Faith Without Economic Growth is Dead

I recently spent a few weeks in the hinterlands of Utah where I found myself admiring again the Mormon pioneers, many of whom not only crossed the plains but then left the relatively verdant Salt Lake Valley to settle what even today looks like forsaken desert. As I drove through those dusty towns in Southern Utah I wondered what beliefs inspired them enough to leave everything they had ever known and walk into such an uninviting place. My appreciation grew still further, when, after four days of camping, Gigi told me she was sick of looking at red rocks and asked to go back to Salt Lake. This in turn led me to think of a study I read recently which found that there is a positive association between belief in heaven or hell and economic growth which can be found at this link:

The authors of the study hypothesize that religion affects economic outcomes by fostering religious beliefs that then influence individual traits such as thrift, work ethic, honesty and openness to strangers and that belief in heaven or hell affects these traits by creating rewards and punishments. Interestingly, measured in economic terms, belief in hell appears to motivate more than belief in heaven–and professed belief in God alone (w/ no concept of heaven or hell attached) motivates people little or none. Or, as the authors of the study put it “professed belief in God may signify little about the religious convictions that motivate economic performance”.

My gut tells me that the pioneers were motivated more by a belief in heaven than a belief in hell. The Mormon concept of hell, after all, is more comforting than that associated with most Christian religions I am familiar with. And all of the stories and anecdotes I have heard over the years suggest that the pioneers were very focused on building the kingdom of God–both on this earth and the next. It seems to me that we (or perhaps just I?) are much less focused on that concept that we used to be. We mention it from time to time, but the absence of a collective struggle to build an empire in largely unsettled territory means that the kingdom of God has shifted from the tangible to the ethereal. I consider the temple, however, as one place where we continue to focus on building the kingdom and engage in a collective work that may not benefit us personally but contributes to the kingdom as a whole.

A few other unrelated but interesting points–the study mentioned above also found that economic activity suffered when people attended church–labeling beliefs as the output of the religious sector which can affect economic growth and church attendance as the inputs of the religious sector which consume economic performance. A quick Google search confirms that T&S and Brayden King scooped this study some months ago–Jim Falconer briefly blogged about it on T&S back in Feb and Brayden wrote about it in Jan.

Considering all of the variables the authors’ of this study where to trying to control for, I take their results with a grain of salt, but I think that heaven and hell are certainly powerful motivators for those who truly believe in them and it seems certain that the actions motivated by those beliefs would have some economic effect. To take another example, I’ve read theories that trade stagnated during the middle ages in part because of European societies’ taboos against usury and the profit motive.


  1. Christina,

    I agree that the early saints were quite millennial and many had an expectation that the second coming would occur in their lifetime. But it seems to me that if there was a pervasive and deep belief that the end was just around the corner you could expect to find much less planting, sowing, building and colonizing than was actually observed. If someone thought she would sign up for plural marriage because it would only be for a few years, you would also expect her to balk at the long-term commitment that settlement building required after a few years. I don’t know if this was a wide spread phenomenon or not, but as far as I have read it seems like the majority of saints went to St. George or wherever else they were sent, tried to construct damns that repeatedly washed out and stuck to the arduous tasks assigned to them. There were people who gave up and returned to Salt Lake or the East, but my impression is that these people were part of a small minority.


    I agree that religions have to compete on a market for adherents and that the beliefs and practices of those religions will determine whether they prosper or disappear. Perhaps this is one reason why Mormonism has become more mainstream in our beliefs–we wouldn’t experience the growth we desire otherwise. On the other hand, it is worth noting that this isn’t a race to the bottom–churches experiencing the highest growth rates are those that require more of their people–those that require nothing or have no real tenants that differentiate them from a bowl of mush are dead on the vine. As the study I cited suggests, belief in God without more motivates people to do very little (thus rendering them largely irrelevant in my view).

    You comment about out competing other religions sounds like Weber. But I’m skeptical about explaining disparate economies on the basis of religion. No doubt that being a committed Muslim takes a lot of time–and as the authors of the study I cited suggest, attending church correlates negatively with economic growth. But Mormon’s also spend a lot of time in church and give a large chunk of their cash to the church as well–yet I don’t know that they are lagging other groups economically. Another problem that I see is separating out religion from the culture–if a Mormon has 10 kids, is that religious or cultural? I like this study because the authors tried to link economic growth to what are generally considered core religious variables.

  2. Hell House is in Texas — apparently quite near to the Dallas suburb where Sumer grew up. I only know because we rented the EXCELLENT documentary of the same name. I highly recommend it to all.

    It’s strange how our three degrees of glory have really watered down Hell. Maybe we don’t emphasize enough the anguish and suffering of the damned. I would also like to see a return to ironic Hells.

  3. john fowles says:

    I agree with Steve: in the early days, building Zion was viewed much like created a new Islamic caliphate, in which the law of God would govern, the Saints would live according to the United Order, and Fourth Nephi would essentially again occur on our hemisphere. Mathew, you are right on in noting that our collective emphasis has relocated that empire/Zion building to the ethereal. But this was done out of the practicalities of emigration as we moved into the 20th century (in my estimation).

