A recently published study has found that countries that become more secular tend to become more prosperous following their loss of religion. Who would have thought?! Thanks a lot, God!
The researchers looked at data on 109 countries over the course of the 20th century. They found a pattern of secularization preceding economic growth.
This seems to answer some longstanding questions about whether secularization leads to economic growth, or if it is the fruits of economic growth (technology and cultural progress) that lead to a diminished role for religion in society.
The link between religion's role in a society, and the wealth of that society, has been known for decades. The researchers in this study noted that the poorest nations tend to be highly religious.
Damian Ruck, the study's lead researcher at the University of Bristol said, "We suspect the relationship is not directly causal. We noticed that secularization only leads to economic development when it is accompanied by a greater respect for individual rights.”
One of the study's co-authors, Dr. Alex Bentley from the University of Tennessee, said, "Over the course of the 20th century, changes in importance of religious practices appear to have predicted changes in GDP across the world. This doesn't necessarily mean that secularization caused economic growth, since both changes could have been caused by some third factor with different time lags, but at least we can rule out economic growth as the cause of secularization in the past."
The researchers noted in their study that tolerance appears to have a stronger role in economic growth than secularization. As stated in the study, "Tolerance of individual rights appears to be closer to an ultimate driver, in that more people are included in economic activity, especially women."
The researchers go on to say, "The tolerance factor, which is most highly loaded on individual rights for divorce and abortion and therefore likely to correlate with women’s rights generally, was a better temporal predictor of GDP per capita than the secularization factor."
I am reminded of something that Christopher Hitchens often spoke about, especially in his criticism of Mother Theresa and the Catholic Church. You can watch him discuss it in this video beginning around the :40 mark. He said that Mother Theresa "preached against the only thing that can abolish poverty, which is the empowerment of women. Give women some control over their own reproductive cycle, particularly with contraception. Give them a chance to get off the wheel of a husband who forces annual pregnancies on them, many of which are going to die. You do that, and you can raise the floor of the poorest village in Bolivia or Bangladesh."
While further studies need to be done to corroborate these findings, it is another nail in the coffin for apologists who claim that society "needs religion" for morality and societal health generally.