Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Tara does the Stats - is there an Association between Religion and Corruption?

It is sometimes suggested that Islamic countries are particularly corrupt.[1]  In the second article in this series, I seek to test whether this suggestion has any basis in fact, and whether such associations can be found for other religions.


I have looked at the Corruption Perception Index of countries as assessed by Transparency International[2] and whether there is any apparent relationship with the religions of those countries as documented on Wikipedia[3].

Transparency International scores countries on a scale of 0 (most corrupt) to 100 (least corrupt), which I find somewhat confusing.  For this article I have subtracted the scores from 100 so that higher scores correspond to more corruption.

The Wikipedia article breaks countries down by religion in seven categories, which it calls Christian, Islam[ic], Irreligion (atheism), Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Folk Religion and Other Religion.  The accuracy of these classification might reasonably be questioned – they appear to be cultural designations rather a measure of active faith – but for the purposes of this study they are used as provided. 

For each religion, I have plotted the modified Corruption Perception Index scores against percentage adherence to that religion for all counties for which the data were available, with a line of best fit and a confidence region.


The graphs below plot the modified scores against percentage of adherents to religions, with each point representing a country, the total country population displayed as the size of the point and the various continents in different colours.

There is a negative correlation between Corruption and Christianity, that is, Christianity is associated with less corruption, but the relationship is not especially impressive.  There are non-Christian countries with low corruption scores (Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan) and (at least nominally) Christian countries with high ones (Angola, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of Congo, Burundi, Venezuala).

There is a positive correlation between Corruption and Islam, that is, Islam is associated with more corruption.  There are few Muslim countries with low scores (only Brunei, Qatar and United Arab Emirates are >50% Muslim and <50% Corrupt) and there are non-Muslim countries with high ones (Angola, South Sudan, Venezuela and North Korea being the most extreme).

There is a negative correlation between Corruption and what Wikipedia calls Irreligion (Atheism), though there are few countries where Irreligion is very high (the Czech Republic being the exception) and this creates some uncertainty in the relationship.

Once again, the data give little insight for Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Folk Religion and Other Religion. 


So what can we conclude from this, and what can’t we conclude?

Clearly, there appears to be some basis for the perception that Islamic societies are corrupt, that Christian societies are not (weaker) and that societies with a higher proportion of atheists are not.

Again, it does not follow that Islam causes corruption – corruption could lead people to Islam (though it’s not clear how) or some other, confounding, characteristic could both cause corruption and lead people to Islam (though it’s not clear what).  But the most obvious explanation may also be true.  Similarly, it may be that atheism protects from corruption, but it could also be that open societies are the ones that allow people to identify openly as atheists.  Studies using whole-of-population statistics like this one cannot answer these questions.

It does not follow that the Muslims are the corrupt ones, though this is the most obvious explanation and may be true.  An examination of Islamic history may help clarify whether this is plausible.[4] Similarly, it does not follow that Christians or atheists oppose corruption, though they may.
Again, it could be argued that Islamic societies tolerate some corruption in the pursuit of some more important good.  It is not clear what this might be, but the reader is invited to offer suggestions.  I intend to address such possibilities in future investigations.

Finally, the data is a snapshot in time, because now is the time that interests us and we have data for it, so no statement can be made about how these relationships might be different at another point in history or whether they are consistent.


The study shows an association between Corruption and Islam, which is positive (more Islam = more corruption).

The study shows an association between Corruption and Christianity, which is negative (more Christianity = less corruption) but somewhat unimpressive.

The study shows an association between Corruption and Atheism, which is negative (more atheism = less corruption).

The data are not useful for examining other religions.

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