Do Strong Religious Beliefs Stifle Innovation?

Japan features extremely high innovation and relatively low religiosity. Getty Images

Countries that are intensely religious are typically less innovative than those that aren’t, according to a new paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The study, titled “Forbidden Fruits: The Political Economy of Science, Religion, and Growth,” compares religious beliefs and belief in God with scientific innovation as measured by issuance of patents.

“In both international and cross-state U.S. data, there is a significant and robust negative relationship between religiosity and patents per capita,” according to authors Roland Bénabou, a Princeton University economist, and Davide Ticchi and Andrea Vindigni, both economists at Italy’s IMT Institute for Advanced Studies Lucca.

The relationship is apparent when plotting the percent of the population that describes itself as religious against a population-controlled measure of patent applications filed by a country’s residents.

The relationship broadly holds up when the authors make adjustments for differences in gross domestic product, rates of higher education, population and other variables. So it’s not simply a matter of more religious countries being poorer or having fewer resources, Mr. Bénabou said in an interview.

“We’re not making strong claims as to what is causing what,” he said. “The pattern is there and people can offer their own explanation to the pattern”…


Not sure if it has anything to do with strong religious beliefs per se. It seems the high-innovation countries are usual suspects: the US, Europe, Japan, South Korea, with China catching up from the effects of Communism.

The Muslims world is at the bottom of the chart. Pakistan is the absolute worst. Innovation is strongly discouraged by Islam as we all know.

I do not see Israel on the chart, unless I am missing something.

  • Drunk_by_Noon

    The whole chart is crap and the headline doesn’t even match the data.
    Real innovation in Japan or Korea beyond refinement of western ideas is damn near nonexistent. The have high patent numbers because of their patent laws. Minor changes will not warrant a new patent here where in Japan and Korea they will.

    • Good point.

    • Frau Katze

      The Muslim world cannot even manage that.

    • Justin St.Denis

      Thank you for that! In my career, I had to deal with a lot of “parallel” patent issues in the medical equipment manufacturing field.

  • El Martyachi

    There are so many upsides to global nuclear conflagration.. including destruction of libleft “research”.

  • andycanuck

    So Communists must have been the most innovative then before the fall of the USSR? That sounds like it weighs the same as a duck.

    • El Martyachi

      They apparently touched on it.. probably with zero sense of irony, as usual.

      One last note: The authors focus on traditional religion but also suggest that any overly rigid ideology can impede science. As an example, they cite the Soviet Union from the 1930s through the 1960s, when “Inquisition-like methods (forced denunciations, imprisonments, executions) were used to repress ‘bourgeois’ scientific knowledge and methodology in evolutionary biology and agronomy, with adverse spillovers onto many other areas.”

      • Drunk_by_Noon

        Maybe, but the Russians are at their most innovative when their very existance is at stake, beyond that, they are the kings of “good enough”.

        • Justin St.Denis

          OMG! My neighbour is a “good enough” person. I bitch about those people to my wife all the time. “It is either done correctly or not. There is no such thing as ‘good enough’!”

          I guess one would call this my ” pet peeve”.

          • Drunk_by_Noon

            Never go to Russia! 🙂
            Let me see if I can dig up an e-mail (between me and a third party) describing the problem, but that is one of those HUGE East-West differences that get expressed in all sorts of odd and glorious ways.
            I once got a chance to discuss that very issue with an extremely well educated Soviet/Russian Naval officer and he was just as bemused at our tendency in the west to “obsess” over perfection.
            I’ll see if I can find it and post it in this thread.

          • Justin St.Denis

            Been to Russia BEFORE the fall of the soviet regime. I know. And I am familiar with the peculiar “yard sheds” that seem to characterize Eastern European countries. I know what you are saying.

            This article you talk of sound like it might piss me and you off, am I right?

            I have a gorgeous yard shed which I designed myself. It’s not a “kit”. It looks like a little “faux Tudor cottage” tucked away under a stand of trees at the very back of my yard. Many have asked me if it’s a “granny cottage”. It’s just my tool shed and small workshop. iAnd yes, it’s “perfect”. 😉

          • El Martyachi
          • Justin St.Denis

            Did you find yourself standing in Your Shed thinking about what I said about My Shed when you remembered Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson talking about his His One Shed when responding to questions about his peculiar nickname “Two Sheds”? Really?

