The Spiritual Capital of Successful Countries

by Roger Alford

Paul Marshall has an interesting op-ed in the Washington Post on the spiritual capital of successful countries. I know Marshall well and his analysis seems exactly right to me.

In the piece he discusses a fascinating World Values Survey, which includes a cultural map of the world, pictured at left (click to enlarge). That map divides the world according to two major dimensions: the Traditional/Secular-rational dimension and the Survival/Self-Expression dimension.

Although Marshall doesn’t mention international law, I think it follows from his discussion that scholars should be much more open to the study of the impact of religion on international law and international relations. Here is an excerpt:

Religion does not exist in isolation. It concerns and shapes our fundamental view of the nature of human life and how it is and should be lived. This realization has come home in politics, especially international politics. Obviously, when we are under attack by people whose ideology we cannot understand unless we delve into the history of Islamic law and theology, we must learn to take their religious doctrines seriously.

The future is likely to bring many more debates on how religion shapes not only politics but economics…. Robert Barro and Rachel McCleary of Harvard University have used the results of World Values Surveys to study the relation between religion and economic attitudes. They found that many religious beliefs concerning cooperation, government, working women, legal rules, thriftiness and the market economy are conducive to higher per-capita income and growth. Religion appears to have an effect on economic growth and development by fostering thrift, a work ethic, honesty and openness to strangers. This has lead to the notion of “spiritual capital,” analogous to human capital, which focuses on knowledge and behavior stemming from transcendent concepts and ultimate concerns.

Their model stresses the importance of freedom, not only in economics per se, but in religion itself. Religion most often has positive effects when it is free. This model is reinforced by the results of our recently concluded survey of international religious freedom. The countries with the worst religious freedom records, including Burma, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, have, unless they have oil, terrible economic records. Similar relations hold for those in the middle and for those with high levels of freedom: The highest 30 countries in rankings of economic freedom all scored highly on religious freedom.

Barro and McCleary’s work suggests that this is more than a mere correlation: There is good reason to think that religious freedom leads to good economic outcomes. The current evidence indicates that closed religious systems hamper economic development. Hence, if we want economic growth and development, we need to permit religious groups and people to follow their beliefs. In this case, economists should join political scientists in examining religion more seriously.

Whether we like it or not, religion is likely to remain central to politics, and even economics. This means that in the future, politicians, Democrats as well as Republicans, are likely to expand their talk of religion on the campaign trail. We should not dismiss this as if religion were a mere irrational prejudice or interest-group totem. We should instead demand that politicians address these fundamental issues in a serious, coherent and empirically grounded way. If they do not do so, they (and we) will misunderstand our all-too-religious world.

2 Responses

  1. I’ll refrain from addressing any specific claims or arguments broached here, but simply want to concur with the general tenor of the post. It really is appalling the extent to which my fellow citizens are abysmally ignorant of religions across the globe, and even the traditions in which they were raised (not a few students are convinced that Catholicism is not a Christian religion, and an equal number are uncritically attracted to New Age nonsense). I’ve had so many students come through my classes saying something like, “Mr. O’Donnell, I was raised as a X but feel like I don’t really know anything about X apart from (fill in the blank: a specific belief or ritual). A conspicuous problem is the lack of exposure to material about religions in our secondary schools, partly out of fear of “teaching religion” (some sort of indoctrination) rather than “teaching about religion(s).” And I suspect it’s still difficult, even at the college level, to find instructors capable of teaching in a fair, even-handed manner the kinds of survey/introductory courses one is first exposed to in the college curriculum. Finally, there’s the debate about the value of such introductory/survey courses, which I attempted to defend in a letter that was posted in part at the Mirror of Justice Blog (Catholic legal theory) on March 14th of last year (see too the post on ‘religious literacy’ on the same date).

    Public educational institutions need to be strongly committed to teaching about “religions” (or ‘worldviews,’ which would encompass ideologies that function like religions as well as those belief systems that are strongly nationalist or political in orientation but indelibly yoked to a religious tradition or sub-tradition, sect, cult, what have you. The first generation of brilliant sociologists and anthropologists (Weber, Durkheim, Malinowski…) were very interested in religions, however much they might have been guilty of cruder forms of reductionism or subject to debilitating biases of some sort. Today there are programs in Religion(s) (Religious Studies, History of Religions, Philosophy and Religion, etc., as well as specialized programs in various geographical regions and traditions) that have overcome many of the shortcomings of those pioneers. But as yet there is little incentive or encouragement that might increase the socio-cultural effects of such programs (it would help, in other words, if programs in, say, IL, required a course or two on religion(s)). Of course it doesn’t help matters, as I said above, that many of the students who do elect to take the courses offered have virtually no prior academic exposure to the subject.

  2. Erratum: please insert a closed parenthesis after “you” at the end of the first sentence in the second para.

    And “The first generation of…was very interested….”

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