Science, the religious right and inequality

Science, politics and religion have often been intertwined over the course of history. Think of the Muslim Golden Age and the subsequent lack of tolerance for science in the Muslim world, or the Roman Inquisition and its effects on people like Galilei. For a more recent example, one can look at the US where the religious right likes to stall advances in science (e.g. creationism, stem cell research, climate change denial).

Why is science sometimes the enemy of, other times tolerated by the church? Why do the US and European political landscapes differ so much, with the former much less enthusiastic about redistribution and much more willing to let religion influence politics? And how does income inequality affect the dynamics between science, religion and politics? Read on to find out.

To study the nexus between politics, science and religion more closely, Benabou, Ticchi and Vindigni (2015) (ungated) build an economic model. Basically, we have agents (non-overlapping generations, live for two periods) who care about consumption, and a certain fraction of them are religious. Religious agents receive utility from a religious public good as well.

There is also a government that can attempt to block those scientific advancements that contradict religious doctrine; and a church that can attempt to repair the damage done to its belief system by scientific advancements.* These “repairs” or adaptions can be thought of as e.g. reforming religious dogma or reinterpreting sacred texts. Scientific progress benefits all agents because it raises productivity, leads to economic growth and thus higher consumption.

First, the government decides on its science policy: whether to block “belief-eroding” scientific advances (i.e. those that contradict religious beliefs). The government’s aim is to maximize people’s utility, so no blocking will take place if people are largely irreligious.

The church will attempt to repair the damage done by science to beliefs if the population’s religiosity is at an intermediate level. If religiosity is too low then the costs of repair won’t exceed the benefits. If religiosity is too high, then a little belief erosion won’t hurt the church so much.

Thus at intermediate levels of religiosity, the government won’t block scientific discovery because the church will attempt to repair beliefs for sure. When beliefs fall out of this intermediate zone (but are not too low so that there are still some religious people), then the government will block scientific progress if the added benefits of higher productivity (higher utility derived from private consumption) do not exceed the benefits of blocking (higher utility derived from the religious public good).

It is the relative level of religiosity to current scientific progress that determines whether blocking survives this cost-benefit analysis. A high belief-to-scientific progress ratio will lead to blocking, a lower belief-to-progress ratio will lead to no blocking.

Now, given that there is no negative scientific progress (i.e. loss of productivity), this model can only lead to weakly decreasing religiosity. That is, beliefs can either erode or at best stay constant. The authors thus add random positive shocks to beliefs to the model. This means that in every period religiosity can experience a sudden uptick. These random jumps in religiosity can be attributed to e.g. natural disasters or migrations.

Three stable (as in not transitory) regimes arise in this model.

  1. European, secular regime. This regime has high scientific progress, thus decent economic growth and low religiosity. No blocking by the government or repair by the church takes place.
  2. US regime. This one has similar scientific progress to the first regime, and thus the same economic growth. However, religiosity is moderately high. This is achieved not by blocking progress, but by the church repairing beliefs.
  3. Theocratic regime. This is characterized by high religiosity and low scientific progress. Growth is lower because of this. Both blocking scientific progress by the government and repair by the church occur.

Now, let us consider a society with four socioreligious groups: the religious and secular poor (RP, SP), and the religious and secular rich (RR, SR). Assume these groups vote on what the government should do. In the model, poor people prefer some normal public goods if they’re secular, and religious public goods if they’re religious. Rich people want no normal public goods, but if they’re religious they want some religious public goods (but less than what the RP want).

So “normal” public goods (education, hospitals) are kind of treated like transfers by the rich people: they don’t want them, because it’d mean a redistribution of income from the rich to the poor.

In this setup, the RP side with the SP if religiosity is low. The poor coalition then introduces redistributive, welfare-state policies. If religiosity is higher than a certain threshold, then the RP side with the RR. In this case, religious public goods will be provided instead. The RP make a compromise in both cases: when siding with the SP, they don’t get religious public goods, but they get high levels of redistribution; when siding with the RR, they get religious public goods, but the amount of public goods will be lower because the RR prefer lower redistribution.

This is not unlike the difference between Europe and the US. Europe with low religiosity has more redistributive policies and a more extensive welfare state; the poor ally against the rich. The US with moderate-to-high religiosity has lower redistribution and much of it is via religious public goods; the religious ally against the secular. In the US, the pro-redistribution poor are split on religious issues; in Europe religious voters are split on redistributive issues.

Because of the ruling coalitions in the two regimes, greater inequality has different effects depending on what regime we’re in. In Europe, the poor coalition will increase redistribution if income inequality increases. In the US, the RR/RP coalition will decrease redistribution.

Rising inequality can also explain the inreasing anti-science stance of the religious right in the US. This is because at moderate levels of religiosity (i.e. like the US), the RR want more blocking by the government. The reason for this is that at moderate levels of religiosity the RR/RP coalition is at a risk of breaking up, because higher inequality induces the RP to want more redistribution, an option only feasible if they side with the SP.

If the RP side with the SP, the resulting poor coalition will introduce heavy redistribution, much to the dismay of the RR. So it’s in the RR’s best interest to block scientific progress in order to strengthen the religious beliefs of the RP so as to induce them not to side with the seculars.

Let me conclude by saying that we focused on religious beliefs here, but the blocking of scientific advancements can be the result of other beliefs as well. For instance, certain vested cultural or ideological beliefs may run against scientific findings, and thus a similar situation to the one described above may arise.

This is not surprising though, because any belief that is not based on evidence acquired through the scientific process can in a sense be considered “religion”.

* = the authors provide some empirical evidence that higher religiosity is indeed associated with less innovation on both the cross-country and US state levels.


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