Whither morality? 'Finding God' in the fight against corruption

Research output: Working paper/PreprintWorking paper

Colleges, School and Institutes


There are growing calls for religion to be used in the fight against corruption, based on the assumption that religious people are more concerned with ethics than the non-religious, despite the fact that many of the most corrupt countries in the world also rank highly in terms of religiosity. This paper explores how the new ?myth? about the relationship between religion and corruption is based on assumptions not borne out through the evidence. The paper then examines whether a discursive relationship exists instead, and what the significance of such a relationship might be. Based on a review of several studies of the statistical relationships between religion and corruption, the paper concludes that the evidence for a causal relationship between religion (or type of religion)and either higher or lower levels of corruption is in no way convincing. The methodologies that have been employed thus far are insufficient for proving ? one way or another ? a causal relationship. This literature is largely quantitative, with a dearth of empirical, fieldwork-based evidence. The results are often contradictory, depending upon which dataset has been used, which raises important methodological issues. The literature is tentative at best, offering comparisons between various datasets and pointing towards possible explanations, sometimes rooted in theory, sometimes not. The data used are often flawed, making the explanations that are advanced problematic. The data are aggregated at the country level; they do not reveal intra-country variations and cannot tell us anything about how individuals? attitudes towards corruption are formed, the impact of religious (and other socio-cultural influences) on attitude formation, or the ways that individuals condemn or justify corrupt behaviour using the language of religion. The paper adds to a growing body of literature that questions whether research is likely to be able to prove a direct causal relationship between religion and corruption ? either positive or negative ? and certainly not with the methodologies employed so far. It advocates instead pluralistic approaches that privilege qualitative methodologies involving country and individual level empirical research. These would see both corruption and religion as lived experiences, through which morality is constructed and evolves. Such research, it is argued, would enable morality to be (re)injected into the discourse on corruption. Care needs to be taken in doing so: while religious leaders often urge their followers to desist from corrupt behaviour, some religious leaders and organizations are allegedly corrupt, and the common distinction between public and private morality that informs Western discourse may not apply (or may apply in different ways) to attitudes and behaviour in developing countries. Nevertheless, in many parts of the world, religion maintains a stronger hold on people?s values, attitudes and behaviour than democratic institutions, and as such, it remains an important potential source of power. Therefore, although care needs to be taken in engaging religious teachings and actors in anticorruption discourses and initiatives, this paper argues that doing so may help to shape both academic and policy debates in a more engaging and significant way than the research available to date.


Original languageUndefined/Unknown
Place of PublicationBirmingham
PublisherUniversity of Birmingham
ISBN (Print)978 0 7044 2780 8
Publication statusPublished - 2010

Publication series

NameReligions and Development Working Paper Series
PublisherUniversity of Birmingham