TCS Daily

God and Globalization

By Radley Balko - March 23, 2004 12:00 AM

One area of the trade and globalization debate that's not often addressed is the interplay between trade and religion. In the west, anti-trade Christian activists worry that the pursuit of wealth across international borders will lead to a kind of society-wide quest for material gain in lieu of spiritual fulfillment. Activists and free trade opponents in the developing world (as well as those who claim to speak for it), meanwhile, fear that the overpowering influence of western ideas and commercialization will dilute and ultimately corrupt non-western belief systems.

What will happen to religion -- both western and non-western -- as commerce, ideas, culture, technology and people continue to spill across international borders?

Any discussion of trade and globalization's influence on religion will share many characteristics of the debate over globalization and culture. Religion, after all, is a pretty determinant factor in gleaning the identity of a given culture. Trade opponents argue that developing cultures don't have the means to compete with overpowering western influence, and so trade and globalization have led to a kind of "Coca-Cola-fication" of places like Africa and South and Central Asia. The West moves in and imposes its culture before the developing countries in those regions ever had an opportunity to forge a culture of their own.

The response to this is that impoverished people can't afford culture. When people are starving and dying of treatable diseases, when a luxury item might be a mosquito net a mother could use to keep her children from getting malaria, whether or not western investment might corrupt native culture amounts to a pretty trivial concern.

Economists like Tyler Cowen have pointed out that once a developing country achieves a sustainable level of wealth and comfort, the people of that country begin to revel in their own culture, and tend to prefer the art, literature, and music that better relates to them, and speaks to their experiences. The best way to nurture native culture is to give native people the wealth and comfort to have culture, and the best way to create wealth is by allowing them to trade what they have that's of value -- be it simple textiles, agriculture, or, most notably, cheap labor.

The debate over religion and trade, then, in many ways follows a similar tract as the debate over culture and trade. But the religious aspects of culture also present some unique challenges and conundrums with respect to trade. For example, those countries that embrace the most radical and devout strains of Islam also tend to be among the most isolated countries in the world, and are also among the poorest. That would preclude one to find religion and open trade to be at odds. And yet the United States is all at once a beacon for religious freedom, a world leader in free trade, and among the most faithful countries on earth.

The distinction, of course, is between religiosity and religious freedom. Isolation can certainly prove conducive to the former, but rarely to the latter. Trade tends to strengthen both.

Trade and Wealth as a Corruptor of Religion

The most apparent argument that trade corrupts religion acknowledges that trade builds wealth, but that with wealth comes self-sufficiency, and with that, materialism and consumerism. The poor, conventional wisdom says, tend to be more devout. Because the poor have little else of value, they entrust their lives to faith in a higher power. They're also the beneficiaries of religion's altruism -- nearly all the world's dominant faiths practice and encourage philanthropy.

With education and wealth comes self-reliance, the argument goes, and the feeling that one doesn't need the help of a higher being to achieve success and comfort in life. It is this self-reliance that puts a wedge between the wealthy and religion. It was Jesus Christ, after all, who said that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to gain access to heaven.

But there's increasing evidence that the conventional wisdom is off-base.

Benton Johnson, a sociology professor at the University of Oregon, recently published a study which found that while Ph.D.s tend to be disproportionately atheist or agnostic, there's no significant correlation between education and faith below the doctorate level. That is, those with masters and professional degrees are no more or less likely to be devout, casual worshippers, or nonbelievers than the population at large.

And the story is similar when it comes to wealth.

Harvard economist Robert Barro and sociologist Rachel McCleary recently published an extensive study entitled "Religion and Economic Growth," published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The two looked at data from 59 countries over 20 years. Barro and McCleary found, surprisingly, that deeply held religious beliefs actually tend to boost economic development.

There is an important caveat. The societies that flourished were those where deeply held beliefs were common, but also where law and culture was most hospitable to a wide range of beliefs. That is, societies that embrace religion tend to prosper, but societies that adopt one religion to the exclusion of all others fare very poorly.

But what about western commercialization's affect on indigenous religion? Can the Golden Arches sit benignly alongside Hindu or Buddhist temples?

There's at least anecdotal evidence that those western corporations that have done well in the developing world have done so not by offending local sensibilities, but by catering to them. McDonald's franchises in Hindu regions, for example, don't serve beef, and instead offer items like the Maharaja Mac, a sandwich made with vegetable patties. The few McDonalds franchises that have managed to infiltrate Arab-Islamic countries don't serve pork, but do serve the "McFalafel." These kinds of adaptations make sense. A business that tramples on the customs and beliefs of its community isn't likely to do business in that community for long.

There are limits, of course. It would be difficult, for example, for corporations to respect religious traditions that take deep and pronounced exception to profit or commerce. But it's difficult to see how or why a corporation would want to invest in a community that held fast to that kind of tradition to begin with.

