Menus Subscribe Search

Findings

empty-church

(Photo: James Steidl/Shutterstock)

Atheism Linked to Economic Innovation, Productivity

• February 28, 2014 • 2:00 AM

(Photo: James Steidl/Shutterstock)

Two economists find an association between the percentage of non-believers in a state and the most productive sort of entrepreneurial activity.

American prosperity is often attributed, at least in part, to the Protestant work ethic. According to this school of thought, our religion-inspired productivity contributes greatly to a growing economy.

Newly published research questions whether that truism is actually true. Using state-level data, it finds an inverse relationship between the practice of religion and what the researchers call “productive entrepreneurship”—that is, entrepreneurial activity that genuinely leads to economic growth.

And in a surprise kicker, two economists report this desirable type of entrepreneurship is associated with a greater percentage of atheists and agnostics in a state’s population.

The percentage of a state’s residents who are self-described Christians is “robustly correlated” with a lower score in productive entrepreneurship.

Apparently the non-believer work ethic is also fairly formidable.

“One possibility is that productive entrepreneurial activities are largely substitutes for religious ones,” write Travis Wiseman of Mississippi State University and Andrew Young of West Virginia University. Their paper is published in the Journal of Institutional Economics.

The researchers used religion data from a variety of sources: the Pew Form’s 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey; the Gallup Poll’s State of the States surveys from 2004 and 2008; and the Census Bureau’s Religious Congregation and Membership Study of 2000 and 2010.

They specifically looked at the religious affiliation of each state’s residents, as well as their religiosity. The latter was determined by four factors: regular attendance at religious services, strong belief in God, regular prayer, and viewing one’s religion as “very important.”

“Productive entrepreneurship” was calculated using a combination of new businesses created, new businesses created with 500 or more employees, per-capita venture capital investments, patents per capita, and the growth rate of self-employment.

Wiseman and Young found all of the religious variables they tracked “tend to correlate negatively and significantly” with a state’s productive entrepreneurship score. One striking example: The percentage of a state’s residents who are self-described Christians is “robustly correlated” with a lower score in productive entrepreneurship.

“Interestingly, the percent of the population that is atheist/agnostic is positively and significantly related to a state’s productive entrepreneurship score,” they add.

“This could be because religion imposes opportunity costs in terms of time and resources that may otherwise have been devoted toward productive entrepreneurship,” the researchers speculate. Another possibility, they add, is that religion “may create psychic costs to pursuing worldly gains.”

Of course, one can differ with Wiseman and Young as to what specifically constitutes productive entrepreneurship. But their intriguing findings suggest that, when it comes to creating new products and new businesses, religion may be more of a hindrance than a help.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.