Richard Godden: “The Wealth of Religions” by R. M. McCleary and R. J. Barro

The Wealth of Religions is an unusual book. It is subtitled, “The Political Economy of Believing and Belonging” and its authors, one an economist and the other a moral philosopher (who, as it happens, are married to one another), seek to present a multidisciplinary approach to issues at the interface between religion and economics. They say that they “are interested in the economic costs and benefits of holding certain religious beliefs and the influence of those beliefs on behavior” (page 4) and that their central approach “is the application of economic and political principles to the study of religions across countries and over time” (page 9).

The book is divided into two sections: the first looks at the interplay between religion and economic growth whilst the second deals with issues associated with the connection between religion and political economy. The first takes as its starting point Max Weber’s famous argument relating to the protestant work ethic, although the authors’ arguments are not by any means identical to those of Weber; the second is particularly indebted to what the authors regard as Adam Smith’s ingenuity in applying his market model to religious goods and services “as if they were analogous to brands of toothpaste” (page 106).

The book has severe limitations. It is based on short articles published over the past couple of decades and it fails to disguise this; despite only being a short book (172 pages), there is a significant amount of repetition and there is an element of miscellany about its contents, particularly in the second section. Some of the material is frustratingly general (e.g. the section relating to the impact of religion on economic growth) whilst some of it is so specific that it will not interest many readers (e.g. the 23 page chapter relating to beatifications and canonisations by the last three popes). The result is that the book lacks an overarching argument or sense of direction, and it is unlikely that many readers will be interested in all of it.

Nonetheless, the book addresses interesting and thought provoking questions and the diversity of its material has an upside: any reader who is interested in either the interaction between economics and religion or the way in which economic concepts may have an impact upon organised religion will find something engaging in it.

This mixture of the unsatisfactory and the engaging is exemplified by the second chapter, which explores how the economy and the regulatory system influence religion in society. John Wesley famously observed that, as people become richer, they become less devout and the authors wish to test this observation (the so-called “secularisation hypothesis”). Many readers will be impatient that it takes the authors 12 pages to come to what they will regard as a blindingly obvious conclusion: “we find a strong negative effect on all measures of religiosity from higher economic development” (page 28). However, the authors also discuss some less obvious issues and reach some interesting conclusions including, contrary to the views (and perhaps hopes) of some vociferous atheists, “there is no evidence in cross-country data that more years of education reduce religiosity” (page 31).

The third chapter (relating to the impact of religion upon economic growth) is likewise a mixture of the disappointingly superficial and the tantalisingly interesting. The Weber thesis is explained and various religious views of salvation surveyed in a mere eight pages, which include some highly contentious statements (e.g. the assertion that Calvin did not believe in the possibility of assurance of salvation, which is justified by a statement in his Institutes that is taken out of context and fails to notice that, in the very same section of the Institutes, Calvin states that faith is “a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favour toward us, founded on the truth of a free promising Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit”). However, from this unpromising start, the authors go on to discuss their own analysis of detailed international data and come up with some interesting conclusions. For example, they show that this data suggests that belief in heaven and hell (and particularly the latter) is positively correlated to economic growth but belief in God or a general posture of being religious is not. Furthermore, for any given belief in hell, an increase in monthly church attendance appears to lead to a decline in economic growth and, to put the matter the other way up, for any given church attendance, an increase in belief in hell leads to an increase in economic growth. The authors also provide a brief survey of various pieces of academic research that suggest that the oft-repeated suggestions that the positive impact of Protestantism is either associated with “belonging” or to Protestantism’s promotion of human capital via education are misconceived.

Of course, Weber’s thesis related to the impact of Christianity and, specifically Protestantism, in Europe and any globally applicable theories relating to the impact of religion on economic growth (or vice versa) need to take account of the impact of other religions. The authors recognise this issue and, to some extent, seek to address it, particularly in chapter 4, which relates to Islam and economic growth. However, these parts of the book are again superficial. The entire sweep of Islamic economic history is dealt with in 10 pages and the authors fail to provide convincing evidence of the impact of Islam on the economy; other major religions are scarcely considered. The result is that a number of major questions of significant importance in the modern world are not addressed at all (e.g. the impact of Hinduism on the economic development of India).

More generally, the application of economic concepts to organised religion, whilst potentially thought provoking, is contentious and may even be offensive to some people. For example, one does not need to be a Roman Catholic to raise eyebrows at the statement that “our assessment is that the increased numbers and geographical spread of persons named as blessed and the targeting of popular ex-Popes are clever innovations aimed at raising the enthusiasm of Catholics” (page 154); and one does not need to be a Buddhist to feel somewhat uneasy when reading the title of chapter 6: “Religious Clubs, Terrorist Organisations, and Tibetan Buddhism”. Furthermore, many Christians will consider that the “supplier and consumer” model of religion presented by the authors is indicative of precisely what is wrong with much Christianity today rather than an indication of fundamental features of its success or failure.

That said, despite all of its inadequacies, and having regard to its relative brevity, The Wealth of Religions is worth reading and, having read it, some readers may well find that there is plenty to interest them in the bibliography, which reflects the cross disciplinary nature of the book itself.


“The Wealth of Religions” by Rachel M. McCleary and Robert J. Barro was published in 2019 by Princeton University Press (ISBN – 13:9780619217109). 172pp.

Richard Godden is a Lawyer and has been a Partner with Linklaters for over 25 years during which time he has advised on a wide range of transactions and issues in various parts of the world. 

Richard’s experience includes his time as Secretary at the UK Takeover Panel and a secondment to Linklaters’ Hong Kong office. He also served as Global Head of Client Sectors, responsible for Linklaters’ industry sector groups, and was a member of the Global Executive Committee.