Religion and Growth

Religion and Growth in China

What is the connection between Religion and Growth in China? Laowaiblog’s Editor in Chief Lior Paritzky tries to explain

Religion in China has been characterized by pluralism since the beginning of Chinese history. In China, religion, as it is known in the west, was never dominant; China, instead, has adopted a culture that is broadly based upon a Confucian way of thinking – a complex system of moral, social, political, philosophical and quasi-religious thought. In China, rituals, such as attending church, do not exist in the same form as they do in the west. Rituals, rather, are the routines that people often engage in, knowingly or unknowingly, during the normal course of their lives.


Max Weber, a German sociologist and a political thinker, argued that religious practices and beliefs had important consequences for economic development. Furthermore, he believed that Protestanism was one of the major “elective affinities” associated with the rise of  capitalism, bureaucracy and the rational-legal nation-state. This argument may be true considering the influences to which one is exposed while practicing religion: the belief of a higher power, the belief of life after death, the belief of heaven and hell, etc. Nevertheless, China is an exception to the theory proposed by Weber since it is not a Protestant country, yet it is turning into one of the most capitalist nations in the world.

In 2003, Professor Robert J. Barro and Dr. Rachel M. McCleary from Harvard University wrote a fascinating paper in which they investigated the effects of church attendance and religious beliefs on economic growth in nations and in fact measured the connection between Religion and Growth. Their data reveal an overall pattern in which economic development is associated with less religiosity which is measured by church attendance or religious beliefs. This pattern can be seen in simple relations between a measure of religiosity and per capita GDP, which they use as the basic indicator of economic development.

The Connection between Religion and Growth

The theory that stands behind their work on religion and growth is that: “religion affects economic outcomes mainly by fostering religious beliefs that influence individual traits such as thrift, work ethic, honesty, and openness to strangers. For example, beliefs in heaven and hell might affect these traits by creating perceived rewards and punishments that relate to “good” and “bad” lifetime behavior. In this perspective, organized religion—and, more specifically, attendance at religious services—would affect economic performance mostly indirectly, that is, through influences on the religious beliefs. Hence, we envision a chain whereby church attendance affects religious beliefs, which affect individual traits, which affect economic outcomes.”

In communist countries, religion was oppressed by the government, and the presence of a communist regime has a substantial negative relation with church attendance and religious beliefs. Nevertheless, the predominance of Confucian tradition and culture help explain why China has been so successful economically – everyday rituals can be targeted towards one centered goal (usually dictated by a higher power such as the government) which, for the past 33 years, has been economic growth. That helps explain the close connection that Religion and Growth have in China. A famous Chinese saying helps support this argument: “再接再厉” means to make sustained and unrelenting efforts towards achieving a goal.

Another explanation might be the homogeneous society which fabricates the Chinese nation: In China, the majority (92%) of the population is Han – descendants of the great Han dynasty who ruled China in 206 BC – 220 AD. A homogeneous society assists the country in setting goals in which everyone can see themselves fit. Although occasional conflicts among religions can occur, they are few due to strict governmental policies and regulations.

Other conditions also influence the relationship between Religion and Growth: The population of China, 1.32 billion people, can create certain problems when it comes to food, clothing and shelter. Nevertheless, a fierce competition for jobs, a strong desire to escape poverty and dominant Confucian values create circumstances in which many Chinese work very hard in an attempt to improve their quality of life; A phenomenon that significantly contributes to the economic growth of China.

Evidently, when examining the economic growth of a nation, many factors need to be considered. China, which is a secular country at its core, might be in a better position to propell its economy forward because policy makers realize that the vast majority of the population share prominent Confucian values. Beijing is, in fact, liberated from considering religious beliefs while pursuing economic policies; A situation that may benefit its economic development.