Field of Science

Religious people want religious leaders - of any religion

A lot of people think that the Muslim world is just fundamentally different from the Christian world. That's the basis for the idea that we're facing a clash of civilisations (a theory put forward by the American political scientist Samuel Huntingdon back in 1993).

One aspect of the theory says that religion is more tightly integrated into the political structure in Muslim countries. The idea is that the power structures of Christian religious institutions are separated from the secular power structures, which makes it easier to separate Church and State.

A team of social scientists lead by Nate Breznau at the University of Breman set out to test this idea by seeing whether Muslims really are more likely to want religious leaders, and to do this they used data from the World Values Survey.

When you look at the raw data, it turns out that yes, if you average out across the word then Muslims are quite a lot more likely to want religious leaders. However, it turns out that that's partly to do with the relative poverty of many Muslim countries, and also that Muslims tend simply to be more devout.  Other important factors include the high level of corruption in many Muslim countries.

The graph to the right shows the relative importance of all the different factors they unearthed.

You can see clearly that religious devotion is one of the most important factors driving support for religious leaders, and that this doesn't really differ between Christians and Muslims.

So far so good. Religious people prefer religious leaders - which is, after all only what you might expect. What you might not expect, however, is that religious people prefer religious leaders of any religion!

So, for example, devout Christians living in Muslim majority countries still want religious leaders - even though those leaders would almost certainly be Muslims, rather than Christians.

What's more, Christians in Muslim countries are as likely to want religious leaders as Muslims in Muslim countries. Which just goes to show that it's the characteristics of the country, and not the religion, that's the driving factor.

It seems that this aspect, at least, of the 'Clash of Civilizations' theory is a fantasy. The clash here is not between two different religions, but rather between the religious and the non-religious.
Breznau, N., Lykes, V., Kelley, J., & Evans, M. (2011). A Clash of Civilizations? Preferences for Religious Political Leaders in 86 Nations Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 50 (4), 671-691 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2011.01605.x

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


  1. I wonder what secular equivalents could exist:

    * CEOs want CEOs in office
    * Lawyers want Lawyers in office
    * Doctors want Doctors in office
    * Entertainers want Entertainers in office
    * Laborers want Laborer sympathetics in office
    * Women want Women, Blacks want Blacks
    * Heck, I'd imagine Kids want Kids

    As long as governments are allowed huge reaches into our lives, everyone is going to want leaders that value what they value so as to manipulate the government, no?

  2. True, but it's not necessarily the case that Christians and Muslims would want the same leader. The fact that Muslims in Christian lands want Christian (rather than secular) leaders - and vice versa for Christians in Muslim lands - says something interesting about the idea that the world is divided along religious fault lines.

  3. That is fascinating, of course. But what it points to, I think, is not religion (painted broadly), because many Christians folks would not want a Muslim ruling instead of a secular. Instead, it is those who want the government to enforce morality -- and not all religious folks share this personality trait.

    So again, we are looking at more fundamental principals, not religion in general. Sure, religions may harbor a huge disproportionate number of my-morality-my-government folks, but without separating this information, I think we do our understanding a huge disfavor.

  4. Thank you for your insightful comments everyone. If you are interested in reading the original study you will find it here (Breznau, Lykes, Evans and Kelley 2011): I think the point is that what people want is a government that they see as stable and willing to enforce some kind of order as suggested by Sabio. That is why we find a large impact of development (e.g. wealth, rule of law, democracy) on preferences for religious leaders. So where countries are more developed individuals do not prefer religious leaders on average. However, in countries that are less developed and there is less stability and rule of law, religious leaders may be seen as able to provide stability or 'morality' as Sabio mentioned. This is true across religious boundaries such as the Muslim/Christian divide, so rather than a clash of religions as Huntington proposed, it might be better phrased as a clash of access to wealth, materials and especially stable governments (things related to development). Although we do not directly test it in our study I might speculate that religious extremism is rooted more in power and wealth inequalities instead of conflict with or hate of other religions.

    In the end, another really interesting thing is that it is not church attendance or membership in any religion (or non-membership) that impacts preferences for religious leaders. Instead it is personal religiousness or 'religiosity' that determines it. This means being from a family or culture of intense church involvement or strong observance of religious practices does not guarantee that religion is wanted in politics as they are unrelated on average. Again, it is not religion or religious institutions that drives these political preferences, but personal belief systems.


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