The study, published in the journal Science Advances, shows that a decline in religion influences a country's future economic prosperity.
While it is well documented that rich countries tend to be secular whilst poor countries tend to be religious, it is still unclear if secularisation causes wealth or the other way around, researchers said.
The subject has long been debated by classic scholars of social science including French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who claimed that religion fades away once economic development has satisfied our material needs.
German sociologist Max Weber has argued that changes in religion drive economic productivity.
Researchers from the Universities of Bristol in the UK and Tennessee in the US used data from birth cohorts from the World Values Survey to get a measure of the importance of religion spanning the entire 20th century (1900 to 2000).
The study revealed that secularisation precedes economic development and not the other way around. Although this does not demonstrate a causal pathway, it does rule out the reverse.
"Our findings show that secularisation precedes economic development and not the other way around", said Damian Ruck from the University of Bristol.
"However, we suspect the relationship is not directly causal. We noticed that secularisation only leads to economic development when it is accompanied by a greater respect for individual rights," Ruck said.
The findings show that secularisation only predicts future economic development when it is accompanied by respect and tolerance for individual rights.
Countries where abortion, divorce and homosexuality are tolerated have a greater chance of future economic prosperity. "Very often, secularisation is indeed accompanied by a greater tolerance of homosexuality, abortion, divorce etc. But that isn't to say that religious countries can't become prosperous. Religious institutions need to find their own way of modernising and respecting the rights of individuals," said Ruck.
"Over the course of the 20th century, changes in the importance of religious practices appear to have predicted changes in GDP across the world," Alex Bentley from the University of Tennessee added.
"This doesn't necessarily mean that secularisation caused economic development since both changes could have been caused by some third factor with different time lags, but at least we can rule out economic growth as the cause of secularisation in the past", said Bentley.