'Protestant Ethic' 2.0: The New Ways Religion Is Driving Economic Outperformance

Church near Wall Street.jpg

In this season when most Americans are more concerned than usual with spiritual matters, it may be time to ask whether religion still matters. Certainly religiosity’s worst side has been amply on display in recent years, from the fanaticism of Islamic terrorists to the annoying sanctimoniousness of Rick Santorum.

On the surface, religion appears to be losing some of its historic influence. For the first time in a decade, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center, more Americans — excepting the Santorum base — want their politicians to talk less about faith as opposed to more.

Organized religion in particular may be losing its appeal, particularly among the young. According to recent surveys, religious affiliation in the United States appears to be declining somewhat and secularism is on the rise; over the past 40 years the percentage professing no religious affiliation has grown over 140 percent while the percentage of the deeply faithful dropped 15%. The share of the population who claim “no religion” has risen to 15% overall and 22% of those between 18 and 29, notes a 2009 study by researchers at Trinity College. If these trends continue, the non-affiliated could represent a larger part of our population than the largest denomination, the Catholic Church.

In large parts of the high-income world, notably Europe and parts of East Asia, the decline of religion is even more pronounced. Half of all Europeans, for example, have never attended a religious service, compared to just 20% of Americans. Roughly 60% of Americans, notes the Pew survey, consider religion important, twice the rate of Koreans, Japanese, Britons or even Canadians.

Given that some of these countries have performed about as well or better than the U.S. in recent years, one might conclude that the historic link between religious faith and material progress — so central to the work of Max Weber – has been irretrievably broken. Yet in reality, the religious connection with economic growth may be still far more important than is commonly supposed.

Many in the pundit class identify religion as something of a regressive tendency, embraced by the less enlightened, the less skilled, intelligent and educated. Yet some scholars, such as Charles Murray, point out that religious affiliation is weakening most not among the middle and upper classes but among the poorer and less educated who traditionally looked to churches for succor and moral instruction. Secularism may have not hurt the uber-rich or the academic overclass so far, but it appears to have helped expand our lumpenproleteriat.

Some might be surprised to learn that religious affiliation grows with education levels. A new University of Nebraska study finds that with each additional year of education, the odds of attending religious services increased by 15%. The educated, the study found, may not be eschewing religion, as social science has long maintained, even if their spiritual views tend to be less narrow, and less overtly tied to politics, than among the less schooled.

Overall the most cohesive religious groups — such as Mormons and Jews — still outperform their religious counterparts both in educational achievement and income. Both Jews and Mormons focus on helping their co-religionists, providing a leg up on those who depend solely on the charity of others or the state. In countries with a substantial historical Protestant influence such as Germany, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands continue to outperform economic the heavily Catholic nations like Italy, Ireland and Spain, according to a recent European study. The difference, they speculate, may be in Protestant traditions of self-help, frugality and emphasis on education. None of this, of course, would have been surprising to Max Weber.

Religious people also tend to live longer and suffer less disabilities with old age, as author Murray notes. Researchers at Harvard, looking at dozens of countries over the past 40 years, demonstrated that religion reinforces the patterns of personal virtue, social trust and willingness to defer gratification long associated with business success.

But perhaps the most important difference over time may be the impact of religion on family formation, with weighty fiscal implications. In virtually every part of the world, religious people tend to have more children than those who are unaffiliated. In Europe, this often means Islamic families as opposed to increasingly post-Christian natives. Decline in religious affiliation — not just Christian but also Buddhist and Confucian — seems to correlate with the perilously low birthrates in both Europe and many East Asian countries.

Singapore-based pastor Andrew Ong sees a direct connection between low birthrates and weakened religious ties in advanced Asian countries. As religious ideas about the primacy of family fade, including those rooted in Confucianism, they are generally supplanted by more materialist, individualistic values. “People don’t value family like they used to,” he suggests. “The values are not there. The old values suggested that you grow up. The media today encourages people not to grow up and take responsibility. They don’t want to stop being cool. When you have kids, you usually are less cool.”

Religious people, prepared to be seen as uncool, are more likely to seek to produce more offspring. In the United States 47% of people who attend church regularly see the ideal family size as three or more children compared to barely one quarter of the less observant. Mormons have many more children than non-Mormons; observant Jews more than secular. “Faith,” the demographer Phil Longman concludes, “is increasingly necessary as a motive to have children.”

This pattern is reflected in the geography of childbearing. Where churches are closing down, most particularly in core urban areas such as Boston or Manhattan, as well as their metropolitan regions, singletons and childless couples are increasing. In more religiously oriented metropolitan areas like Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Salt Lake City and Phoenix, the propensity to have children is 15% to nearly 30% higher (as measured by the number of children under the age of 5 per woman of child bearing age– 15-49).

