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From Hell to Prosperity

A graphic showing striking disparities income among religions in America, from the NYT Magazine:

Bill switched from childhood Methodist to adult Episcopalian in an attempt to boost income. Did that likely work?

Barro and McCleary 2006 argue the relationship goes from income to religiosity (as measured by church attendance, personal prayer, and belief in hell and the afterlife). At least for the Protestant denominations, the ones on the left mostly feature more religiosity in these senses than the ones on the right.

Barro and McCleary analysed the relationship going the other way also, and found that Belief in Hell raised your economic growth potential.

Another study found that college students who believed in a vengeful, angry God were less likely to cheat on a test than those who believed in a kindly, forgiving God. And of course we know from other literature that trustworthy behavior is associated with more opportunities to trade, and thus more prosperity.

A different twist than the Protestant Ethic: Scared Rich?

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  1. Tim Ogden wrote:

    I find the disparity between Hindus and Muslims most striking. I’m presuming (I think on reasonable assumptions) that the majority of adults in both groups are 1st or 2nd generation immigrants (they haven’t been institutionalized in the US long enough for converts to be major proportions. Since our immigration policies strongly favor the well-educated, shouldn’t the two groups be more closely bunched?

    Posted May 18, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink
  2. JR wrote:

    @Tim, no, many Muslims are US native converts like Malcolm X or Mohammed Ali. If you could separate those 1st and 2nd generation immigrants out they would probably bunch.

    I don’t get the scared rich thing looking at the chart. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are the poorest and the most scared.

    Posted May 18, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Permalink
  3. Jon Biggar wrote:

    Remember, correlation is not causation. Particular religious traditions may well appeal to people in similar income and demographic situations rather than causing them to exhibit such traits.

    Posted May 18, 2011 at 2:42 pm | Permalink
  4. William Easterly wrote:

    JR and Jon, yes the point is that the graph mainly shows the different religious preferences of rich vs. Poor. However, it also points to evidence that belief in Hell or in an angry God may facilitate future economic growth. Thanks. Bill

    Posted May 18, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Permalink
  5. Daniel Hughes wrote:

    Nice post out and out :) … I want to add something: the graph mainly shows the different religious preferences of rich vs. Poor and it also points to evidence that belief in Hell or in God may facilitate future economic growth. But the main thing is belief in God does not make any change in our economic condition. We, are only the reason of our good and bad situation. Don’t you think so? Thanks and regards :)

    Posted May 19, 2011 at 5:26 am | Permalink
  6. kabs wrote:

    But where are the atheists?

    Posted May 19, 2011 at 6:36 am | Permalink
  7. Vivek Nemana wrote:

    @kabs, Atheists would fall under the category “Secular,” I think.

    Posted May 19, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink
  8. Antown wrote:

    It is a pity that is not affected by the direction of the Jews. Here they are just financially prosper. I wonder why? Probably due to large kanfessy and extensive contacts in their community.

    Posted May 19, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Permalink
  9. S. Remington wrote:

    That’s surprising, I would have assumed Mormons to be higher on the income scale than Buddhists.

    Posted May 19, 2011 at 8:18 pm | Permalink
  10. Borealis wrote:

    Not very interesting. The large religions are near the mean, and the data points far from the mean are small. That all could be expected in any data set.

    Throw in the generation aspect and other widely known trends and the data set is remarkably boring.

    Posted May 23, 2011 at 12:11 am | Permalink
  11. Jeff wrote:

    I am also wondering why there is only “Secular” and not “Non-Believer” or more violently “Atheists”! In this pew forum article only 5% of Americans are non believers. I wonder how a similar chart would look in the UK where religious feelings are to say the least far less strong than in the US! 😉

    Also very much surprised by the Hindus. Maybe a few billionaires and not that many Hindus comparatively and there you go such a performance?

    take care


    Posted May 23, 2011 at 8:49 am | Permalink
  12. Sanchi wrote:

    Agree with Tim … all hindus or muslim are not same like all fingers are not of same size .

    Posted May 25, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Permalink
  13. Vivek Nemana wrote:


    Well, the billionaire effect might explain a disproportionately high mean income, but I’d argue that it isn’t disproportionate, considering how many Hindus are college graduates. In fact, Hindus seem to be making significantly less than they should, given the education-income trend.

    While income is scalar and therefore prone to outlier effects, you can’t say the same with college graduation rates, which seems to be a binary category. It seems that Hindus pretty straightforwardly have a high rate of college graduation, which probably only says something about “brain drain” from India (rather than some innate practices of Hindus).

    But it’s probably safe to say the legitimately high graduation rate affects the (sub-trend) average income.


    Posted May 26, 2011 at 10:36 am | Permalink
  14. Jesse wrote:

    I would like to see this graph with a comparative one which shows the number of people in each religion living in America…. I think there’s something to be said about strength in numbers…

    Posted May 26, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

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