What makes economies grow? It’s a question that has occupied thinkers for centuries. Most of us would tick off things like education levels, openness to trade, natural resources, and political systems.
Here’s one you might not have considered: hell.
A pair of Harvard researchers recently examined 40 years of data from dozens of countries, trying to sort out the economic impact of religious beliefs or practices. They found that religion has a measurable effect on developing economies – and the most powerful influence relates to how strongly people believe in hell.
That hell could matter to economic growth might seem surprising, since you can’t prove it exists, let alone quantify it. It stands as one of the more intriguing findings in a growing body of recent research exploring how religion might influence the wealth and prosperity of societies. In recent years, Italian economists have presented findings that religion can boost GDP by increasing trust within a society; researchers in the United States showed that religion reduces corruption and increases respect for law in ways that boost overall economic growth. A number of researchers have documented how merchants used religious backgrounds to establish one another’s reliability.
The notion that religion influences economies has a long history, but the specifics have been vexingly difficult to pin down. Today, as researchers start to answer the question more definitively with the tools of modern economics, what’s emerging is a clearer picture of how nations’ prosperity can depend, in part, on seemingly abstract concerns like theology – and sometimes on quite nuanced points of belief or religious fervor.
The work is preliminary, but offers the hope of useful findings. Knowing exactly how and when God influences mammon could lead to smarter forms of economic development in emerging nations, and could add to our understanding of how culture shapes wealth and poverty. And it stands as part of a larger movement in economics, in which the field is looking beyond purely material explanations to a broader engagement with human culture, psychology, and even our angels and demons.