Tolerance, Openness and Secularism in Society Are the First Steps to Economic Prosperity, Study Finds

Tolerance, openness and secularism are the first steps towards economic prosperity, according to new research.

Since the Enlightenment began in the eighteenth century, many societies around the world have become wealthier, healthier and more democratic. At the same time, many of those that have seen the biggest change have also become more secular, more open and more tolerant.

This presents a chicken and egg situation—did the cultural values precede the economic boom? Or vice versa?

According to a study recently published in Royal Society Open Science, the strongest argument supports the former. Survey data involving close to half a million people and 109 countries suggests cultural change took place and was swiftly followed by economic prosperity.

Specifically, a two-pronged attack of "secular-rationality" and "cosmopolitanism" was found to predict future growth in GDP per capita as well as increases in democratization and enrollment in secondary education. The reverse was not true: economic growth and education did not predict a society would become more secularly rational or cosmopolitan.

"Cultural values can be viewed as the 'software of society.' We hypothesize that cultural values can be innovated in one place and spread to another," the study's authors wrote.

"Evidence suggests that secular-rationality and cosmopolitanism were likely innovated in post-enlightenment Western Europe."

"Under our hypothesis, these cultural values can then diffuse from one nation's population to another, which occurs more readily between nations that are geographically close or linguistically similar because barriers to communication are lower."

NATO Flags
File photo: NATO flags at the headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. Thierry Monasse/Getty

Scientists identified nine cultural factors, such as secularism, from the World and European values survey (WEVS)—a cross-national longitudinal questionnaire covering almost 100 countries and the vast majority of the world's population since 1981.

By looking at generational responses to the survey, the researchers estimated ratings for each country across the 20th century. The study's authors justified this method with the argument that cultural values are formed in early life. The responses of a person who came of age in the 1930s is, therefore, likely to reflect the values of that period.

From the original nine factors, the team then calculated "secular-rationality" and "cosmopolitan" ratings for each country since 1900.

Secular-rationality positively correlated with secularism, political engagement, low prosociality and high respect for individual rights. Cosmopolitanism positively correlated with a high respect for individual rights and high trust in different groups and people who stray from the social norm.

According to the study's authors, a person who ranks high on secular-rationality might say: "that religion is important in their lives, that they are likely to attend protests or sign petitions, they only pay taxes when coerced and believe that homosexuality and divorce are justifiable." While an individual who scores high in cosmopolitanism is likely to report: "willingness to have neighbours that are foreign, homosexual, of from another race, as well as believing that homosexuality and divorce are justifiable."

The results suggest that the two together predict future improvements in social and economic development: cosmopolitanism is associated with democracy and secular-rationality is linked to economic development and educational attainment, measured in this instance by secondary school enrollment.

The researchers suggest that valuing cosmopolitanism and, therefore, equality and individuality, is an important prerequisite for a fully-fledged democracy. Meanwhile, a secular-rational culture might spend more time on humanist activities and less time on spiritual activities. But why they appeared when and where they did is anybody's guess.

"Precisely why secular-rationality and cosmopolitanism arose in Western Europe is not known, it could be due do historic institutional innovations or possibly just an accident of history," the study's authors wrote.

In a previous paper looking at culture and democracy, the researchers warned: "Cultural values lead to, rather than follow, the emergence of democracy. This indicates that current stable democracies will be under threat, should cultural values of openness to diversity and institutional confidence substantially decline."

However, Damian Ruck, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Tennessee who authored both studies, told Newsweek he does not think we are about to witness a reversal of progress made over the last century.

"It is a concern that the world has taken a distinctly uncosmopolitan turn, given the recent success of nationalist politics around the world," said Ruck. "However, the march towards greater cosmopolitanism has been going on for decades—maybe centuries."

"Therefore, given that the current nationalist turn is very recent, I am not yet convinced we are witnessing a permanent reversal in the long-term trend towards cosmopolitanism," he added.

Instead, he hopes that the research highlights the importance of culture in discussions when it comes to international development.

"In other words, ideas matter and they may contribute to increasing wealth, education and democracy," said Ruck. "Another thing to remember is that these ideas are available to everyone."

The article has been updated to include comments from Damian Ruck.

What did we show
An infographic summarizing the study's findings. Ruck DJ, Alexander Bentley R, Lawson DJ. 2020