Friday, November 13, 2009

On the impact of religion on social trust

All religions I know of advocate that one should care and trust others. But "others" needs definition: in many cases it means others from the same religion, to the exclusion of other religions. Thus, if religiosity is higher, does this lead to higher social trust? It is not obvious as more religious people may trust more their own and less the others. To give a parallel in internation trade: are free trade unions good? Yes, because they reduce tariffs, but no if they increase tariffs for trade outside of the "club."

Niclas Bergren and Christian Bjørnskov study the religiosity and social trust question using survey data that, among others, asks to questions: "Is religion an important part of your daily life?" and "Can people in general be trusted?" They perform cross-country regressions using 105 countries and all US states. The outcome: reliogisity reduces social trust, both internationally and with the US states. Why? I can only speculate here, but humans are social beasts that operate at the level of clans. Religious affiliation is one expression of this. And for a religious person, anybody who does not share the same values is suspicious.

Does this mean the world would be better without religions? For one, less resources would be spent in demonstrating how my god is netter than yours. Also, this study shows that we would have more trust, an essentail ingredient of trade. But as Malthus said, I paraphrase, materialism is not the only element in happiness, spiritualism can be important, too.


Unknown said...

I always find this "world a better place without religion" statement bizarre and pointless, because there never will be a world without religion. Religion and religiousity isn't just confined to defined religions. People have religious attachments to many things: States, rock bands, etc. As long as people attach themselves to organisations or bodies, there will be religion, and arguments over whose god is better will never stop. That's basically advertising...

Graeme said...

Does this show causation? May be people become more religious in less trusting societies? Maybe there is a common cause: wealth makes people more religious (which would not surprise Jesus given what he said about the rich...), may be wealth also makes people more trusting?

Does the effect apply to all religions equally?

I think your explanation is long. As a Christian living in a town where about 70% of people are Buddhist and about 25% Muslim, I tend to find I be more trusting of devout Buddhists and Muslims (other than fanatics) than of those who are less devout.

xioc1138 said...

Very interesting article. I'm a Christian type too, and in many respects I agree with you.

I don't know, though, that religion is supposed to help us with trust. I don't know of any religion where trusting your fellow man is an automatic tenant. However, on the "care" side of things - you nailed it.

I think humanity as a whole is "clubish" and "cliqueish". We don't naturally trust strangers, we don't naturally trust different people, we naturally want to help the people we know first because we have emotional attachments to them.

If a young child has to be removed from home because home is dangerous, and if you allow that child to take one toy with them: they are going to take the toy that they love and trust the most. The toy that helps them feel the safest. In most cases that I have observed - this isn't going to be the newest toy or the best toy. Chances are, it is going to be an old toy that is pretty beaten up or has been around for a while.

I think humans, religious or not elect to do business the same way.

I wonder about you? Do you hire people to work on your house who you don't know or cant establish as legit? Would you hire a roofing company that isn't in the yellow pages? That might seem shady? Would you change your mind if your most trusted friend pointed at his roof and said "they did mine, it is a fantastic roof, they did it for a fantastic price."?

I do agree that religions spend too much time caring for people internally. I'm not convinced that this is limited to religions though.

Economic Logician said...

Graeme, this paper makes cross-country regressions, and thus does not use data from individuals. This means that it does not measure how various people are considered to be trustworthy, but rather out the general trustworthiness of people in a region is affected by the religiosity of the region.