People Economics

When Religion, Science and Progress Intertwine

, by Fabio Todesco
Mara Squicciarini is the new Avvocato Giovanni Agnelli Associate Professor in Economics

The interdependencies between religiosity and economic development have been a topic of scholarly interest since at least the beginning of the last century, when Max Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. And today, with 86% of the world's population believing in some form of deity, the issue remains highly topical.

The effects that religion can have on human capital accumulation, scientific-technical innovation and economic development are among the scientific interests of the third Avvocato Giovanni Agnelli Associate Professor in Economics, Mara Squicciarini, who will present her research program in the afternoon of Tuesday, 23 May, during a Lectio Inauguralis also attended by Fondazione Agnelli Chairman John Elkann.

While a negative relationship between religiosity and economic development has often been pointed out, that relationship is actually more complex.

Professor Squicciarini herself pointed out, for example, that in republican France in the 1800s, only the onset of the second industrial revolution triggered the negative relationship between religiosity and economic development in some areas of the country. "Before 1870," she stated, "the relationship is not observable. After that, however, the anti-scientific educational curriculum of Catholic educational institutions prevented human capital development in the most religious areas in comparison to other regions of the country. Ten to 15 years later, this deficiency translated into a lag in economic and industrial development."

Quantitative economic history (which uses statistical, mathematical and economic tools to collect, organize, analyze and interpret historical data related to the economy) is particularly effective in the study of the relationship between religion and development because it enables scholars to overcome two of the greatest challenges they face. One is the difficulty of measuring religiosity; the other concerns how to identify a context in which the interaction between religion, human capital and scientific or economic progress is practically observable over time.

The wealth of available data and an innovative research design will enable the Avvocato Giovanni Agnelli Associate Professor in Economics to elucidate the mechanisms that determine reaction to catastrophic events such as earthquakes, pandemics or wars. Previous literature has shown, on the one hand, an increase in religiosity, which would help individuals cope with such events; on the other hand, an increase in interest in science, because it has the potential to mitigate, or even prevent, the effects of catastrophic events.

Prof. Squicciarini, with observation of about 1,200 U.S. counties from 1900 to 1930, is analyzing the reaction to the Spanish flu pandemic that, between 1918 and 1919, killed 670,000 Americans (0.7 percent of the population; COVID, by comparison, stopped at 0.3 percent). "We are seeing that, after the flu pandemic, both religiosity and scientific progress, especially in pharmaceuticals, increased," said the Professor, "and the relationship between religiosity and innovation turned from negative to positive. To understand how this is possible and to understand whether it is the same people who embrace both religion and science, or different people, we are analyzing individual-level data from censuses. Some preliminary results suggest that different individuals exhibit opposite reactions that are highly dependent on their initial status: religious people become even more religious and less religious people become even more reliant on science."

A final project will look at the effects of suppressing educational organizations at odds with the government. "In recent times, we can think of the case of Central European University, which was forced to move from Hungary to Austria," Prof. Squicciarini said. "Between 1880 and 1885, it was the case of the Jesuit schools in France. They guaranteed high-quality education, but were politically much more conservative than the government, which shut them down. We will analyze the effects of the closure on, on the one hand, human capital and, on the other, the political debate, focusing on the interaction between religious elites, scientific research, and politics."

The Avvocato Giovanni Agnelli Associate Professorship in Economics is a permanent professorship through which Fondazione Agnelli aims to contribute to the advancement of research in applied economics. The professorship is awarded to a nationally and internationally renowned Bocconi University Associate Professor studying applied economics. It is now in its third "incarnation" because the previous two holders, Chiara Fumagalli and Francesco Decarolis, have become Full Professors.