Field of Science

Religion seems to undermine property rights and the rule of law

One of the arguments given for religion is that it is supposed to promote social cohesion by making people behave better - God, so the theory goes, acts like an invisible policeman living inside your head. It's an intriguing, and intuitive theory, and it's backed up by a few lab experiments.

Real-world evidence, however, has always been harder to find.

One example of this was a study I blogged about in 2009, on the link between atheism and trust. Niclas Berggren (The Research Institute of Industrial Economics, Stockholm, Sweden) and Christian Bjørnskov (Aarhus University, Denmark), showed that countries with more atheists actually show higher levels of trust.

Well, now they're back with another study, this time looking at property rights and the rule of law. These are pretty nebulous concepts, but they analyse them in microscopic detail. They looked at both what was enshrined in the national constitution - the fundamental, law-given rights - as well as actual practice. Actual practice was measured as 'property rights' as assessed by the right-wing US think tank The Heritage Foundation (who are pretty fruit-loopy on the subject of climate change, so I never thought I'd end up citing them!), and the World Bank's World Governance Indicators, which is a measure of the quality of institutions protecting property rights.

The headline result was that the actual property rights prevalent in a country were lower the more religious the citizens of that country were. They controlled for a whole bunch of factors - too many to list, but including stuff like the dominant religion, level of trust, Scandinavian countries, and post-communist countries. Even so, the relationship still held.

Critically, the relationship was much stronger in more democratic countries. In other words, when citizens have freedom of expression and the right to vote, then atheism is linked to better property rights and stronger legal protections.

Now, you're probably wondering about the whole 'direction of causality' thing,but they looked at that too. They used a statistical technique that involves substituting religious beliefs for a surrogate measure (they used 'confidence in religious institutions' and 'Nordic countries'). The relationship still held, which suggests that religion really does undermine property rights.

But here's the strange thing. The relationship for constitutionally-enshrined rights was exactly opposite. More religious countries had more and stronger constitutional provisions intended to protect property rights.

Why should this be? Well, they offer a couple of potential reasons. Firstly, they say, "In some political cultures, formal rules are, by general consent or through the actions of political elites, ignored; in other places, they are seen as symbolic, malleable and open to interpretation". Secondly, they point out that constitutions are often written in the distant past - they may not reflect actual practice in the modern-day country.

What ever the reason, their data show that religious countries were in theory more law abiding (if you looked at their constitution), but in practice were actually less law-abiding!

Bjørnskov, Christian and Berggren, Niclas, Does Religiosity Promote or Discourage Property Rights and the Rule of Law? (2011). APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN:

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. Tom, you have cited studies showing that the more unsafe/insecure a country is, the more religious. I see lack of property rights as very unsafe and thus imagine it would spur religiosity.

    I imagine that is the 'direction of causality' thing you were talking about. But I must say I did not understand that short paragraph. Could you expand please.

    Also, though they found a relationship, how significant do you think it is? As you know, in medicine we differentiate between statistically significant and clinically significant. The scattergram looks pretty scattered -- but I don't know how to weigh "r" values if you throw them my way. Could you give us your intuitive weighing of this data and what further research would be needed to improve or disprove this find?

    Very fine article -- thanks for all the work!

  2. Who said that "property rights" is a way to enforce "better behaving" and "social cohesion" ? In fact the opposite is true. A higly uniform and well behaving community doesn't need formal property rights.

    Only a big capitalistic society needs property rights to keep the rich richer and the poor poorer. Small, less complex, non capitalistc societies may well use other means, such as discretcionary violence.

    Property rights are a typical of big, formal societies. It turns out that this type of societies are also less religious.

    Religious societies can avoid property rights, because they come with a price tag and is a price that those societies don't need to pay.

  3. Sabio, yes, they addressed both these points in the paper (e.g. "it could be that property rights and the rule of law are associated with a widespread feeling of certainty and security which reduces the need for the comfort that religiosity might bring").

    So what they did is to replace the 'religion' measure with a measure of confidence in religious organisations. The argument is that religious countries will have high confidence in their institutions, but the reverse is unlikely (having high confidence in religious institutions won't really make people religious). Since the statistical relationship holds for 'confidence in religious organisations' and rule of law, this suggests that reverse causality is less likely. They do something similar using 'Nordic countries' as the surrogate measure.

    It's not perfect, I know, but it is at least some evidence to support the hypothesized direction of causality.

    And yes, the effect size is meaningful. In fact a 1 standard deviation increase in religiosity has about the same effect on the rule of law as a 1 standard deviation decrease in GDP. In other words, the effect of religion is about as strong as that of economic development.

  4. Anon, I take your point, and I'm a little wary of the Heritage Foundation's Property rights index. Although, it has to be said that all societies allow private property (and most are heavily dependent on the concept), and so if you accept that then it's hard to argue that those rights should not be strongly protected.

    What's more, it's interesting that there is a positive relationship between religion and property rights in the constitution - but a negative relationship in practice. That suggests that religious countries aspire to strong property rights, but don't deliver in practice.

    Anyway, rather more interesting is the World Bank's measure of the 'Rule of Law'. This is defined as "capturing perceptions of the extent to which agents have confidence in and abide by the rules of society, and in particular the quality of contract enforcement, property rights, the police, and the courts, as well as the likelihood of crime and violence."

    It's the 'Rule of Law' results that are shown in the figure. The Rule of Law is lower in more religious countries, which is certainly food for thought.

  5. It's the 'Rule of Law' results that are shown in the figure. The Rule of Law is lower in more religious countries, which is certainly food for thought.

    This isn't coming to a surprise to me. And it's completely consistent with studies that found an (inverse) link between welfare and religiousity. The "rule of law" in WB's measure is a way to asses how unpredictable the world is: if I can enforce a contract, than the world is more predictable to me.

    It is not that religiosity squashes the "rule of law". It is that, since a society cannot afford the rule of law, then more religiosity is needed to make up.

  6. As an atheist who is against property rights, I am not sure what to think about this...

  7. I am not an Athiest, but I find the information on this site interesting. Your work shows alot of perception and analysis into the topic. I am writing a paper on John Locke's position on property rights and he seemed to combine Christian doctrine with capitalistic interests into his theory. THe two contradict each other , but yet American society was founded on this theory. THe constitution in theory is noble, but when slavery is instituted and justified,then the religious basis for property rights seems hypercritical, when material interests are the priority then the intended morality suffers and class division widens.


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