennessee was that tolerance was the key determinant of rises in GDP per capita; and, because they determined that a decrease in religious belief was linked to an increase in tolerance for individual rights, they drew the conclusion that secularisation was a driver for economic growth, not the other way round. They clearly hadn’t read Kenneth Barnes’ book, ‘Redeeming Capitalism’.

However, in the ‘discussion’ section on page 3 of their report, there is an acceptance that their linkage between secularisation and economic growth may not be correct: ‘Our findings do not mean, however, that secularisation was the ultimate cause of economic development’ (perhaps the writer of The Times’ article didn’t get that far). They went on to consider, and then rule out without evidence, the possibility that both could have resulted from technological change.   

Their research may have been extensive, covering 109 countries and spanning the entire duration of the 20th century, but it did not reach back into the 19th industrial revolution during which both faith and economic development prospered. And perhaps they should have studied MIT’s findings on recent technological change, which were discussed in our commentary of 27th November 2017, ‘The impact of technological innovation on productivity & wealth’, including its effect on the polarisation of wealth.

The researchers were therefore fixated on tolerance as the key issue, to the extent that they had to admit ‘secularisation did not predict increased GDP in the absence of accompanying increases in tolerance’. Starting with this hypothesis they therefore had to find proxies for measuring intolerance, and these were respondents’ attitudes towards homosexuality, divorce, suicide and abortion.

Meanwhile adherence to religion was based on a fairly elementary set of questions, including “How important in your life is religion?”, “Are you a religious person?”, “How often do you attend religious services?”, “How much confidence do you have in the Church” and “Is religious faith an important quality to instil in a child?”.

There is no evidence from the research that account was taken of the nature of faith or of different religions, or how central was their established doctrine in determining attitudes towards others.

By this time you may be saying: “all very interesting to read, but what’s it got to do with the real and direct challenges facing society today?” I think the answer is twofold:

  • Firstly, it is worth considering the nature of faith. There is no doubt that in some religions, including some quarters of Christianity, doctrine is used to tie people down. But the quotation above shows that this is often human in character. Faith can indeed liberate and empower, as lead researcher Damian Ruck admits: “that isn’t to say that religious countries can’t become very prosperous. Religious institutions need to find their own way of modernising and respecting the rights of individuals.”
  • Secondly, societies across the western democracies, including the European Union, are now increasingly beset by secular intolerance: to migration, free trade and acceptance of other people’s ideas. So understanding the impact of intolerance on economic growth in secular societies may be just as important a finding of this research as the impact of religious intolerance.

In terms of faith, I can only speak with a detailed knowledge of Christian teaching: which is, at its heart, extremely simple. It is that the nature of God - the conscious creator - is Love, and that we are challenged to respond by loving God and loving our neighbour as ourselves. Who is our neighbour? It is the alien, the stranger - as we are taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan - even our enemy. And Jesus went on to teach ‘whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’. In other words, you carry out the first commandment - to love God - by doing the second: loving your neighbour, without restriction.

What is this, if it’s not tolerance? This is taught by the same person whose reaction to being asked to condemn someone caught in the act of adultery was to bend down and write on the ground with frustration, that the accusers’ doctrine of religious adherence was eclipsing his message of love.

Jesus understood intolerance, and resisted it strongly: as do many people of faith, as well as those who have none. Remember Bishop Michael Curry (our commentary on 21st May: ‘Can unconditional love go viral?’)

Doctrines are embellished and institutionalised by the humans that make up the Church, in order to build a vehicle which they think can best carry the faith from generation to generation. Often they are wrong. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘Church’ as “institutionalised religion as a political or social force”. It defines ‘religion’ as “a particular system of faith and worship” (See also our commentary on 14th May: ‘The intoxicating mix of power and paternalism’).

But neither Church nor religion is the heart of the Christian faith. Rather, it is those two commandments on which ‘hang all the Law and the Prophets’: in other words, the heart of the Christian faith is tolerance, not intolerance.

And this is where the researchers need to do more work in order to move away from their rather blunt proxies for religious adherence and tolerance, and to understand what really moves people to care for others - and particularly for those in very different circumstances and from very different backgrounds. They may discover that, far from religion being a brake on economic growth, it may be the key to unlocking opportunities for vast numbers of people across the world.

And in a sense that’s already been shown by the spread of Christianity across the world over the past 300 years, first through the British Empire, and then the Anglican Communion: a much longer period than that covered by the university research. No-one could claim that colonisation was a paragon of virtue but, on the whole, the hundreds of thousands of Christian missionaries practiced selfless love and care for others, as a result of which many nations have seen huge economic progress.

And, although I declare my interest as a long-standing member of the Church of England’s General Synod, I believe that same selfless Christian message has much to offer today, in mending the damage being inflicted by modern day secular intolerance: and not only this, but it also helps encourage the benefits of economic growth to be spread to the many, not just the few.


Gavin Oldham

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