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Study: Rise in riches follows decline in 'religion'

Do people focus more on earning wealth when they quit going to church? Does acquiring wealth cause them to quit going to church?

Many such questions remain unanswered, but a new study suggests a relationship between the secularization of a society and its economic development.

Whatever other circumstances might exist, the secularization of a society often is followed by economic development.

With one exception, that being the United States.

The study, published in the journal Science Advances, was done by Damian Ruck of the University of Bristol Medical School, R. Alexander Bentley, Daniel Lawson and others.

The study’s abstract notes the “decline in the everyday importance of religion with economic development is a well-known correlation, but which phenomenon comes first?”

“Using unsupervised factor analysis and a birth cohort approach to create a retrospective time series, we present 100-year time series of secularization in different nations, derived from recent global values surveys, which we compare by decade to historical gross domestic product figures in those nations.

“We find evidence that a rise in secularization generally has preceded economic growth over the past century.”

Marketwatch, in a report on the study, noted the link between “religion and economic prosperity” is not new.

“German sociologist and economist Max Weber argued that the introduction of Protestantism and Calvinism gave rise to the capitalist spirit in his 1905 book, ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.’ French sociologist Emile Durkheim however, argued that economic growth leads to a decline in religion.”

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The report pointed out the new study concludes secularization precedes economic development.

“However, only when it is accompanied by acceptance and tolerance for individual rights,” Marketwatch said.

And not all secular countries are rich.

“Various countries in Eastern Europe were a lot poorer than you’d expect despite being secular,” said Ruck.

The U.S., however, defies assumptions.

“The U.S. it is one of the richest countries, but is very religious for an economically developed country,” Ruck said.

Explained Marketwatch: “Of the 64 questions on core cultural values that were asked of 329,723 participants across 109 total countries surveyed … the authors focused on questions like, ‘How much confidence do you have in the church?,’ and, ‘Is religious faith an important quality to instill in a child?'”

The finding was, according to Bentley, that “changes in the importance of religious practices appear to have predicted changes in GDP across the world.”

The researchers write: “In this study, we have shown that, across a diversity of countries around the world, changes in secularization predicted changes in GDP worldwide during the 20th century. More broadly, this implies that changes in the everyday importance of religious practices preceded changes in economic development in the 20th century.

“While this does not yet isolate one path of causality, it determines that economic growth is not what caused secularization in the past. Our observation that secularization preceded economic change further rules out a bicausal relationship between income and religion as well as the theory that socioeconomic advances cause religious practices to be phased out.”

The researchers said: “Our findings do not mean, however, that secularization was the ultimate cause of economic development. Both secularization and economic growth may have been driven by something else, with secularization responding faster than GDP. This likely rules out technological advances as the ultimate cause, as it is hard to image how religion could respond faster to technological change than GDP.”

Surprisingly, the report noted: “Tolerance of individual rights appears to be closer to an ultimate driver, in that more people are included in economic activity, especially women. The tolerance factor, which is most highly loaded on individual rights for divorce and abortion … and therefore likely to correlate with women’s rights generally, was a better temporal predictor of GDP per capita than the secularization factor.”

Another factor that could be an influence is education, the study said.