Does prayer affect a country’s development?

Every year on the first Thursday in May, many Americans take part in the National Day of Prayer. This is a day when people from all religious backgrounds are invited to pray for that country’s well-being. The first National Day of Prayer was held in 1952, after a resolution was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by then-president Harry Truman.

This begs the question: Does prayer affect a country’s well-being?

To answer this question, I called upon an SPSS dataset that I once created on my own time, filled with all the data I could find that would measure a country’s economic and social well-being — statistics from the UN, the OECD, the World Bank, Transparency International and so on.

I threw in an additional variable: the percentage of the population who said that they prayed at least once a week outside of religious services. This data was obtained from the results of the World Values Survey, between 1999 and 2005, for each of 20 countries tracked in both the survey and by the OECD.

Staying a bit later than usual at the office, I then looked for the answers to whether it was true or false that prayerfulness made a country better off.

There were certainly big differences in the amount of praying that was done in various countries. Canada, where 57 percent of respondents said that they prayed at least once a week outside of religious services, was one of the countries where praying was more common. Other countries where praying was a common weekly activity included Greece (55%), Italy (62%), Portugal (62%), Ireland (71%) and the United States (78%).

At the other end of the scale were France and Denmark (where 20% said they pray at least once a week outside of religious services) and Japan (22%). The other countries fell in between.

As it turned out, citizens’ propensity for praying appeared to have no real effect one way or the other on the economy or social well-being. No meaningful correlation could be found between praying and per capita GDP. Nor was there any real connection between prayer and productivity levels, freedom from corruption, unemployment rates, educational attainment or the amount of research and development being done.

There were only three variables that had even a weak connection to the amount of praying that citizens do. There was a slight tendency for countries that spend more time praying to have lower levels of taxation and to have lower levels of social spending.

There was a stronger tendency for countries that pray more often to have higher infant mortality rates as well.  Still not strong enough to say with 99 percent certainty that the two are related, but enough to say with 95 percent certainty that the relationship between the two is not purely coincidental.  (A regression, however, seems to suggest a stronger relationship.)

I suspect that it’s not so much a matter that praying is having a direct effect on these things, but that culture — which is closely tied to religion — has an effect on the public’s tolerance for taxes, their spending priorities, and ultimately on how high a priority preventative health is as a political issue.

My conclusion: While there is a  possibility that prayer might have a positive effect at the individual level — it could lead people to focus on the positive or cope with stress more effectively — it doesn’t appear to have much effect, for better or worse, on a country’s economic or social development.

Note: In 2003, two researchers at Harvard University conducted similar research on the relationship between religious beliefs and economic development. Their findings: “We find that economic growth responds positively to the extent of religious beliefs, notably those in hell and heaven, but negatively to church attendance.”


About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

2 Responses to Does prayer affect a country’s development?

  1. Fat Arse says:

    Were Muslim countries included in this study?

  2. theviewfromseven says:

    It didn’t include any countries that have Muslim majorities, but did have a few that have significant Muslim minorities, such as France, Singapore and the Netherlands.

    The full list of countries: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, the U.K. and the U.S.

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