Forbidden Fruits: The Political Economy of Science, Religion, and Growth

62 Pages Posted: 1 Jul 2014

See all articles by Roland Bénabou

Roland Bénabou

Princeton University - Department of Economics; Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR); National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER); IZA Institute of Labor Economics

Davide Ticchi

Marche Polytechnic University; affiliation not provided to SSRN

Andrea Vindigni

IMT Institute for Advanced Studies; University of Turin - Collegio Carlo Alberto

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Date Written: December 1, 2013


This paper analyzes the joint dynamics of religious beliefs and scientific-economic development. It emphasizes in particular how this coevolution is shaped by (and feeds back on) political conflicts and coalition formation, along both religious and income lines. As part of our motivating evidence, we also uncover a new fact: in both international and cross-state U.S. data, there is a significant negative relationship between religiosity and innovativeness (patents per capita), even after controlling for the standard empirical determinants of the latter.

To shed light on the workings of the science-religion-politics nexus and its growth and distributional implications, the paper develops a model with three key features: (i) the recurrent arrival of scientific discoveries which, if widely diffused and implemented, generate productivity gains but sometimes also erode existing religious beliefs (a source of utility for some agents) by contradicting important aspects of the doctrine; (ii) a government that can allow such ideas and innovations to spread, or spend resources to censor them and impede their diffusion; (iii) a religious organization or sector (Church or churches) that can, at a cost, undertake an adaptation of the doctrine that renders it more compatible with the new knowledge.

The model leads to the emergence of three types of long-term outcomes. The first is a "Secularization" or "Western-European" regime, with declining religiosity, unimpeded scientific progress, a passive Church and high levels of taxes and secular public spending. The second is a "Theocratic" regime with knowledge stagnation, extreme religiosity, a Church that makes no effort to adapt since its beliefs are protected by the state, and also high taxes but now used to subsidize the religious sector. In-between these two is a third, "American" regime, which generally (not always) succeeds in combining unimpeded scientific progress and stable religiosity within a range where the state does not block new discoveries and the religious sector finds it worthwhile to invest in doctrinal repair and adaptation. This regime features lower taxes than the other two, but with positive revenue or tax exemptions allocated to religious activities. We also show that, in this "American" regime, a rise in income inequality can lead the religious rich to form a "religious-right" alliance with the religious poor and start blocking belief-eroding discoveries and ideas. Inequality can thus be harmful to knowledge and growth, by inducing obscurantist, anti-science attitudes and polices.

Keywords: science, discovery, innovation, technological progress, knowledge, economic growth, religion, secularization, tolerance, religious right, theocracy, politics, blocking, Church, state, inequality, redistribution.

JEL Classification: P16, H11, H26, H41, Z12

Suggested Citation

Bénabou, Roland and Ticchi, Davide and Vindigni, Andrea, Forbidden Fruits: The Political Economy of Science, Religion, and Growth (December 1, 2013). Princeton University William S. Dietrich II Economic Theory Center Research Paper No. 065-2014, Available at SSRN: or

Roland Bénabou (Contact Author)

Princeton University - Department of Economics ( email )

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Princeton, NJ 08544
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Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR)

United Kingdom

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) ( email )

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IZA Institute of Labor Economics

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Davide Ticchi

Marche Polytechnic University ( email )

Piazzale Martelli 8
Ancona, AN 60121
60121 (Fax)


affiliation not provided to SSRN

Andrea Vindigni

IMT Institute for Advanced Studies ( email )

Complesso San Micheletto
Lucca, 55100

University of Turin - Collegio Carlo Alberto ( email )

via Real Collegio 30
Moncalieri, Torino 10024

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