The Power of Religion

44 Pages Posted: 8 May 2020

See all articles by Jeanet Bentzen

Jeanet Bentzen

University of Copenhagen

Gunes Gokmen

New Economic School (NES)

Date Written: May 2020


Why does religion play a central role in some societies? Rulers have historically used religion to legitimize their power, which incentivized them to embed religion into institutions. This institutionalization of religion thus may explain why religion persists despite modernization. Using data across 1265 premodern societies and 176 countries, we provide evidence supporting divine legitimization and the resulting institutionalization of religion. For identification, we exploit exogenous variation in the incentives to employ religion for power purposes.

We document two implications: countries that relied more on divine legitimization are more autocratic today and their populace more religious.

Keywords: democracy, Divine Legitimization, High Gods, Institutionalization of Religion, Persistence of Religion, religion, Religiosity, Religious Laws, Religious Legitimization, Stratification

JEL Classification: O1, P48, Z12, Z13

Suggested Citation

Bentzen, Jeanet and Gokmen, Gunes, The Power of Religion (May 2020). CEPR Discussion Paper No. DP14706, Available at SSRN:

Jeanet Bentzen (Contact Author)

University of Copenhagen ( email )

Gunes Gokmen

New Economic School (NES) ( email )

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Moscow, Skolkovo 143026

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