Is there a link between religion and development?
Data provided by the United Nations and by Gallup polling suggests there is a link - and it isn't favourable to religion. But a closer look suggests there may be more to the story than first meets the eye.
The map below shows the inequality-adjusted Human Development Index. This is a measure that takes into account life expectancy, education, per-capita income, and inequality. The countries that scored best are in dark green, while those that scored worst are in light green.
The second map, in blue, shows the results of the 2009 Gallup poll which asked "Is religion important in your daily life?" The countries in dark blue had the highest percentages answering "Yes", while the countries in light blue had more people answering "No".
Readers with a keen eye will quickly notice the strong inverse correlation between the two maps. That is, countries that were dark in the first map are light in the second map, and vice versa.
In plain English: countries that scored best for human development, were the least religious, while the countries that were the most religious, scored poorly for human development.
So what are we to make of this?
On the face of it, then, these maps would seem to suggest the argument that religion inhibits human development and progress.
It's tempting to conclude (wrongly, in my view) the superiority of western civilisation is the answer. Countries that adopted western liberal democracy, secularism and capitalism seem to be the most successful, while countries that appear to be stuck in dictatorship or theocratic autocracy are the least successful.
The implication would be: religion impedes progress, and the (secular) West is best.
The danger of coming to flawed conclusions
Niall Ferguson made exactly this point in his 2011 book Civilisation: the West and the Rest. In his view, the development of an individualistic society, based on competition, property rights, the scientific revolution, modern medicine, consumerism, and the western work ethic, propelled the west to global dominance. It's no coincidence that Ferguson's wife, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, is well-known for several books such as Infidel: My Life and Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, in which she opposes religion, and in particular religious extremism.
While there is undoubtedly some merit to the arguments made by Ferguson and Hirsi Ali, accepting their conclusions about the superiority of the West, and about the backwardness of religion, plays into the hands of people pushing demeaning racist stereotypes. It can also lead us to justifying western imperialism.
It's no coincidence that Ferguson in particular has been criticised for his pro-empire views, in particular some of his statements about how the British Empire was 'better' for various African countries than what came after independence. While I don't think Ferguson is personally racist, his assumptions about the world play into that narrative.
A similar point (about the 'superiority' of the West and its society) was made by the American intellectual Francis Fukuyama in 1992, when he infamously declared the "end of history" - originally in an essay, that was later turned into a book of the same name. Fukuyama's point is sometimes misunderstood - he wasn't arguing that there would be no more events. He was saying that western civilisation, including capitalism and liberal democracy, had found the best answer to the question "how should society be organised?" And all other alternatives (including religion) had failed. In his view, western society was the ultimate pinnacle of human development, the perfection of mankind, while failed alternatives such as Communism could be consigned to the dustbin of history.
Fukuyama has also had to peddle back significantly from his original statement following 9/11 and subsequent world events, which appeared to contradict his premise. The attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001 showed that other civilisations were not, in fact, willing to just roll over and accept western dominance. And that the importance of religion in public life could not be ignored or dismissed.
Events since 2010 in countries like India, Russia, Turkey, Hungary and elsewhere further underscored that not everyone subscribed to western liberal democracy. Those countries have all slid towards authoritarianism since 2010. In each case, populist leaders have prominently used appeals to religion to justify their actions, and to reinforce their legitimacy.
Weighing up the evidence
So: does religion inhibit human development, or not?
We can't say with certainty that religion causes lower human development. There is a link, but it's unclear whether it is a cause or an effect.
It could be that religion holds greater appeal in places where life is hard and uncertain. It could be that as education and life expectancy improve, the hold of religion loosens. It may even be that reducing the hold of religion over policy-making leads to better outcomes.
Differences between countries include several issues bundled together: economic development, human development, individual rights, and religion. It is difficult to tease these apart, to distinguish whether lack of development makes religion more appealing, or whether religion itself contributes to lack of development.
To make matters even more complicated, the situation of countries today is largely the result of history over the last 250 years, since the 'Great Divergence' between the West and the rest of the world, beginning around 1750. The industrial revolution and the related social, technological and economic changes led to western dominance. Once again, the causes of the Great Divergence are disputed, and it is unclear to what extent geography may have predetermined some of these outcomes.
For instance, the presence of coal in northern Europe, and its scarcity in the Middle East, may have played a role in why things turned out the way they did. Access to the Americas may be another factor, as well as the fragmentation of the West into many competing states, which may have spurred innovation.
Thus it would be too simplistic to say that 'religion inhibits human development'. It would be more true to say there is a correlation.
Guilty as charged?
Nevertheless, a compelling case could be made that the link is more than coincidental. It is no coincidence, for instance, that religion played a role in both the election of Trump in 2016 and the Brexit referendum in the same year. In both cases, religion was invoked to support the cause. In the case of Trump, his anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim stances are well-known, and his "Muslim ban" policy was calculated to appeal to his core supporters.
Similarly in the UK, the pro-Brexit campaigners used anti-Muslim, racist messaging to appeal to their core supporters. Notably, the false claim that Turkey was joining the EU, as well as the 'breaking point' poster depicting Syrian refugees entering Europe (in the event, the UK hardly accepted any Syrian refugees, and Turkey did not join the EU).
Leaving the West aside for a minute, religious theocracies such as Iran and Saudi Arabia are not generally considered very favourably in international opinion or media either, and places such as Pakistan suffer from a very negative image due to media coverage of religious extremism. Likewise, parts of the United States are seen negatively in the outside world, in part for their overt religiosity, especially in the Republican states.
On the other hand, these are all examples of religion and politics mixing together. Religion can also be seen as a personal matter of conscience for individuals. Advocates of religion can also point to the charitable work done by religious organisations such as the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, delivering vital life-saving medicine, food and other supplies to people who need it during emergencies such as wars and natural disasters.
Studies have found that people with a religious affiliation are more likely to donate to charity. One study in the United States found religious households donated $1,590 to charity annually, versus just $695 for non-religious households. Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, an ICM Research poll in 2013 found that Muslims donate more to charity than any other group, with total giving of about £100 million per month, according to figures reported separately in 2019.
Religion is an extremely complex subject, and trying to analyse its effect on a global level, or on the level of countries, runs up against difficulties. Perhaps it is best to conclude that it's complicated. Religion may, on an individual level, be used for good or ill. It is up to the individual to decide how to believe, or not believe, according to their own decision.