A shift away from religion may make countries more prosperous, according to a new study.
Using data on countries ranging from Albania to Zimbabwe, researchers analysed the relationship between values held by different nations and their GDPs.
They found that lack of religion tended to come before economic growth over the course of the 20th century – a discovery that partially answers a long-standing question about the impact of secularisation on the economy.
In the past sociologists have argued both sides. Some have suggested advances in technology and society have essentially displaced many of the functions of religion, while others argued the so-called “Protestant work ethic” contributed to the development of capitalism.
A link between religion and wealth has been known about for decades, as researchers have observed that the poorest nations tend to be highly religious.
While the new research does not demonstrate a causal link between lack of godliness and economic development, it suggests that wealth is not in itself the cause of secularisation.
"Our findings show that secularisation precedes economic development and not the other way around,” said Damian Ruck, the study's lead researcher at the University of Bristol.
“However, we suspect the relationship is not directly causal. We noticed that secularisation only leads to economic development when it is accompanied by a greater respect for individual rights.”
For their study, published in the journal Science Advances, they used data from the European Values Survey and the World Values Survey, which have been taken since 1990 and ask a huge variety of questions about everything from family values to views on homosexuality.
To work out people’s values from earlier than 1990, they looked at the views of people born in previous decades on the basis that their views would be somewhat representative of the time they were born in.
Dr Alex Bentley, a study co-author from the University of Tennessee said: "Over the course of the 20th century, changes in importance of religious practices appear to have predicted changes in GDP across the world.
“This doesn't necessarily mean that secularisation caused economic development, since both changes could have been caused by some third factor with different time lags, but at least we can rule out economic growth as the cause of secularization in the past."
Statistical analysis by Mr Ruck and his colleagues suggested that tolerance for individual rights actually predicted economic growth even better than secularisation.
This suggested that tolerance is the ultimate driver of success for a society, an outcome that makes sense considering its economic benefits.
Allowing women access to divorce and abortions, for example, have both led to the inclusion of more women in the workforce over the years.
However, the researchers conceded that more work is required to test this conclusion.
"Very often secularisation is indeed accompanied by a greater tolerance of homosexuality, abortion, divorce etc,” said Mr Ruck.
“But that isn't to say that religious countries can't become prosperous. Religious institutions need to find their own way of modernising and respecting the rights of individuals."
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