The world's richest nations also tend to be the least religious. According to conventional wisdom, this reflects the fact that better-educated, higher-income people are less inclined to look to supernatural explanations for life's mysteries.
But new research suggests that equation may get things backwards. Data from more than 100 nations spanning 100 years finds economic growth may, in fact, spring from secularization, along with increased tolerance for individual rights.
"Changes in the everyday importance of religious practices preceded changes in economic development in the 20th century," writes a research team led by Damian Ruck of the University of Bristol. "Economic growth is not what caused secularization in the past."
The study, published in the journal Science Advances, utilizes data from World Values Survey, European Values Survey, and (to measure individual nations' gross domestic product, or GDP) the Maddison Project.
The two values surveys asked respondents questions related to the importance of God in their lives, whether they identify as a religious person, and how often they attend religious services. The surveys also asked respondents their views concerning homosexuality, divorce, suicide, and abortion.
Noting the age of each respondent—and assuming their answers reflect the norms of their nation during the decade they came of age—the researchers tracked each country's shift in attitudes, and compared it to their economic growth. They found that, worldwide, increasingly secular, tolerant attitudes preceded economic expansion.
Ruck and his colleagues caution that this does not prove a country's decline in religiosity "was the ultimate cause of economic development." They write that "both secularization and economic growth may have been driven by something else, with secularization responding faster than GDP."
"Tolerance of individual rights appears to be closer to an ultimate driver, in that more people are included in economic activity—especially women," they add. They note that their measure of tolerance, which includes views on abortion rights and divorce, can reasonably be viewed as a proxy for "women's rights generally."
So the most likely path that led to the 20th century's economic expansion—which, in the words of one economist, saw "the material wealth of humankind explode beyond all previous imagining"—appears to be something like this: Increased gender equity, along with a decline in the influence of the teachings of traditional patriarchal religions, allowed more women to move into the economy—a trend that greatly contributed to enormous growth.
America has always been an outlier on the religiosity-economic success scale. But it's worth noting these results come at a time when the party in power in the United States is simultaneously promising greater economic growth, along with a return to religion-driven patriarchal values (including restrictions on abortion).
It may be those two goals are incompatible.