Ethics @ Work: Public ethics and religion

Observant people typically, but not exclusively, have traditional attitudes.

world bank 88 (photo credit: )
world bank 88
(photo credit: )
One of the most common questions I get is whether religion makes people more (or less) ethical. I've done my best to research this question, but it's not easy to get or even to define good data. Where religious and non-religious people differ regarding ethical values, religion and ethics are obviously correlated. But when it comes to the old-fashioned ethical consensus like lying, cheating and stealing it's hard to find out who's doing it and how often s/he goes to a place of worship. I was inspired to go back to this question because I just saw the article "Corruption, religion and economic growth," by Philip Booth of the Institute for Economic Affairs in the UK, suggesting that public ethics are worse in religious countries - that is, countries with a larger religious population had worse corruption problems. (The article refers to a particular denomination but I scrupulously avoid judgment among religious groups.) This question is much easier to study, because we have good data on corruption and religious observance on a national level. I always love a good challenge and Jerusalem Post readers are the first to see my amazing results. The figures I used for measuring corruption are the latest World Bank governance indices. The World Bank measures quality of governance across countries on six different dimensions: Voice and Accountability; Political Stability; Government Effectiveness; Regulatory Quality; Rule of Law; and Control of Corruption (the World Bank is referring to public sector corruption). I measured extent of religious observance using the country average for how often each interviewee attends religious services - an eight-point scale from "practically never" to "more than once a week." Drum roll, please... On each of the six measures, more religious observance in the population is significantly correlated with worse governance! To get a better picture of what is going on, we have to dig a little deeper. Religious observance is typically a syndrome of behaviors (it is measured by attendance at a place of worship) and attitudes. Observant people typically, but not exclusively, have traditional attitudes. In my experience, most statistical studies showing a correlation with religious observance are actually a product of traditional attitudes. We can study this because the World Values Survey also includes a variable measuring where a person falls on a scale of attitudes from "traditional" to "rational" (I'm not implying that tradition is irrational, this is just how Ronald Inglehart, the index's inventor describes it.) But that's not the case here. When we limit ourselves to more advanced countries (those with first-world levels of income), we find that even when attitudes are factored in, a more observant population is significantly correlated with worse governance on all six indices! Why is this true? I'm not sure, but I offer two complementary explanations. One is that, really, everyone has a religion - a set of ideals and beliefs. People who don't adhere to some traditional faith tradition tend to be adherents of the "Church of Good Governance." I say this without any irony. People are naturally zealous for their values, and secularists tend particularly to value orderly public life. This is a psychological explanation, but there is a parallel functional explanation. Everyone wants to live in an orderly community. Faith communities provide this, and they are a bastion of order and security in an arbitrary and ruthless environment - if you live in one. But if you live in a country with exemplary governance, you just don't feel much need for a refuge. So here, also, governance and religious belonging are substitutes. I guess we would call these the "cause and effect" versions of the explanation. I will try to explore this issue further and of course keep Post readers up-to-date. Note that shulgoers are an insignificant fraction of worshippers in the survey, so please don't let statistics be an excuse to keep you out of synagogue tonight - perhaps Israel's latest public-sector scandals will even have you hankering for a little sanctuary of law and order this Shabbat. The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.