Research Economics

How Religion Can Hamper Industrial Development

, by Fabio Todesco
In France, during the Second Industrial Revolution, Catholic schools' curricula spurned modern science in the most religious areas of the country, and this prevented the accumulation of human capital according to a research article by Mara Squicciarini

Religion hampered the diffusion of knowledge and economic development in France during the Second Industrial Revolution (1870-1914), according to research by Mara Squicciarini recently published in the American Economic Review. By opposing the introduction of technical education in primary schools, the Catholic Church prevented the accumulation of human capital in the most religious areas of the country. Higher levels of religious education translated into significant lower industrial employment 10 to 15 years later, when schoolchildren entered the labor market.

"Contrary to the First Industrial Revolution," Professor Squicciarini explains, "the more sophisticated industrial machinery of the Second Industrial Revolution required a technically skilled workforce in order to be operated, installed, and maintained. Consequently, the French state took an active role in primary education, promoting a more technical curriculum to form a skilled labor force." The relationship between the Church and science in France, though, had been exacerbated by the events of the 1789 Revolution and the Church was promoting a conservative, antiscientific program, hindering the introduction of the technical curriculum and pushing for religious education. Catholic families often preferred to send their children to religious schools where they could preserve their Catholic identity, even if they had to pay fees - while public education was free - and notwithstanding the mediocre level of priests-turned-teachers.

"My work documents large differences in the curricula of secular and religious schools - with the former introducing technical subjects and becoming increasingly modern and professional, and the latter remaining the bastions of a Catholic subculture," Professor Squicciarini says.

The religious intensity of an area is associated with the diffusion of religious education and this, in turn, is associated with lower industrial development. The effect is sizeable: moving from the tenth to the ninetieth percentile of the share of Catholic schools distribution would decrease the share of industrial employment by 6.2 percentage points, relative to a mean of 28%.

The main indicator used by Professor Squicciarini in determining religion intensity in different areas is the share of refractory clergy in 1791, i.e. the share of French clergy that stayed loyal to the Church and did not swear the oath of allegiance to the Civil Constitution promoted by the revolutionary government. Since a clergyman's decision to accept or reject the oath was largely determined by the religious attitude of the local community, the share of refractory clergy reflected religiosity at the local level.

The economic development of areas with a high or low religiosity did not start to diverge, though, until the Second Industrial Revolution, when the school curricula and the accumulation of human capital among the population began to count for industrial development. These results suggest that the relationship between religion and economic development is not inherently negative. Rather, it varies over time, and it becomes negative when religion hinders the adoption of economically useful knowledge.

"These findings have important implications for economic development today," Professor Squicciarini concludes, "since many developing countries - where religion plays a primary role in the personal and public spheres - are experiencing large-scale technological progress, similar to that of Western Europe during the Second Industrial Revolution."

Mara P. Squicciarini. "Devotion and Development: Religiosity, Education, and Economic Progress in Nineteenth-Century France." American Economic Review, 110 (11): 3454-91. DOI: 10.1257/aer.20191054.