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Tuesday 21 May 2019
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Religion can guide us to values of growth

Kiran Mathur Mohammed
Kiran Mathur Mohammed



Each Ash Wednesday, a collective sense of guilt hits the country. Thoughts of the Lord (usually accompanied by a splitting headache) alight upon those least inclined to piety.

We are a religious country. The vast majority of us are practising members of one faith or the other. Most schools are run by religious orders. We have dozens of religious festivals, whether they be Christian, Hindu, Muslim or any number of other creeds. Indeed, the gentle co-existence of these religions is an integral part of our national narrative.

Yet religious faith of all kinds (Humanism included) receives curiously little attention from business analysts or social scientists. It makes sense that we should look at the role of faith in boosting growth.

So how can faith and religion contribute to sustainable and inclusive economic growth? By boosting values, confidence, and trust.

A small but expanding body of research is pointing to the ability of religion to shape people’s values and thus their economic behaviour. The father of sociology, Max Weber, made the first and most famous argument along this line. He believed that the relative wealth of northern Europe was attributable to a “Protestant work ethic” arising from the spread of values like hard work and thrift.

Since they were first espoused, claims like this have been hotly debated. Sascha Becker and Ludger Woessmann have argued that it was actually the Lutheran idea that Christians should be able to read the Bible that led to Protestants’ relative wealth.

Yet a consensus has emerged that faith does affect people’s values, and can do so in a way that drives growth.

One way this works is when religious guidelines encourage actions that boost economic development. The Catholic order of Cistercian monks has for centuries promoted a spiritual ideal expressed in thrift and hard work. Recently, economists at the University of Copenhagen presented evidence that British counties where Cistercians were more influential were relatively more productive.

Using the European Values Surveys, they found that the effect held. Centuries later, areas closer to old Cistercian monasteries still place greater emphasis on values regarding the importance of “hard work” and thrift across European Catholics. In the words of the New Testament’s Colossians: “Whatever you do, work heartily.”

Another example is the Hindu concept of dharma, which prescribes duties for each stage of life. It is a broad concept that amongst other things includes studying, earning and caring for one’s family. As Waleed El-Ansari at Xavier University has written, dharma includes obligations to both God and the neighbour (including the non-human neighbour, or the environment); following a correct way to accomplish one’s goals and duties; and other related concepts that have major implications for the production and exchange processes.

Beyond specific edicts, religious faith can give people more confidence and belief in the future. Robert Barro and Rachel McCleary have examined the influences of religious participation and beliefs on countries’ rate of economic progress. Using six international surveys over some 20 years, they measured religious beliefs across 59 countries. They found that: "increases in some religious beliefs – notably heaven, hell, and an afterlife – tend to increase economic growth."

The power of religion to enable trust and co-operation cannot be overstated. Recently, a radical development project in India saw thousands of Dawoodi Ismaili Muslims sell homes and businesses to their governing religious trust. The trust then tore down 250 dilapidated buildings. It is now building a solid new development, which the former residents can expect to move into after a spell in temporary accommodation. As economist Alex Tabarrok has pointed out, such a development would normally be impossible amidst Mumbai’s chaotic ownership and land titles, a slow court system and too-frequent politicisation. And the Dawoodi’s sense of religious obligation was key to overcoming objections from stubborn hold-outs.

Though carried out by a particular sub-sect of Islam, projects like this would chime with many Muslims’ reading of the Qur’an: “Seek from the bounty of Allah, and remember Allah often that you may succeed.”

Of course, there are ways that religion might inhibit growth. But what the research does show is that religion can be a powerful vehicle for economic and social good. Particularly when religious communities encourage trust, hope and growth-enabling values.

In 2015, global religious and faith-based leaders convened at the World Bank to commit to ending extreme poverty by 2030. Our religious communities can come together to support progress, both temporal and spiritual. As individuals, we can do the same. That is something worth praying for.

Kiran Mathur Mohammed is a social entrepreneur, economist and businessman. He is a former banker, and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh.

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