Secularization of the public sphere and public education through strong and restrictive public policies has been often offered to solve the religious conflicts and religious radicalism problems in Muslim-majority countries. From this perspective, explicitly or implicitly, Islamic religious beliefs and organizations are seen in conflict with the idea of constitutional democracy, innovation and material improvement.
For instance, why Ottomans adopted the printing machine so late compare to the West Europe? The supporter of top-down secularization might say that it is because of the xenophobic /irrational /reactionary religious beliefs. The rational choice institutionalist might say that it is because that the technological improvements affect politics deeply through changing the winners and losers in political game. So, any important technological change in an illiberal economy would be reacted harshly, most probably with the help of religious authorities.
Well, here is not the place to discuss the causal relation between religious pluralism and constitutional democracy and material well-being at length. But we can easily check the correlations between these variables by studying the cross-national indexes. According to the Brian J. Grim, empirical evidence suggests that, “restriction of religious freedom correlates with diminished wellbeing and violent social conflict”. The statistical evidence showed in Religious Freedom in the World Report (2008) that religious freedom has a strong correlation not only with constitutional democracy but also material well-being.
In his article, “God’s Economy: Religious Freedom & Socio-Economic Wellbeing”, in the Report, Grim points out the easily realized statistical facts concerning the relation between religious freedom and other freedoms (100 countries are compared in the Index):
“First, as expected, score for the religious freedom in general correlates strongly and significantly with Freedom House’s civil liberty index (.862) and political liberties index (.822)…, with Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index (.804), with the Heritage Foundation’s economic freedom index (.743), and with the longevity of democracy (.646).”
Then, Grim shows the statistical evidence concerning the relation between religious freedom and certain socio-economic phenomena under four categories: military spending and conflict; women’s socio-economic status; the economy; and health. It appears, the military spending raises as the religious restrictions increases. The correlation with military spending and overall religious freedom is (.328). With regard to women’s socio-economic status, social regulations on religious freedom have more impact than government regulation on religious freedom. But the interesting fact is:
“While the level of earned income for females, measured in purchasing power parity dollars, goes down as restrictions on religious freedom go up (–.565), the same is true for males (–.535).”
The correlation between GDP and overall religious freedom is (-.251). Thus, as religious liberty is restricted, the economy gets smaller. And, according to the Human Development Index, correlation between GDP and overall religious freedom is (-.457). And, the statistics on health is as expected:
“Increasing restrictions on religious freedom correlate with fewer physicians (–.251), higher infant mortality (.437), higher percentage of underweight children (.293) and higher fertility (.349), which is a negative trend only in countries that cannot support population growth.”
It is clear that religious freedom supports liberal democracy and material well-being. I am not talking about a kind of Protestant ethic here, as Weber claimed. But religious pluralism creates wealth and peace by enabling people with different religious backgrounds to contribute to society and economy. Religious liberty emerges when governments have the ability to support autonomous organizations such as religious, political or economic organizations that are placed outside of the orbit of political elite groups. So, secularization of politics can be seen as a consequence of development of the rule of law, and establishing political institutions on classical liberal ideals such as human rights does not mean that people are losing faith in God. On the other hand, seeing top-down secularization as a way to improve the political and economic conditions is a misunderstanding in terms of the causation between secularization and human development.
(*) Dr. Bugra Kalkan is a professor of political science in Katip Celebi University, Izmir. He is also a senior academic fellow in the Association for Liberal Thinking, Turkey.