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Economic growth does not lead to a more secular society, report says

27 July 2018

ECONOMIC growth has not caused societies to become more secular, as has often been thought, a new study suggests.

The study, Religious Change Preceded Economic Change in the 20th Century, is published by the online journal Science Advances, by researchers from the Universities of Bristol and Tennessee.

It uses data from birth cohorts from the World Values Survey “to get a measure of the importance of religion spanning the entire 20th century (1900 to 2000)”, a press release from the University of Bristol says.

The study says that “across a diversity of countries around the world, changes in secularisation 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 secularisation in the past.”

The lead researcher, Damian Ruck, from the University of Bristol, said: “Our findings show that secularisation precedes economic development, and not the other way around. However, we suspect the relationship is not directly causal. We noticed that secularisation only leads to economic development when it is accompanied by a greater respect for individual rights.

“Very often, secularisation is, indeed, accompanied by a greater tolerance of homosexuality, abortion, divorce, etc. But that isn’t to say that religious countries can’t become prosperous. Religious institutions need to find their own way of modernising and respecting the rights of individuals.”

Another of the study’s authors, Professor Alex Bentley, from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee, said: “Over the course of the 20th century, changes in importance of religious practices appear to have predicted changes in GDP across the world.

“This doesn’t necessarily mean that secularisation caused economic development, since both changes could have been caused by some third factor with different time lags, but at least we can rule out economic growth as the cause of secularisation in the past.”

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