In the third 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 Human Development Index (HDI) scores of countries as published by the United Nations Development Programme and whether there is any apparent relationship with the religions of those countries as documented on Wikipedia.
The United Nations Development Programme scores countries on a scale of 0 (least developed) to 1 (most developed).
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 HDI scores against percentage adherence to that religion for all counties for which the data was available, with a line of best fit and a confidence region.
The graphs below plot the 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 positive correlation between development and Christianity, but the relationship is weak. There are many non-Christian countries with high HDI scores (Hong Kong, Japan, Brunei, Singapore, Bahrain, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and the Czech Republic are <20% Christian with HDI > 0.8) and (at least nominally) Christian countries with low ones (Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda, Lesotho, Liberia, Haiti are >80% Christian with an HDI < 0.5).
There is a negative correlation between development and Islam, that is, Islam is associated with less development, but the relationship is also not particularly strong. There are few Muslim countries with very high scores (only Saudi Arabia is >80% Muslim with HDI > 0.8) but many with moderately high ones (Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Maldives, Uzbekistan, Jordan, Oman, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkey are Albania are >80% Muslim with HDI > 0.7). Unsurprisingly, there are many non-Muslim countries with many with low HDI scores (Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, South Sudan, Uganda, Lesotho, Liberia, Togo and Haiti are <20% Muslim with HDI < 0.5).
There is a positive correlation between development 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 underdeveloped, (though not a lot), that Christian societies are more developed (but even less) and that societies with a higher proportion of atheists are more developed (stronger).
Again, it does not follow that Islam causes underdevelopment – underdevelopment could lead people to Islam (though it’s not clear how) or some other, confounding, characteristic could both cause underdevelopment 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 promotes development, but it could also be that developed 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 ones who stifle development, though this is the most obvious explanation and may be true. An examination of Islamic history may help clarify whether this is plausible. Similarly, it does not follow that Christians or atheists promote development, though they may.
Again, it could be argued that Islamic societies sacrifice development 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 will investigate this if one is suggested and appropriate data is available.
And again, 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 development and Islam, which is negative (more Islam = less development) but weak.
The study shows an association between development and Christianity, which is positive (more Christianity = more development) but weaker still.
The study shows an association between development and Atheism, which is positive (more atheism = more development).
The data are not useful for examining other religions.