Religion, History, and Trade

Historically, civilizations open to commerce and the exchange of goods and ideas, while not always the most devout, have tended to be civilizations where divergent religions could coexist peacefully, without coercion. So while some may view trading societies as less religious than isolated societies, it is generally the trading societies that have allowed the most people the most freedom to worship in ways of their choosing.

Perhaps the religion that best embodies this point historically is Judaism. Throughout the Middle Ages, up to the Enlightenment era, European Jews were relegated to trade, commerce and banking -- mainly because they weren't permitted to do much else. Societies that isolated themselves to commerce and trade, then, also tended to be the societies most hostile and inhospitable to Jews. Starting in about the 15th century, in places such as England and Holland (and to a lesser extent, Venice), attitudes toward the Jews grew more tolerant, at least comparatively. England and Holland opened their doors to Jews fleeing persecution from other parts of Europe, and granted Jews some of the basic human dignities and freedoms they were denied elsewhere. It's probably of no coincidence, then, that Holland and England were the most outward-looking, commerce-oriented societies of the time. They also quickly rose to become the most prosperous.

A modern-day example of how trade breeds religious tolerance can be found in Indonesia. The multi-island nation is predominantly Muslim, but was settled and converted by Muslim traders, not Muslim warriors. Indonesia's unique geography has made the country a center of trade for centuries. It sits at the cradle of two oceans. It's made up of islands, meaning it has thousands of miles of shoreline, which makes it nearly impossible for the country to close off borders to merchants and travelers. Consequently, Indonesia has always been a hub for trade, and has been heavily influenced by merchants and traders of all faiths, including Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish. It's not surprising, then, that Indonesia has fostered its own unique incarnation of Islam, an Islam tempered by the tolerance one might expect from a country rich with the history of commerce and exchange of ideas and influences.

Of course, the country that best exemplifies the confluence of trade, piety and religious tolerance is the United States. In no other country has religion in all its variances and incarnations been freer to flourish than it has in America over the last 230 years. In no other country has trade and commerce been more embraced and practiced. And yet while the United States neglects to embrace an official state religion, Americans are among the most religious people in the world, particularly in the developed world. A 20-year study by Robert Inglehart of the Institute for Social Research ranked the United States among the most religious nations in the world.

While it's true that the introduction of trade may break state-held strangleholds on the most fundamentalist sects, commerce introduces new ideas and influences into once-isolated societies. It puts people of divergent faiths in direct contact with one another, and establishes mutually beneficial relationships between them. It's bad business to hate your customers, after all. And it's terrible for business to kill them.

Free Trade and Islam

It's tough to discuss religion and trade without discussing Islam. Proponents of globalization would argue that it's of no coincidence that those predominantly Islamic countries that are least militant, least hostile to the west and most tolerant of human rights also happen to be the countries most hospitable to trade. In addition to Indonesia, one might add NATO member Turkey to this list, as well as the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, which permitted the United States to establish central command for the second Iraq war within its borders.

By contrast, the Islamic countries hosting the most militant strains of Islam and those most historically prone to produce terrorism also happen to be among the most isolated, inward-looking countries on earth.

The United Nations Human Development Programme and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development published a study in 2002 that puts the isolation of these countries into perspective. The entire Arab world translates about 330 non-Arab books every year, about one-fifth the number of the country of Greece. In fact, since the ninth century, the Arab world has cumulatively translated about the same number of books the country of Spain translates every year. This hostility to new ideas is causing an Arab brain drain. Fifty-one percent of Arab scholars told the report's authors they desire to emigrate to a country more hospitable to learning.

This isolation goes hand in hand with poverty. In the period of 1960-2000 -- a period of unprecedented growth around the world -- the Arab world actually saw a decline in economic productivity. While those parts of the developing world open to trade were catching up to the west in during that time, the Arab world fell further behind. Arab industrial output was 32% of the west's output in 1960. That number dropped to 19% by 2000.

These numbers aren't mere coincidence. And of course, there are other benefits to any effect trade may have on "diluting" particularly fundamental strains of some religions, including human rights for women, and greater political and social freedom.

While Barro and McCleary have presented evidence that societies with policies that respect, even encourage faith and piety seem more prone to prosperity than Godless societies, it's also vitally important that those societies remain open and tolerant of all faiths -- including no faith at all.

There haven't yet been any extensive studies on the relationship between piety and trade, though as globalization continues to inspire debate and discussion, it's almost certain there will be. But conclusions from studies on tangential topics, taken with anecdotal evidence from both history and today suggest that while trade may have a mild diluting effect on the most fundamentalist of religions by encouraging tolerance and fostering the introduction of new ideas, those very characteristics also encourage faith, by laying groundwork for a society that allows its free exercise and practice.

TCS contributor Radley Balko publishes a weblog at This piece is part of a longer essay published at


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