MSNBC, July 27, 2004
Economists searching for reasons why some nations are richer than others have found that those with a wide belief in hell are less corrupt and more prosperous, according to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
Researchers at the regional Federal Reserve bank acknowledged the importance of productivity and investment in the economic process but looked at some recent unconventional efforts to explain differences in national prosperity.
The St Louis Fed drew on work by outside economists who studied 35 countries, including the United States, European nations, Japan, India and Turkey and found that religion shed some useful light.
“In countries where where large percentages of the population believe in hell, there seems to be less corruption and a higher standard of living,” the St. Louis Fed said in its July quarterly review.
For instance, 71 percent of the U.S. population believe in hell and the country boasts the world’s highest per capita income, according to the 2003 United Nations Human Development Report and 1990-1993 World Values Survey.
Ireland, not far behind the United States in terms of income, likewise has a healthy fear of a nether world with 53 percent of the population acknowledging hell’s existence.
Fire and brimstone
“I’m not surprised,” said the Rev. Eileen Lindner, deputy general secretary of the U.S. National Council of Churches, when told of the results.
“The expectation that there is a cultural belief in hell or perpetual and eternal punishment for wrongdoing will act as a disincentive to wrongdoing,” she said.
The St Louis Fed’s researchers took a two-step approach to linking religion and the economy.
“A belief in hell tends to mean less corruption and less corruption tends to mean a higher per capita income,” they wrote. It correlated the belief in hell findings of the World Value Series with a measure of corruption produced by Transparency International.
It then looked at the relationship between corruption and per capita gross domestic product and found “a strong tendency for countries with relatively low levels of corruption to have relatively high levels of per capita GDP.”
“Combining these two stories . . . suggests that, all else being equal, the more religious a country, the less corruption it will have and the higher its per capita income will be.”
The researchers also noted the long tradition among classical economists to equate a society’s honesty, and the strength of the rule of law, with economic vitality.
“Adam Smith wrote that one of religion’s most important contributions to the economic development process is its value as a moral enforcement mechanism,” they said.
Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan offered a contemporary echo of this view, arguing in a speech earlier this year that modern business still relies on the word of those with whom it deals as he slammed the recent run of corporate governance scandals in the United States for eroding that trust.
None of which cut any ice with nonbelievers.
Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists Inc., called the study the latest gimmick from the religious establishment to drum up government support.
“Religious people cannot rely on their theology to promote what they do so they turn to other things,” she said.
“I cannot imagine what the belief in mythological beings or things that don’t exist can do for business. What about the pornographic industry? That is probably very good for growth.”