    On the issue of faith being dead without economic growth, I agree with the observation but would like to point out that it seems a very Calvinistic view. In that view, those who prosper economically prove themselves to be those chosen by God–those predestined to be his followers. This is a crass oversimplification of the intricacies of Calvinistic theology but it does seem to have played itself out that way in the Netherlands and in the USA from the very beginning. In fact, it still seems to be a fundamental of old-school Northeastern WASP society, even if the centuries have tempered it somewhat through secularization resulting from commercialized materialism.

  4. Judy Brooks says:

    I don’t have statistics, but I’d dare say that MOST of the Mormon pioneers were leaving lives of penury and desolation and hoping for a better life in another place. This was surely true of the English handcart pioneers. You just need to read a few records of how life was in England at that time.

    Most of my ancestors went from poverty to a little bit less than poverty when they joined up with the church.

  5. I suspect the decline in the doctrinal importance of Hell is related to the mainstreaming of Mormonism.

    Like any religious system, Mormonism has to compete on the open market for converts. Mormonims, in other words, must supply what consumers demand, and consumers don’t want to much Hell in their religious diet. Let’s face it: Hell sucks.

    In my understanding, Hell tends to flourish as a concept in insular communities such as small fundamentalist churches and in dictatorships (such as those in the Arab world) where religions do not compete in a free market for adherents.

    Freedom, in other words, forces religions to compete, and when religions compete they become less ruthless and their doctrines less brutal.

  6. Karen: But “you aren’t going to make it into the celestial kingdom” just doesn’t roll off the toung as nicely as “you are going to hell.”

  7. Mat,

    You’re right, my comments have a strong Weberian tilt. I think it’s a good framework, though I’d add that I don’t use the word “compete” in just it’s economic sense. A religion might enable a culture to outcompete its rivals by sanctioning ruthlessness or brutality — e.g. suicide bombings or the slave trade.

  8. Mat,
    I’m not convinced that the pioneers were focused on building heaven on earth so much as they were on building themselves toward heaven. Early Mormons were more millenial than we are – just as early Christians themselves were. In this, most of all, we see parallels between early Mormon practice and early Christian practice, which I think account for such radical practices as polygamy. If you think something will guarantee your entry into heaven and you don’t think you’ll actually have to live with it on earth very long (presumably one thought that such problems would prove ephemeral in the afterlife) . Case in point with polygamy: when the millenial fever started to wear off, (into the late 1860s and on), the divorce rate rose dramatically. Why? Because people realized they had to live on the earth for longer than they had anticipated. A mediocre plural marriage might be a little more unbearable if it lasted 20 years rather than 2.

  9. Nate, I was just making that point to someone who was talking about “Hell House,” the haunted house in Arkansas (?) that tries to scare kids out of risky behaviors by showing the dire consequences, including going to hell. My friend was trying to imagine a Mormon version. Somehow it doesn’t seem that a graphic portrayal of the “telestial kingdom” would have the same effect :)

  10. Non-Mormon party crasher alert!

    These studies are fascinating. Christians often remark that the sheer resilience of religious belief in the face of human suffering implies the “Truth” of those beliefs. Studies like the one Mat cites suggest the more plausble explanation, however: certain religious beliefs – such as the one in heaven and hell – foster the sort of social cooperation that makes the survival of a particular religious community more likely over the long term. Thus, rather than saying that widespread religious beliefs are somehow “True,” we should probably just infer that they confer survival advantages that have helped Christians, for example, to outcompete Aztecs.

    This doesn’t preclude metaphysics, of course. One could still have faith in the Truth of one’s beliefs. One should, however, be pretty cautious about infering Truth from the simple fact of a religion’s success.

  11. Regarding the discussion of “hell.” I’ve always thought that our lack of belief in a traditional hell is an extremely overlooked and to some extent misunderstood doctrine…even by our own people. Most Mormons I know still use the symantec shortcuts of “heaven” and “hell” although they aren’t an accurate representation of our precise beliefs. Further, I think that there is a tendency to make that shortcut in our minds as well….”I shouldn’t sin, because I’ll suffer for it in the next life” rather than “I shouldn’t sin because it impedes spiritual growth.”

    Basically, if one were to take as an assumption that we use our “attractive doctrines” to compete for converts, then we’re under-utilizing this one. Now I’m not saying what that proves…it could be that Jeff’s theory of competition in the religious sphere is flawed, or it could just prove that Mormons are a bit slow on the uptake…:o)

  12. Something I thought of reading this post on building Zion on earth, whether it be the physical Zion or not is this thought.

    When the challenges we face are external many times the efforts we display in our faith will manifest themselves externally. Thus the early saints who were evicted from their homes and crossed the vast wilderness of this country manifested thier faith in the physical building up of Zion.

    We as a generation have inherrited the infrastructure created by our parents. There is very little left for us to explore or colonize. Stakes and Wards are established as we expand our missionary efforts but many of the places in the world where the greatest physical challenges may be are out of our local sphere. As a result the saints in the US are left facing many internal struggles, pornography, infidelity, pride, etc.

  13. The difficulty is that the Church is much less focused on “building the kingdom” in a literal sense than it used to be. My sense is that early church leaders believed in literal kingdom-building, and set forth to do just that. Now that the kingdom consists of spiritual boundaries and stakes, the challenge is much less tangible and more difficult to work towards.

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