God's Work
By David Futrelle

(MONEY Magazine) – Do people toil harder and more productively if they're afraid they might go to hell otherwise? A new study by Harvard economists Robert J. Barro and Rachel M. McCleary suggests they do. ø Examining data from surveys of religious faith in 59 countries in the 1980s and 1990s, the authors conclude that religious beliefs--most notably belief in heaven and hell--can boost GDP growth.

Still, the study is unlikely to win over many clerics. For one thing, there is the authors' tendency to talk about matters of the spirit with the same dry, detached economic lingo that others might use in discussing pig-iron production, referring to churches and other houses of worship, for instance, as "religion providers." For another, Barro and McCleary argue that actually going to church is, economically speaking, a waste of time: Once people accept the notions of heaven and hell, "more church attendance [simply] signifies more resources used up by the religion sector."

Nevertheless, they note, brisk competition among--brace yourself--"religion providers" should produce "a better-quality religion product" and thus a more satisfying churchgoing experience for those who don't mind wasting time with God and/or His earthly representatives.

The godless and the godly alike can find the study online at nber.org/papers. --D.F.