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Atheism Linked to Economic Innovation, Productivity

Two economists find an association between the percentage of non-believers in a state and the most productive sort of entrepreneurial activity.
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(Photo: James Steidl/Shutterstock)

(Photo: James Steidl/Shutterstock)

American prosperity is often attributed, at least in part, to the Protestant work ethic. According to this school of thought, our religion-inspired productivity contributes greatly to a growing economy.

Newly published research questions whether that truism is actually true. Using state-level data, it finds an inverse relationship between the practice of religion and what the researchers call “productive entrepreneurship”—that is, entrepreneurial activity that genuinely leads to economic growth.

And in a surprise kicker, two economists report this desirable type of entrepreneurship is associated with a greater percentage of atheists and agnostics in a state’s population.

The percentage of a state’s residents who are self-described Christians is "robustly correlated" with a lower score in productive entrepreneurship.

Apparently the non-believer work ethic is also fairly formidable.

“One possibility is that productive entrepreneurial activities are largely substitutes for religious ones,” write Travis Wiseman of Mississippi State University and Andrew Young of West Virginia University. Their paper is published in the Journal of Institutional Economics.

The researchers used religion data from a variety of sources: the Pew Form’s 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey; the Gallup Poll’s State of the States surveys from 2004 and 2008; and the Census Bureau’s Religious Congregation and Membership Study of 2000 and 2010.

They specifically looked at the religious affiliation of each state’s residents, as well as their religiosity. The latter was determined by four factors: regular attendance at religious services, strong belief in God, regular prayer, and viewing one’s religion as “very important.”

“Productive entrepreneurship” was calculated using a combination of new businesses created, new businesses created with 500 or more employees, per-capita venture capital investments, patents per capita, and the growth rate of self-employment.

Wiseman and Young found all of the religious variables they tracked “tend to correlate negatively and significantly” with a state’s productive entrepreneurship score. One striking example: The percentage of a state’s residents who are self-described Christians is “robustly correlated” with a lower score in productive entrepreneurship.

“Interestingly, the percent of the population that is atheist/agnostic is positively and significantly related to a state’s productive entrepreneurship score,” they add.

“This could be because religion imposes opportunity costs in terms of time and resources that may otherwise have been devoted toward productive entrepreneurship,” the researchers speculate. Another possibility, they add, is that religion “may create psychic costs to pursuing worldly gains.”

Of course, one can differ with Wiseman and Young as to what specifically constitutes productive entrepreneurship. But their intriguing findings suggest that, when it comes to creating new products and new businesses, religion may be more of a hindrance than a help.