Religion and the Hidden Wealth of Nations

I got hold of David Halpern’s The Hidden Wealth of Nations back in December, and was surprised to see earlier today that there are still comparatively few reviews available for this important book. I suppose this is down to the lead time of academic journals (although there is coverage in the New York Times and by the Today programme).

Halpern used to work in government as Chief Analyst at the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, which produced notable reports on social capital and on the economics of well-being inter alia. This most recent book summarises the literature on life satisfaction, social capital, morality and values, and inequality, together with discussion of implications for public policy design. I don’t intend to post a full review here since this is not quite the arena for it, but of great interest was the attention devoted to religion.

Halpern’s discussion of religion is in a chapter called ‘The Politics of Virtue’, concerned with moral behaviour writ large. Despite Britons being generally averse to seeing politicians parade their personal religiosity,

‘an everyday sense of moral values and a shared sense of what is acceptable behaviour, is key to making a society work – it is part of the ‘hidden wealth’ of a successful nation’ (p. 91).

Such inclusion of religion as an aspect of social capital (broadly defined) is comparatively unusual in UK studies. In the broader social sciences, analysts still tend to omit religion or religiosity as an explanatory variable (something which explains other outcomes). This may be for theoretical reasons – for example, because researchers think that ethnicity or ‘authoritarian attitudes’ variables capture the effects they are looking for; or because researchers may see religion as to complex to capture by a single measure.

Halpern uses the religion variables devised for the World Values Survey, which ran in five waves (1981-1984, 1990-1993, 1995-1997, 1999-2004 and 2005-2006 – a sixth is planned for 2010-2012). For example, he presents national-level data on at least weekly religious attendance 1994-2004 plotted against that for 1981-1991: attendance has been falling from previous high levels in Malta, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Poland and most of Western Europe, and notably in India. Attendance has been increasing, however, in Nigeria, Mexico, and Italy (although we can’t tell whether these differences are significant, or whether they may be explained by factors such as an ageing population or demographic change). No change was apparent in Britain or Turkey, which sit on the 45-degree line.

Data is also presented in graph form on beliefs and practice in 1994-2004 in the UK, US, and a third group of ‘all countries’ combined. The categories are: at least weekly attendance at services; belief in the devil, belief in hell; belief in life after death; belief in heaven; reporting that religion is very or rather important in life; reporting that religion gives comfort and strength; and belief in God. UK rates appear to be well below that for the US for every category, and in most cases below that for all countries, except for belief in life after death and heaven (and again we can’t be sure if these differences are significant). A quibble here is my personal dislike for the use of trend lines to link categorical data, which can be visually misleading.

A further chart presents the proportion of respondents of all countries reporting that they follow the Ten Commandments, and the proportion feeling that ‘most people’ follow them. The correlation between individual belief in God is displayed next the proportion feeling that most people follow them. The results for individual following of each of the commandments for the US and UK are also added. The intention is to show that for the most doctrinally demanding commandments – not taking the Lord’s name in vain, not worshipping false idols, not following other gods – the correlation with personal belief in God is high. However, for the commandments to respect parents, keep the Sabbath and to refrain from adultery, the correlation with personal belief in God is weak. Halpern suggests that

‘it used to be that if you knew someone’s religious values within a country, you would have a pretty good sense of what their other moral and ethical values would be. This is much less true today’ (p. 95).

Regarding the secularisation thesis, Halpern suggests:

‘Researchers in the 1970s and 1980s generally expected religiosity to fall. They got the headline trend wrong for a couple of reasons. First, the countries on which early conclusions were based – essentially Western Europe – turn out to be relatively atypical. Second, they were misled by the strong age profile of religious beliefs. Younger people tend to have far less religious beliefs giving the impression that there is a big shift underway towards less religious beliefs. But it turns out that as people age they tend to get more religious, even if they don’t necessarily become as religious as their parents. Third, even within Western Europe, many countries have taken in many immigrants who are more religious than the original citizens. Finally, many researchers are secular, and presumed that a rational world would follow their lead’.

It would be helpful here to have some references, particularly that for the finding of age effects. A reference to Inglehart and Norris’ Sacred and Secular (2003) would have been useful here too. (I also raised an eyebrow at the last point – do we actually know they are secular, or that their world views influence their analysis?)

Belief in God correlates with various moral attitudes: ‘sex outside of marriage, abortion, divorce, homosexuality, suicide and so on’. But crucially he also finds that across European countries ‘there has been a clear and consistent drop in the association between people’s religious beliefs and their moral values’ (p. 95). In contrast, the correlation between beliefs and other values has strengthened in North America.

At the same time, the pattern of change in moral values is broadly similar across Western countries:

‘People have generally become considerably more tolerant of a clutch of personal-sexual behaviours, notably: homosexuality, prostitution, euthanasia, divorce and taking soft drugs… characteriz[ing] a key shift in society towards greater personal-sexual permissiveness’ (pp. 96-97).

There are some values, though, where people have become less tolerant: ‘cheating on taxes, claiming benefits that you are not entitled to or lying in your interest… [and] attitudes to adultery have hardened, despite being strongly correlated with other personal-sexual attitudes that have in general been characterized by increasing tolerance. Unlike most of the other personal-sexual behaviours (such as homosexuality), adultery doesn’t just affect consenting adults, but implies that someone is being cheated and probably hurt’ (p. 97).

In conclusion, ‘We have selectively clipped out the bits we don’t like, such as Hell and the Devil, and religion has become increasingly inconsequential to our other beliefs…. [b]ut there has not been a great moral collapse… patterns of value change are following their own, generally secular, moral logic of development’ (p. 97).

Reflecting on what religion provides to secular societies, he suggests that

‘big questions about ethics and identity in secular societies remain, including whether there is something else that people still look for that secular societies have yet to give them. We noted in Chapter 1 that being religious seems to boost happiness, and our models suggest that around two-thirds of this effect comes from the satisfactions and support received from being part of a community. For some reason, this function doesn’t seem to make it onto Freud’s list. Religious beliefs and practices perhaps offer something that secular societies still struggle to capture – such as around identity, a feeling of connection, and the marking of key transitions in life’ (pp. 97-98).

So, what are the implications, particularly for a policy-facing text concerned with how government should work better to improve citizens’ well-being? In the UK, the established churches exist by statute, while other religions fall largely under the ambit of the Charities Commission. Beyond that, religion falls under the auspices of the Department for Communities and Local Government, as a minorities (or security) issue.

Although personal and social religiosity matters for well-being, it’s not something that governments in secular societies influence directly. Disestablishment is unlikely to be a priority at present. Otherwise, religions are more or less equal and free to operate how they use within the law. To influence religion or religiosity through policy would be more than odd. Nevertheless, this does not stop us from looking at how religion matters, and considering what secular alternatives might need support where people have needs that religion, or religious organisations, can no longer satisfy. This book is an important contribution.

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