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Protestants Can Work, But Atheists Mean Business

The Protestant work ethic gets a drubbing in a new study.
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When it comes to entrepreneurship, the Protestant work ethic might not be all it’s cracked up to be. A recent academic study shows that atheists are more likely to be entrepreneurs than either Protestants or Catholics.

The reasons behind this aren’t exactly clear, but study author Travis Wiseman, an economics instructor at Mississippi State University, says his results rule out one popular theory: That being active in a church takes up time, which otherwise might be spent on entrepreneurial activities, and that therefore, those who don't go to church have more time to spend building a business. Instead, he says, it lends strength to the idea that it really is the belief system--not the amount of free time--that matters. And even atheists have a belief system.

To conduct the study, Wiseman and West Virginia University professor Andrew Young ranked states by their populations’ religious beliefs and behavior and also by how entrepreneurial they were. To determine how ‘religious’ a state was, the researchers culled data from the Pew Forum, the Gallup Poll, and the U.S. Census Bureau. That told them how important people in each state said religion was to them, how many attended religious services weekly, and how many claim to be Protestant, Catholic, or atheist/agnostic. (Wiseman says they didn’t look at other religions because in some states the numbers for Mormons or Hindus, for example, would be too small to provide reliable comparisons).

To determine how “entrepreneurial” each state was, the researchers looked specifically at levels of entrepreneurship that are correlated to growth and job creation. Some of these measures include per capita venture capital investments, patents per capita, the growth rate of self-employment, and the growth rate in the creation of companies or more than 500 employees.

Here is the researchers’ list of the 10 most entrepreneurial states. Note that these measurements show how entrepreneurial each state is per capita. That means that, given the number of people who live there, Utah is the second-most entrepreneurial state. That’s a lot different than saying Utah ranks second in the number of entrepreneurs or growth companies.

  1. Colorado
  2. Utah
  3. California
  4. Arizona
  5. Delaware
  6. Texas
  7. Georgia
  8. New Jersey
  9. Nevada
  10. Massachusetts

In general, these states have a higher percentage of atheists or agnostics than the states at the bottom of the list.

The researchers also looked at variables such as the education levels in the state, the state’s gross domestic product, and the percentage of men and women in state to make sure those figures didn’t affect the results.

Wiseman says the study wasn’t conducted with policy implications in mind. But, he says, “If there’s any policy implication it’s perhaps that we shouldn’t support religion so much through policy relative to what we do now. And maybe we should support entrepreneurs more.”

IMAGE: Corbis
Last updated: Mar 20, 2014

KIMBERLY WEISUL | Staff Writer | Inc.com Editor-at-Large

Kimberly Weisul is editor-at-large at Inc. and co-founder of One Thing New, the digital media startup that is rebooting women's content. She was previously a senior editor at BusinessWeek.




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