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Human flourishing and religious liberty: Evidence from over 150 countries

5 Oct, 2020

by Christos A. Makridis

My new study looks at the spatial and time series patterns of religious liberty across countries and estimates its effect on measures of human flourishing. The main findings are:

— First, while there are significant cross-country differences in religious liberty, it has declined in the past decade across countries, particularly among countries that rank higher in economic freedom.

— Second, countries with greater religious liberty nonetheless exhibit greater levels of economic freedom, particularly property rights.

— Third, using micro-data across over 150 countries in the world between 2006 and 2018, increases in religious freedom are associated with robust increases in measures of human flourishing even after controlling for time-invariant characteristics across space and time and a wide array of time-varying country-specific factors, such as economic activity and institutional quality.

— Fourth, these improvements in well-being are primarily driven by improvements in civil liberties, such as women empowerment and freedom of expression.

Tragically, roughly 80% of the world lives in a religiously restricted environment. Even with all the billions of dollars invested in development by the World Bank and other multilateral institutions, many countries around the world maintain repressive regimes that persecute religious minorities.

My newly-published research in PLOS ONE investigated the importance of religious liberty quantitatively, building upon an initial series of studies by Brian Grim. First, contrary to public opinion, the median country experienced a 13% decline in religious liberty between 2006 and 2018. Moreover, these declines were concentrated among countries with stronger property rights – for example, Western Democracies. In fact, it has declined by 35% in America between 1980 and 2018. Second, drawing on a sample of over 150 countries surveyed between 2006 and 2018, I found that increases in religious liberty lead to improvements in human flourishing – an effect concentrated among religious minorities. Third, I found that the reason for this stems from the positive impact of religious liberty on democratic governance, the process for civic engagement and women’s empowerment, and the likelihood for public and political corruption.

Although many critics who have sought to de-prioritize religious liberty have argued that countries that perform better economically and socially differ in other ways beyond their approach to religious liberty, this study is not subject to the same weaknesses. First, given the size of the sample and breadth of the data, I can control for standard measures of economic freedom and institutional governance. Second, because I observe over 150 countries for over a decade, my results are driven by comparisons of religious liberty in a country against itself in a future or previous date. In other words, I am not comparing Venezuela with the United States; rather, the U.S. in 2006 with the U.S. in 2010, and so on. In summary, the results underscore the importance of religious liberty for human flourishing, which is particularly timely in light of the persecution against religious minorities in China and elsewhere.


About: Christos A. Makridis Christos serves as a Senior Adviser in the National Artificial Intelligence Institute at the Department of Veterans Affairs, a Research Professor at the W. P. Carey School of Business in Arizona State University, a Digital Fellow at the Initiative at the Digital Economy in the MIT Sloan School of Management, a Digital Fellow at the Digital Economy Lab in Stanford University, a Non-resident Fellow at the Institute for Religious Studies at Baylor University, a Senior Adviser at Gallup, a Non-resident Research Scientist at Datacamp, and a Visiting Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Christos previously served on the White House Council of Economic Advisers managing the cybersecurity, technology, and space activities, as a Non-resident Fellow at the Cyber Security Project in the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and as an entrepreneur and adviser. Christos earned a dual Masters and PhDs in Economics and Management Science & Engineering at Stanford University.