For centuries economists and other social scientists have noticed that religiosity is associated with a set of characteristics that promote economic success. (A prime example is Max Weber’s theory about the Protestant work ethic.) Yet finding empirical evidence for the connection has been challenging because of the difficulty in determining whether religious influence affects economic behavior or if the traits for economic success lead people to be more religious.
A new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research—Randomizing Religion: The Impact of Protestant Evangelism on Economic Outcomes—attempts to answer the question by testing the causal impact of religiosity (i.e., strong or fervent religious belief).
The researchers partnered with International Care Ministries, an evangelical anti-poverty organization, to conduct an evaluation that randomly invited thousands of “ultra-poor Filipino households” to attend a Christian theology and values training program. The program, called Transform, consists of three components: Christian theology, values, and character virtues (V), health behaviors (H), and livelihood (i.e., self-employment) skills (L). The course is held over 15 weekly meetings and each meeting lasts 90 minutes, spending 30 minutes per component.
To identify the impact on religiosity, the researchers randomly assigned some communities to receive the full Transform curriculum (VHL), some to receive only the health and livelihoods components of the curriculum (HL), some to receive only the values component of the curriculum (V), and some to be a no-curriculum control (C).
The health training (H) focused on building health knowledge and changing health and hygiene practices in the household while the Livelihood section (L) consisted of training in small business management skills, training in one of several different livelihood options, and being invited to a savings group. The Values curriculum (V) included a broad focus on theology and “faith and work”:
Transform’s Values curriculum begins by teaching participants to recognize the goodness of the material world and their own high worth as God’s creation. The theme then shifts towards humanity’s rebellion against God and its negative consequences, while contrasting that with the message that “believers of Jesus will discover joy in sorrow, strength in weakness, timely provision in time of poverty, and peace in the midst of problems and pain.” The Protestant doctrine of salvation by grace—a person cannot earn her way into heaven by performing good works, but can only be saved by putting her faith in Jesus, upon which God forgives her sins as a free act of grace—is taught. The proper response to God’s grace is to do good works out of gratitude. The final section of the curriculum covers what such good works would be. They include stopping wasting money on gambling and drinking, saving money, treating everyday work as “a sacred ministry,” and becoming active in a local church community. Participants are encouraged to mitigate natural disaster risk, find hope in the midst of disasters through faith, and generally see that “life’s trials and troubles” are “God’s pruning knife” that will result in “more fruitfulness.”
Six months after the program ended, the researchers found significant increases in religiosity and income. The increase in income, though, was not connected to any observable movement in other variables that would be expected to rise with income (e.g., total labor supply, consumption, food security, assets). Their assumption is the change in income was likely due to increased labor effort per hour worked, which “may increase with grit” and which “the V curriculum encourages as ‘a sacred ministry’ that ‘merits heavenly reward.’”
Although we shouldn’t draw overly broad conclusions from one small study, the results align with what many of us in the faith and work movement have long noticed: teaching people that their work is valuable to God can have a positive impact on their lives.