Religion and economics: Holy relevance
AS PROTESTANT Europe, in its own eyes virtuous and thrifty, wrestles with the debt problems of the continent’s Catholic and Orthodox countries, the idea that religious affiliation may influence the way people save, work and spend is more appealing than ever. The toppling of Arab tyrants has lent urgency to a similar enquiry: do Islam and Islamism permit the legal and social conditions that make for prosperity?
Clearly many modern religious leaders have strong ideas about economics. In western Europe, organised Christianity often acts as a modest voice in the ranks of the egalitarian left. This month’s anti-banker protests in London initially found a friendly base for their tent city at Saint Paul’s cathedral. (In recent days, Richard Chartres, the bishop of London, has asked them to leave, while acknowledging that they had raised important issues.) In America religious voices both praise and decry the capitalist order. Also on the borderline between economics and ethics, many religious leaders have taken up the cause of climate change, and urged people to change their behaviour—though this week an Australian cardinal, George Pell, bucked that trend by addressing a group of climate-change sceptics in London.
But all the most interesting theories about religion and behaviour refer to unconscious influences. The best-known was devised by Max Weber, a father of modern sociology, who drew a connection between the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Noting that Protestant parts of Germany were doing better (in the 19th century) than Catholic ones, he thought the “inner loneliness” of Protestants—who can never be sure if they are saved in the eyes of God—made them work harder. Unlike many other forms of faith, Protestantism has no mystical rite to absolve sin.
Sascha Becker, a professor at Britain’s Warwick University who tests Weber’s theories against real life, says the German thinker was both right and wrong. Protestant Germany did prosper, but not because of theology or psychology. Protestants wanted boys and girls to be able to read the Bible; higher literacy led to faster development. But for a given level of education, Protestants and Catholics did equally well. “Whether people are Protestant or Catholic now makes no difference,” Mr Becker says. Besides, the Catholic bits of Germany such as Bavaria are the richest.
Peter Berger, an American sociologist, has found that Weber’s theories have a certain plausibility in Latin America, where a Protestant, and especially a Pentecostalist minority, outperforms the Catholic majority. Both there and in Africa an individualist Protestant “prosperity gospel” which links financial success with divine favour seems more popular with the upwardly mobile than the recent Catholic stress on “liberating” the poor as a class. South Koreans (both in their homeland and as migrants to America) often convert from Buddhism to Protestantism as they rise economically. All this may reflect the fact that some kinds of Protestantism (like many strains of Islam) sit easily with a disciplined, reflective way of life. It would be odd if that had no economic effects.
But many attempts to link doctrine and economics have run up against exceptions and better explanations. In the Ottoman empire (and in some post-Ottoman places), Christian and Jewish minorities flourished in business. Yet this did not imply stereotypical “fatalism” or “backwardness” among Muslims; the main point was that desirable posts in public or military service were closed to non-Muslims.