            My Shed is blushing, and I’m laughing so hard I think I just SHED a few pounds. Thank you.

          • El Martyachi

            Marty needs to spend more time working and less time hanging out on blazingcatfur if he wishes to one day be standing in a shed of his own….

          • Justin St.Denis

            “A Shed Of My Own” sounds like the title of a book documenting the contemporary male’s significantly downsized aspirations in this modern, feminist, LGBTQWERTY, social justice warrior-infected, fucked-up world. 😉

          • El Martyachi

            So I got one IM overnight. It was from a colleague. He was showing the new paving stones (or whatever the rubber “stones” would be called) to his shed. Everyone’s just rubbing their sheds in my face. I’m gonna get a complex.

          • Justin St.Denis

            A psychological complex, or a shed complex? Shed rentals? The possibilities presented by the deprived male population are simply astounding! 😉

          • El Martyachi

            No shed of my own…

          • Justin St.Denis

            OMG! That looks horrible, speaking as a Mock Tudor Shed Owner, of course. 😉

          • El Martyachi

            He’s actually getting the lawn done (wifey). I suspect he’s simply manipulating her to further his shed improvement agenda.

  • El Martyachi

    So the actual study is behind a paywall. The last line of the abstract is pointedly indicative of the authors’ weltanshauung.

    Rising income inequality can, however, lead some of the rich to form a successful Religious-Right alliance with the religious poor and start blocking belief-eroding discoveries and ideas.

    • Frau Katze

      So you can’t even read WSJ blogs? The sites are getting fussier and fussier.

      • El Martyachi

        Oh the wsj blog is fine – the study itself at the “National Bureau of Economic Research” is paywalled.

    • Drunk_by_Noon

      So if we all became atheists, we would suddenly become more creative?
      Yeah, right!

      • Minicapt

        As long as the end product is a fiction, the ‘brights’ should produce magnificence.


  • I also noticed absence of Israel. Wonder why?

    • Raymond Cameron

      Israel is so high on the chart the authors just didn’t see it. Notice the first line is at the -6 level…

  • Ron MacDonald

    Britain was religious when it developed the industrial revolution, the U.S. was religious when it develop nuclear weapons.

  • steve

    Patents are not a perfect measure of innovation by any degree. Most patents are worthless and so called “business method” patents are actually harmful to true innovation and discovery.

  • Vietnam and North Korea are not religious countries by any stretch of the imagination.

    One must also factor in how innovation is not a key component in east Asian economies.

    (SEE: http://www.amazon.ca/Shutting-Out-Sun-Created-Generation/dp/1400077796/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1430086627&sr=8-1&keywords=shutting+out+the+sun+michael+zielenziger )

    One must also explain the industry in European countries during and after the Middle Ages.

  • DMB
  • Hard Little Machine

    What makes Sweden and Finland “innovative”? Are there any empirical baselines? As far as communist nations are concerned I think it comes down to necessity. When science is hampered by bad economics and worse politics, scientists have to get very creative.

  • Xavier

    Ask the Industrial Revolution or the Renaissance.

    • Clausewitz

      Or the Enlightenment, almost solely driven by Religiously educated individuals.

  • Minicapt

    “Roland Bénabou, a Princeton University economist,”
    Paul Krugman was a Princeton economist; Dickie Falk was a Princeton sociologist.


  • simus1

    Patents are of little value in lawless areas of the world and require deep pockets elsewhere. It took decades of legal warfare for the guy who patented the integrated circuit controlled intermittent windshield wiper to get auto companies to pay him big time for violating his patent property rights.

  • dukestreet

    The fact that Israel is not on the map,tells me the whole thing is a fraud.

  • Kathy Prendergast

    I thought the omission of Israel was strange too…definitely very high rates of innovation there, considering all the advances in science, medicine, information technology, etc. originating in Israel, along with a (presumably!) high rate of religious belief and practice.