Academics Deny Friction Over Research Contrast

After being quoted in a collegiate newspaper that he had “challenged” an economic study penned by two Harvard faculty members, a sociologist at the University of Texas has insisted that he was not formally critiquing their work, but rather providing an alternative explanation for the economic successes of certain societies compared to others.

An article in The Daily Texan last Thursday implied that Robert D. Woodberry of the University of Texas was challenging a 2003 study on the relationship between religion and economic growth authored by Harvard economics professor Robert J. Barro and his wife Rachel M. McCleary, a senior research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Barro, too, said that their work is not incompatible with Woodberry’s.

In their study, Barro and McCleary found that high levels of belief in heaven and hell led to more economic growth within developing countries, whereas higher levels of church attendance actually had a negative effect on economic productivity.

The root of their idea is essentially that individual religious beliefs can have a strong impact in cultivating positive values that lead to economic productivity.


“When we came along, people weren’t separating out belief from participation. Scholars were looking at institutions, religion markets, that kind of thing, but we were saying, ‘Why don’t we look at Weber?” said McCleary, referring to the well-known author of the 1905 work “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” which argues that Protestant beliefs laid the foundation for economic growth in the West.

In contrast, Woodberry’s analysis has focused on historical analyses and data about missionary activity.

“What I’m looking at is the role of Protestant missionaries, mostly prior to World War II, in the spread of mass literacy, availability of texts, and various legal protections, which make countries have better current economic outcomes,” he said.

According to Woodberry, the religious competition provided by Protestant missionaries increased the quality of education by creating incentives for elites to commit resources to help the poor and historically disadvantaged groups.

By forcing the dominant groups to compete religiously in order to prevent conversion, missionaries played an important role in altering class structure and fostering economic development over time.

“Woodberry argues that the human capital effect was more important than the Weber-type effect, but they’re not contradictory, not at all,” Barro said.