In the future, many high-income societies, whether in East Asia, Europe or North America, may find that religious people’s fecundity is a necessary counterforce to rapid aging and eventual depopulation of the more secular population . The increasingly perilous shape of public finance in almost all advanced countries — largely the result of rapid aging and diminished workforces — can be ascribed at least in part to secularization’s role in falling birthrates.

There may be other positive fiscal effects of religiosity. Religious people donate on average far more to charities than their secular counterparts, including those unaffiliated with a religion. Nearly 15% of the religious volunteer every week compared to just 10% among the secular.

Social networks, much celebrated among the single, might provide people with voices, but religious organizations actually do something about meeting real human needs. Organized religion provides a counterweight to the European notion that we must rely on government for everything. Poor people educated or fed by the charities of mosques, churches, and synagogues relieves some of the burden faced by our variously tottering states and shredding social welfare nets. Aging baby boomers, notes author Ted Fishman, may be forced to rely more on the “kindness of strangers” from religious backgrounds to take care of them in their old age.

Sadly few prominent religious leaders deliver this message effectively, often preferring to scold non-believers. This is unfortunate since what the faithful do in the real world, at home and in their communities, may prove ever more crucial to the viability of our societies in the future.

This piece originally appeared in Forbes.com.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and contributing editor to the City Journal in New York. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.

Church near Wall Street photo by Flickr user Roger Schultz.



















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The rise of doctrine has attention-grabbing implications for suburbs. within the south for the last thirty years, no planned communities to my information ever enclosed land use for sacred house. It merely is not a part of a developer's land use set up. non secular facilities typically get engineered on very little leftover pockets of house, on existing campuses, or among repurposed retail house. All of that area unit B locations. http://www.nectarclaims.co.uk

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It simply isn't part of a developer's land use plan. Religious facilities generally get built on little leftover pockets of space, on existing campuses, or within repurposed retail space. All of which are B locations.event registrations

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dying faster than it's growing

The rise of secularism has interesting implications for suburbs. In the south for the last 30 years, no planned communities to my knowledge ever included land use for sacred space. It simply isn't part of a developer's land use plan. Religious facilities generally get built on little leftover pockets of space, on existing campuses, or within repurposed retail space. All of which are B locations.

Meanwhile, A-location churches in the older urban centers are experiencing somewhat of a renaissance, with remodeling and expansion happening. Affluent members can foot the bill for this.

The church-planting movement acknowledges that their effort to create new Christian-based worship houses amounts to treading water: for each new church "planted," another one closes up.

This might be worth a bit closer look to find a trendline that could prove interesting. Religious institutions may be suffering at the hands of economic institutions, but they shouldn't be counted out just yet.

Richard T. Reep, AIA, LEED-AP
Adjunct Professor, Rollins College
2011 President, Orlando AIA

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There is nothing more rewarding than working with an Aktion Club. My husband and i look forward to attending their meetings and going to the Aktion Club convention with them.
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Another group to look at

Hi Joel,

Maybe you came across this group when doing your research, but I didn't see it noted here. Take a look at the Reformed Church (RCA) & Christian Reformed Church (CRC) denominations. It's members are largely people of Dutch ethnic heritage and decent. This group is probably a better example then Mormons and Jews for the point you are making, as this group is smaller (about 600,000 people). But the average income and educational attainment is likely similar to Mormons and Jews, maybe even higher.

Also there is a high number of entrepreneurs (some known nationally, such as Wayne Huizenga, Jay Van Andel and Richard DeVos). and some well known big businesses from Waste Management to Amway that came from this group. Also highly rated private grade & high schools to colleges are operated as well. Also a system of retirement homes has developed. Many people even today manage to work and live almost entirely within this group. There are few who aren't at least lower middle class. Most are small business people, tradespeople or professionals.

Western Michigan is the center of both churches, but there are clusters in most mid-west states and places like NJ and California. The success of the Dutch ethic group is directly tied to membership in these mostly identical church denominations. Yes, I am a member of the CRC.

Hi Prof Kotkin, Interesting

Hi Prof Kotkin, Interesting article. I have always thought, without anything more than my own perceptions as back up, that religious people tend to be "good" people at heart, compared to some other individuals I have come across in my life, not only in business, but in community too. I'd generalize and say that they typically are not self focused, and like you said, they donate and volunteer more, attend to charity needs, etc.

As far as the children aspect, I wish more people in the business arena would realize that children are not a business decision, but rather a conscious fulfillment of an individual's religious beliefs. And, if the workplace openly respected that (and was less focused on immediate results and maternity leave challenges), employers may find that those same drivers that lead believers to have more than the average number of children, drive their professional results as well.

As a mother who worked during during the 5 years I gave birth to my 3 children, I experienced the feedback from those who just couldn't understand the "religiosity" as you call it.

Anyway, just some very good points about religions place in this world, the workforce, etc I think.

Josanna

thank you

thank you for your kind comments...i agree but would see this as more spiritual than simply religious

joel

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