Social capital ∝ to religion? (or not?)

By Razib Khan | May 16, 2009 9:00 pm

Does secularization of the USA spell social meltdown?:

That’s certainly what two European sociologists, Loek Halman and Thorleif Pettersson, have concluded. Using data from the European Values Survey, they found that there was no relationship between how religious a country was (on average) and a rich it was in social capital.
For example, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have similar levels of social capital, although Slovakia is far more religious than the Czech Republic. Some of the countries with the most social capital, Sweden and Denmark, were also the least religious.
In fact, in Western Europe, the trend is the reverse of what you might expect – the least religious nations have the most social capital!
Now, the important fact to bear in mind is that, in Europe as in the USA, more religious people are more civically engaged. It’s just that, at the aggregate level, other factors are overwhelmingly more important.
For example, social trust, a key generator of social capital, is driven at a cross-national level by the same factors that build a strong democracy – such as open institutions and free speech. Although religious are generally perceived to be more trustworthy on an individual level, that really has no bearing at a national level.
In other words, this is another example where extrapolating from the individual effects of religion to the social effects just does not work.

I think the last sentence is way too strong. The problem with these research programs is that people have strong preferences on what the outcomes should be based on their normative framework. That is, whether you accept the truth claims of religion or not should have no necessary bearing on whether you accept or reject hypotheses in regards to religion’s social utility, but operationally there are clear trends. Because of the nature of social science it isn’t too hard to keep looking for the research which just happens to support your particular preferences. I suspect that arguments to the effect that only within nation comparisons are useful, or, that between nation comparisons are useful, will track the preferences much more closely than any a priori methodological bias. There is much more will to support particular conclusions than to be cautious about teasing apart social parameters.
In any case, in the United States it is rather clear that distance from Canada is the primary variable when it comes to social capital formation.

  • bgc

    You have to control for those factors that need controlling.
    In this instance you certainly need to control for IQ – especially considering the inverse correlation between IQ and religiousness which is seen in most groups.
    Otherwise, when you talk about religion affecting social outcomes, you are likely to be measuring IQ. And confounding by IQ is probably usually more powerful than the effect of religion in which you are interested.
    Indeed, social capital is merely an economist’s euphemism/ ignorant-rediscovery/ dishonest-equivalent for IQ
    (plus throwing in a bit of Personality – Big Five higher-Conscientious/ higher Agreeableness; or, alternatively, Eysenck lower-Psychoticism).

  • Monado

    I think it’s fairly clear that cold air is good for the brain! (insert smiley here)
    Thanks for the link to an interesting book, Misused Statistics. Did you notice the previous example? A widely publicized study published (Feldman, 1974) erroneously concluded that social services depress savings by 50%. It turned out that the author had made a massive, multi-billion-dollar arithmetic error. However, he still has a gut feeling that his conclusion is true. I guess that’s a case of confirmation bias. I’ll bet the study is still being quoted.
    How’s Katz-cat?

  • Neuroskeptic

    Given that “religion” in Europe really isn’t much like “religion” in the US – in terms of doctrine and sociology – I’m not sure the comparison makes sense at all.
    I mean, in the UK, we have the head of the established Church berating capitalism and urging people to do more to help their fellow men.
    In the US you have Rush.
    OK, those are extremes…

  • Tom Rees

    Hi Razib, thanks for the link. With regard to that last comment, the point I was making is that, when it comes to studying the social effects of religion, there appears to be a discrepancy between individual-level studies and aggregate ones. Put simply, individual-level studies frequently find that religion has pro-social effect, but when you look at the national level it is the least religious societies that tend to have the least societal strife.
    The likely reason for this is that there are a number of other factors that are inversely correlated with religion – GDP, social welfare spending, education levels etc. What’s more, as society becomes more secure, open and trustworthy, the need for religion decreases and people abandon it.
    Of course, that’s a bit tendentious, but I have a paper forthcoming in The Journal of Religion and Society(hopefully in June/July) that makes this argument a step further.

  • wybory sondaze demokracja

    Speaking of religion in Europe in general is rather hard as every single nation in here is very specific. You cant compare Chech to Russian or Slovak to Pole as they profess different religions. Moreover their mantality, historical (religious) background and political situation is also not the same.
    So the judgement is just to harsh.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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