Proposal preview

Conversion out of Poverty? Religion and Development in a Long-run Global Perspective

Economists and sociologists have long debated the role of religion in social and economic development (Weber 1905, McCleary and Barro 2006). In recent years, research in economic history has witnessed renewed interest in the root causes and long-term consequences of religious change in the past. While scholars continue to be fascinated by the long-run impact of the Protestant Reformation in Europe (Becker and Woessmann 2008, 2010) and the role of Islamic Law for the Middle East’s divergence from Western Europe (Kuran 2012), a new wave of scholarship has recently emerged, exploring the long-term effects of Christian missionary activities in Africa (Nunn 2010, 2014; Frankema 2012; Cogneau and Moradi 2014; Meier zu Selhausen 2014; Cagé and Rueda 2016; Meier zu Selhausen et al. 2017), Latin America (Valencia Caicedo 2014; Waldinger 2017) and Asia (Bai and Kung 2015; Calvi and Mantovanelli 2016) on contemporary development outcomes. Relatedly, the origins of the spread of Islam have been investigated by Michalopolous, Naghavi and Prarolo (2015), the heterogeneous religious effects of state industrialization and mass-education in Egypt shown by Saleh (2015, 2016), the relationship between witchcraft beliefs and trust demonstrated by Gershman (2016), and the role of education in the rise of European secularization documented by Becker, Nagler and Woessmann (2017).

Religious change is an important example of institutional change, the historical origins and long-term effects of which are areas of wide-ranging importance in economic history for debates concerning the emergence of economic growth and human capital formation. Despite the vast resurgence of this field, there remain many open questions and methods to be studied: What determines the adoption of new religious beliefs among individuals and societies? And what have been the actual benefits of religious conversion? Relatedly, how does religiosity affect individual characteristics and thereby influence economic performance? Vice versa, how have economic development and political (or colonial) institutions affected the diffusion of religious beliefs in the past?

The purpose of this session is to pursue these questions and facilitate the dialogue between economic historians studying the historical process and enduring significance of religious change in a global comparative perspective. There is no regional, nor period preference. Papers on all aspects of the causes and long-run socioeconomic consequences of religious diffusion are welcome. We especially hope to shed light on new quantitative tools, sources and methods to advance our comparative understanding about the specific mechanisms of the historical link between religion and development across the globe.


  • Felix Meier zu Selhausen, University of Sussex,, United Kingdom
  • Alexander Moradi, University of Sussex, a., United Kingdom
  • Remi Jedwab, George Washington University,, USA

Session members

  • Jan Luiten Van Zanden, Utrecht University,
  • Sascha O. Becker, University of Warwick,
  • Ewout H.P. Frankema, Wageningen University,
  • Auke Rijpma, Utrecht University,
  • Jutta Bolt, Groningen University,
  • Mohamed Saleh, Toulouse School of Economics,
  • Julia Cage, Science Po,
  • Valeria Rueda, University of Oxford,
  • Felipe Valencia Caicedo, University of Bonn,
  • Federico Mantovanelli, Analysis Group,
  • Rossella Calvi, Rice University,
  • Kerstin Enflo, Lund University,
  • Alexandra L. Cermeño, Lund University,

Proposed discussant(s)

  • Jan Luiten Van Zanden, Utrecht University,
  • Sascha O. Becker, University of Warwick,


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