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Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Faith Without Economic Growth is Dead 

by Mathew
I recently spent a few weeks in the hinterlands of Utah where I found myself admiring again the Mormon pioneers, many of whom not only crossed the plains but then left the relatively verdant Salt Lake Valley to settle what even today looks like forsaken desert. As I drove through those dusty towns in Southern Utah I wondered what beliefs inspired them enough to leave everything they had ever known and walk into such an uninviting place. My appreciation grew still further, when, after four days of camping, Gigi told me she was sick of looking at red rocks and asked to go back to Salt Lake. This in turn led me to think of a study I read recently which found that there is a positive association between belief in heaven or hell and economic growth which can be found at this link: http://post.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/barro/papers/Religion_and_Economic_Growth.pdf

The authors of the study hypothesize that religion affects economic outcomes by fostering religious beliefs that then influence individual traits such as thrift, work ethic, honesty and openness to strangers and that belief in heaven or hell affects these traits by creating rewards and punishments. Interestingly, measured in economic terms, belief in hell appears to motivate more than belief in heaven–and professed belief in God alone (w/ no concept of heaven or hell attached) motivates people little or none. Or, as the authors of the study put it "professed belief in God may signify little about the religious convictions that motivate economic performance".

My gut tells me that the pioneers were motivated more by a belief in heaven than a belief in hell. The Mormon concept of hell, after all, is more comforting than that associated with most Christian religions I am familiar with. And all of the stories and anecdotes I have heard over the years suggest that the pioneers were very focused on building the kingdom of God–both on this earth and the next. It seems to me that we (or perhaps just I?) are much less focused on that concept that we used to be. We mention it from time to time, but the absence of a collective struggle to build an empire in largely unsettled territory means that the kingdom of God has shifted from the tangible to the ethereal. I consider the temple, however, as one place where we continue to focus on building the kingdom and engage in a collective work that may not benefit us personally but contributes to the kingdom as a whole.

A few other unrelated but interesting points–the study mentioned above also found that economic activity suffered when people attended church–labeling beliefs as the output of the religious sector which can affect economic growth and church attendance as the inputs of the religious sector which consume economic performance. A quick google search confirms that T&S and Brayden King scooped this study some months ago–Jim Falconer briefly blogged about it on T&S back in Feb and Brayden wrote about it in Jan.

Considering all of the variables the authors’ of this study where to trying to control for, I take their results with a grain of salt, but I think that heaven and hell are certainly powerful motivators for those who truly believe in them and it seems certain that the actions motivated by those beliefs would have some economic effect. To take another example, I’ve read theories that trade stagnated during the middle ages in part because of European societies’ taboos against usury and the profit motive.

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