Religion and Economic Attitudes Research by Luigi Zingales
New research suggests a link between religion and attitudes
that are conducive to economic growth.
Economists, sociologists, and political scientists have long
been interested in explaining the economic success of certain
countries and the persistent poverty of others.
The first, and most famous example, is the German sociologist
Max Weber. In his 1905 treatise, "The Protestant Ethic
and the Spirit of Capitalism," Weber attributes the emergence
of capitalism to the Protestant doctrine of salvation and concept
of good works.
Though the original debate centered on the economic virtues
of Protestantism versus Catholicism, today's debate encompasses
the economic effect of all major religions.
In a new study, "People's Opium? Religion and Economic
Attitudes," Luigi Zingales, a professor at the University
of Chicago Graduate School of Business, Luigi Guiso of the University
of Sassari, Italy, and Paolo Sapienza of Northwestern University's
Kellogg School of Management take a new approach to answering
the question of whether religion has an impact on a country's
Previous research on this topic has focused on cross-country
studies. The problem with this approach, however, is the difficulty
of distinguishing between effects that are specific to religion
and those that are specific to the country.
Zingales, Guiso, and Sapienza's new approach focuses on the
differences in religion within a given country, pooled across
66 countries. In doing so they eliminate the spurious effect
of other environmental variables and can focus on the link between
religion and attitudes, such as trust, that have been found
to be conducive to economic growth.
The authors find that religious beliefs are generally associated
with "good" economic attitudes, where "good"
is defined as attitudes conducive to higher per capita income
and growth. Religious people tend to trust others more, trust
the government and legal system more, are less willing to break
the law, and are more likely to believe that markets' outcomes
are fair. There are exceptions, however. Religious people tend
to be more racist and less favorable to the rights of working
Of the six major religious denominations represented in the
survey (Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism,
and Buddhism), the authors find that overall, Christian religions
are more positively associated with attitudes conducive to economic
growth, while Islam is more negatively associated.
The authors based their study on data from the World Values
Survey, a collection of surveys administered to a representative
sample of people in 66 countries from 1981 to 1997, coordinated
by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.
The surveys contain information about demographics (sex, age,
education) and self-reported economic characteristics (income,
social class). These data allow the authors to control for differences
in individual characteristics. The survey also included answers
to specific questions about religion, political preferences,
and economic attitudes, including religious affiliation, intensity
of beliefs (frequency of attending religious service), and whether
or not the person was raised religiously.
The authors analyzed how religion in general, independent of
denomination, affects six groups of variables: 1) attitudes
toward trust and cooperation; 2) attitudes toward working women;
3) attitudes toward the government; 4) attitudes toward legal
rules; 5) attitudes toward the market economy and its fairness;
and 6) attitudes toward thriftiness.
On average, the authors find that religion is positively associated
with attitudes conducive to free markets. Both a religious upbringing
and active religious participation increase trust toward government
institutions and markets. However, being religious is also linked
to greater intolerance toward others and a more conservative
attitude toward working women.
Results are generally the opposite for self-proclaimed atheists:
they are more tolerant of others; less trusting of the government
and the police; have more progressive attitudes towards working
women; trust the legal system less; are more willing to break
the law; and have worse attitudes toward the market and its
Spectrum of Beliefs
In terms of economic impact, the three most relevant attitudes
are: the degree to which people are willing to accept inequality
(for example, in income) in order to provide better incentives;
the degree to which people are willing to support private over
public ownership; and whether people think competition is good.
The authors find that the six denominations differ most in
their position on the trade-off between income equality and
incentives. Catholics and, to a greater extent, Muslims and
Jews are biased in favor of income equality, while Protestants,
Hindus, and Buddhists are more in favor of incentives.
Religious denominations also differ in their attitude toward
private ownership. Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, and Hindus
support private ownership more than the average non-religious
person. In contrast, Muslims show considerably less support
for private ownership.
Regarding competition, Buddhists, Jews, Catholics, and Protestants
support competition, while religious Muslims and Hindus are
strongly opposed to competition.
In addressing attitudes about poverty, the authors find that
religious people of all denominations except Buddhism are more
inclined to believe that the poor are lazy and lack will power,
rather than being short changed by society.
In sum, Buddhism seems to promote the most positive attitudes
toward the free market system, with Christian religions following.
Muslims and Hindus showed the most negative attitudes toward
the free market system.
Based on their findings, the authors suggest that religious
beliefs may explain why capitalism spread so successfully in
East Asia (where Buddhism prevails), while finding less support
in Islamic countries.
For most of the religious denominations represented in the
survey, religion is not necessarily a hindrance to building
support for a market economy. For example, it does not seem
that the relative underdevelopment of Catholic versus Protestant
countries is due to Catholicism itself. However, as Zingales
notes, the religion that stands out in many dimensions is Islam,
because Muslims tend to be opposed to many aspects of the free
market system, including private property, granting incentives,
competition, and tolerance of women's participation in the work
In regards to current events, Zingales observes, "If we
go by these results, I think the Americans trying to build a
market-based democracy in Iraq should be prepared for a wild
Luigi Zingales is Robert C. McCormack Professor of Entrepreneurship
and Finance at the University of Chicago Graduate School of