In a recent piece, The Economist touched upon an interesting topic: the link between religion and innovation. The piece refers to a study, “Forbidden Fruits: The Political Economy of Science, Religion, and Growth,” published by America’s National Bureau of Economic Research, that attempted to correlate a country’s ability to innovate with its religiosity. Innovation was measured by the number of patents per capita and religiosity by the share of a population that self-identifies as religious. When plotted against each other, the data showed a strong negative correlation: more religious countries tend to be less innovative. The authors of the report hypothesize that theocratic models of government may provide environment in which anti-scientific views negatively impact public policy.
An obvious weakness of the study lies in the way it measures its endpoints. As already pointed out by Gijs van Wulfen, innovation is much more than simply technical inventions embodied in patents. Besides, defining a country’s religiosity by the number of people calling themselves “religious” is an oversimplification. True, the United States and, say, Iran may both have high ratios of religious people in their respective populations. Yet there is a huge difference between the United States with its constitutionally mandated separation of church and state and Iran, essentially a theocracy.
A year ago, I wrote about socio-economic factors that may affect innovation when reviewing the annual 2013 Global Innovation Index. The Index ranked innovation capabilities of 142 countries–and, by the way, the authors of the Index used not one, but 84 “innovation indicators,” which included, among others, the quality of higher education, availability of venture capital and government support.
I was struck by the fact that the top of the innovation ranking was heavily populated by countries representing mature democracies: of 30 countries on the top of the 2013 Innovation Index, 28 were classified as “Free” by Freedom House, a U.S.-based non-government organization that monitors democratic development around the world. The same trend held at the bottom of the Index: among 30 least innovative countries, 17 were “Partly Free” and 11 “Not Free.”
My interpretation of these findings is simple: it’s not religion that impedes innovation; it’s lack of freedom. It’s freedom–political, economic and, of course, religious–that lets innovation flourish.