Scientific Research Project Title

Shocking Religion: Using Natural Experiments to Quantify How Religion Impacts Society

Research Institution

University of Copenhagen

Faculty of Social Sciences, Departement of Economics, University of Copenhagen

Research field

Economics of Religion

Contact info


Research leader

Jeanet Sinding Bentzen

Associate Professor

Project title

Shocking Religion: Using Natural Experiments to Quantify How Religion Impacts Society

What is your project about?

Why are some societies more educated, richer, or more productive? Shocking Religion will use econometric techniques on a topic that draws on religious studies. We will be the first to test whether differences in religiosity can explain an important part of global economic inequalities. I focus on religiosity, i.e. the strength of peoples’ faith, rather than their type of religion. To identify the causal impact of religiosity, I will 1) exploit natural experiments - such as earthquakes - that exogenously increase religiosity for some, and 2) construct measures of religiosity that vary within countries and within religious denominations. This will allow us to a) avoid comparing religiosity across different religions and countries, b) account for a rich set of confounders that also influence socioeconomic outcomes, and c) test whether the results generalize across diverse societies and religions. Combined, the knowledge gained will enhance our understanding of inequality.

How did you become interested in your particular field of research?

I am a macro economist. I thrive to identify the deeper causes of inequality. During my PhD in 2009, I was part of a research project where we examined the roots of economic growth. This took us back to the 1300s to a group of monks, the Cistercians. We could trace the impact of these monks to contemporary income differences across European regions. They were potentially a predecessor to Max Weber's protestant ethnic. I have been fascinated by the study of religion ever since. In the following years, I have identified that religiosity rises in the aftermath or natural disasters and the corona pandemic, that societies where rulers used religion as a means of power in the past are more likely to be based on religious laws today and develop into autocracies, and that religious laws in contemporary USA have raised religiosity and strengthened social views against homosexuals, women, and science. I base my research on theories established by scholars from other fields and use my econometric methods to test whether the relations are causal and whether the theories are more relevant under some circumstances than others. I am part of a tendency within economics which to a greater and greater extent views cultural values and religion as potentially important factors when it comes to explaining how we act as social agents and how this manifests itself in differences that can be viewed in aggregate numbers.

What are the scientific challenges and perspectives in your project?

The topic of the project is interdisciplinary. Most fields within humanities and social sciences have studied religion. Economists are likely those who knows the least about religion among the mentioned sciences. Instead, I will take the existing knowledge as given and contribute with my method: To exploit so-called natural experiments – or shocks to religiosity – in order to identify the causal impact of religiosity on societal outcomes. A challenge is that the shocks are only useful as natural experiments if they only impact the outcomes through religiosity. Earthquakes affect a range of outcomes. Instead of using the earthquakes per se, we will exploit that the impact of the shocks on religiosity is an emotional effect, meaning that we can remove all societies that were directly hit. Instead, we will exploit the rise in religiosity in neighboring societies. Another challenge is to construct comparable measures of religiosity. The degree of religiosity of a Danish Protestant is not necessarily comparable to that of a Muslim from Pakistan. To solve, we will exploit large datasets that make analysis possible where we only compare the religiosity of the Danish Protestant to other Danish Protestants, for instance. The project has potential to move our knowledge on the causes of socioeconomic differences across the globe substantially.

What is your estimate of the impact, which your project may have to society in the long term?

The project has an ambition to identify how much of global differences in gender inequality, income, education, and productivity can be explained by differences in religiosity. If we compare societies that are otherwise very similar, then this project can estimate how large a share of their productivity differences, for instance, are due to the differing degree of religiosity. In general, including religion in the study of macroeconomics can change our understanding of global differences. Denmark is among the least religious societies in the world, which perhaps makes Denmark an ideal location for research on the economics of religion.

Which impact do you expect the Sapere Aude programme will have on your career as a researcher?

The program gives me a unique possibility to establish a research team that can conduct international research at the highest level. I will get the opportunity to lead a project based in Denmark, but which builds on my international network that includes researchers from University of Chicago, Monash University, Warwick University and Zurich University. The program will also give me the opportunity to extend my international network and hire some of the best international researchers. The program will therefore contribute to anchoring my research in the top of the international research agenda.

Background and personal life

I live with my husband, Christian, who works in the Danish Nationalbank as a somewhat more classical economist than me. We live on Islands Brygge with our two happy and soccer-playing boys of ages 10 and 6. When I am not wife, mom, and researcher, I enjoy relaxing in front of my canvasses in a basement in Valby, where I paint with chalk in various shapes and colors.

City of your current residence


High school

Ordrup Gymnasium