The idea of a Protestant or Puritan work ethic, that individuals work harder, save more and seek economic success as signs of a diligent faith, has worked its way into national lore.
But in looking at the religious engines of economic growth, new research indicates it may be just as helpful to talk about an Islamic ethic or a Jewish ethic or a Buddhist ethic.
A study using World Values Survey data from several dozen nations showed few differences among religious groups in each country on a variety of attitudes from trust and tolerance of others to an embrace of competition.
Catholics, for example, were no different from Protestants in saying that competition stimulates working hard and developing new ideas. And Buddhists were the biggest supporters of teaching children about thrift. Economist Charles North of Baylor University presented the findings at the recent annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics and Culture.
In a separate study of U.S. entrepreneurs, researchers at Baylor University found there was little difference among economic risk-takers in terms of religious affiliation and attendance.
Where entrepreneurs did differ was in their greater likelihood to pray more often and to believe in a personal God.
When times get tough, and they often do among the long hours and high failure rates experienced by many starting new businesses, many entrepreneurs may find themselves strengthened by the belief “God is with them and interested in them and attends to their needs,” Baylor sociologist Kevin Dougherty said.
The German sociologist Max Weber, author of “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” advanced the idea in the beginning of the 20th century that Protestants placed a particular value on economic success because it was seen as a sign of God’s favor.
But if there ever were a Protestant ethic that promoted economic growth, today no one faith tradition appears to have a monopoly on entrepreneurship or a belief in the value of hard work, thrift and competition.
“I don’t think the Protestant ethic is real,” North said in an interview.
North and Elizabeth Dratz of Ataturk University used five waves of the World Values Survey to conduct their research. What surprised North was how little they found of significance regarding differences in economic attitudes among religious groups in nations all over the world.
The work is preliminary, North emphasized, but the consistent findings indicate a lack of a strong correlation between one religious group and attitudes that promote growth.
In particular, the research challenges some who have viewed Islamic beliefs as opposed to economic growth. He and Dratz found Muslims compared favorably to other religious groups on all measures of trust, tolerance, confidence in government institutions and beliefs about competition and thrift.
So what religious factors do distinguish the entrepreneurs who are the leaders in innovation and driving engines of a robust economy?
In the U.S., individuals who have started or were starting a new business reported they were more likely to believe in a God who personally cares for them and to pray and meditate more frequently than non-entrepreneurs, according to a study using data from the 2010 Baylor Religion Survey.
“For entrepreneurs, business ventures may provide a ready list of concerns voiced to a God they believe is listening,” Baylor researchers Kevin Dougherty, Mitchell Neubert, and Jenna Griebel and Jerry Park reported. Their findings, “A Religious Profile of American Entrepreneurs,” will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
Baylor researchers also found entrepreneurs were 1.6 times more likely to attend congregations that encourage starting a business or making a profit in business.
But outside of African-American churches, where congregational leaders have emphasized economic development as a necessary route to economic equality, few U.S. churches promote starting profit-making enterprises.
In the 2010 Baylor Religion Survey, just 15 percent of respondents said their place of worship encourages starting a business and less than one in five said their congregation encourages participants to make a profit.
Dougherty said this may be due to uneasiness with economic matters in institutions that emphasize putting others first and living lives of humility and poverty.
But since economic growth is often associated with advances in living standards, health care and reduced civil conflict, and entrepreneurs are attracted to sanctuaries that encourage them in their work, the study findings also raise the question of whether more congregations should address issues of economic development, some observers said.
What the research does suggest is that the relation between religion and economic growth is no longer the dominion of one tradition.
How Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Protestants, Catholics and others address these issues can make a difference in the U.S. and global economies.