Max Weber revisited
The figures for religious adherence among the world’s 6.5 billion people are staggering. According to the latest data available to me, Buddhists reckon 375 million; Christians are 2.1 billion; Hindus, 851 million; and Muslims 1.2 billion. Estimates of unbelievers, who are difficult to count for various reasons, range from 150 million to 750 million. Moreover, this imbalance is likely to change--and not in the direction that Hitchens and his fellow debunkers would like. Christians and Muslims are vigorous proselityzers, while Hindus have a high birthrate. Over time, many people in Russia and China who went over to state-sponsored unbelief are likely to return to the faith of their ancestors. Unfortunately, the religiously indifferent in Western Europe have a very low birthrate. They are increasingly challenged by the Muslims in their midst.
To be sure, some of this faith is nominal. Confining ourselves to Christians, a recent survey showed that a majority did not know who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Some believers, we are told, hold that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. In other cases, the overall commitment is tenuous at best, as seen in a friend who proclaims himself a Episcopalian atheist. We have all encountered George Santayana’s assertion “There is no God, and the Virgin Mary is his mother.”
All the same, it must be a sobering thought that poor knowledge and doubt may, under proper circumstances, yield to fervent study and active participation. Moreovef, in order to have a “clash of civilizations” you do not need orthodox Christianists and Muslims--just a an intense loyalty to one’s historic community, a community that is ostensibly menaced by the other.
These considerations give me no joy. There may be a silver lining, though. Apart from countries like Russia and China, unbelievers are likely to be more prosperous than their believing counterparts. Still, the causality may not run in the direction that one might assume. That is to say, in advanced Western countries it is not the status of unbelief that promotes worldly prosperity. Rather, it is the pervasiveness of higher education which, in preparing the young for success, also tends to erode their religious commitment. When all is said and done, in the hurly burly of the real world there is truth in the quip “Jesus saves, Moses invests, but Mr. Secular excels as an arbitrageur. “
Looking over the world’s population, though, it seems clear that the world’s poor tend strongly to be religious. Their faith offers consolation, but at the same time it holds them back by making the resigned to their faith.
It would appear then that in the aggregate religious attachment is dysfunctional to economic progress. Is thus always true, though? A hundred years ago a German sociologist Max Weber offered evidence for a test case in which religious faith advanced the believer’s chances for worldly success,
In his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904), Weber posited a close link between Puritan ideals and the rise of capitalism. At first glance, this claim seems counterintuitive, as religious devotion was usually accompanied by rejection of worldly interests, including the pursuit of wealth and possessions. Why was that not the case with Protestantism? Weber addresses this seeming paradox in his book.
The German sociologist defined the spirit of capitalism (which he understood as a unique accomplishment of Western culture) as the complex of ideas and habits that favor the rational pursuit of economic gain. To be sure, Weber acknowledged, such a spirit is not limited to the West if one considers it as the attitude of individuals, for industrious people are found everywhere. Such individuals—heroic entrepreneurs, as he termed them—could not by themselves establish a new economic order. The most common tendencies were the lust for profit with minimum effort and the idea that work was a curse and burden to be avoided, especially when it exceeded what was enough for modest life. As he wrote:
In order that a manner of life well adapted to the peculiarities of the capitalism… could come to dominate others, it had to originate somewhere, and not in isolated individuals alone, but as a way of life common to the whole groups of man.
After defining the “spirit of capitalism,” Weber advanced reasons pointing to its origins in the religious ideas of the Reformation. Weber held that certain forms of Protestantism favored the rational pursuit of economic gain and that worldly activities had been given positive spiritual and moral meaning. Worldly prosperity was not the goal of those religious ideas, but rather a byproduct stemming from the inherent logic of those doctrines.
In the absence of the traditional medieval assurances from religious authority, Weber argued that Protestants began to look for other "signs" that they were saved. Calvin and his followers taught a doctrine of double predestination, in which from the beginning God chose some people for salvation and others for damnation. The inability to influence one's own salvation presented a very difficult problem for Calvin's followers. It became an absolute duty to believe that one was chosen for salvation, and to dispel any doubt, for lack of self-confidence showed insufficient faith indicating damnation. In this way, self-confidence took the place of assurance of God's grace.
Weber believed that by the time in which he wrote his monograph the religious underpinnings of the Protestant ethic had substantially faded. As a significant milestone along this path, he cited the writing of Benjamin which emphasized frugality, hard work and thrift, but were mostly free of spiritual content. Franklin exemplifies the process of secularization of the Puritan ethic.
Weber’s approach was not monistic, for he acknowledged that while Puritan religious ideas had had a major influence on the development of economic order in Europe and United States, they were not the only significant factor. Others included rationalism in scientific pursuits, merging observation with mathematics, precision of scholarship and jurisprudence, together with systematization of government administration and economic enterprise. In the end, the study of the Protestant ethic, according to Weber, merely revealed one phase of the the larger process of emancipation from the magical world view. This process yielded that disenchantment of the world that he regarded as the distinguishing peculiarity of the Western culture we know today.
The monograph forms an integral part of Weber's criticisms of Karl Marx and his theories. While Marx held, generally speaking, that all human institutions--including religion--were the product of economic factors, The Protestant Ethic turns this theory on its head by implying that a religious movement fostered capitalism, not the other way around.
What has been the fate of this century-old book? In fact, Max Weber’s theory of the role that Protestantism, especially Calvinism, played in the development of capitalism in Western Europe has had a profound effect on the thinking of sociologists and historians. This effect was not limited to the 20th century, but continues today.
Criticism has flowed from all sides. Yet the effect of these criticisms has not been to demolish the book, but rather to demonstrate its continuing vitality as an instrument for beginning to think about one of the most important problems of our own times, that is. the uneven distribution of economic prosperity throughout the world.
Some scholars hold that Weber misunderstood the views of Benjamin Franklin. As Weber was not an Americanist, that may well be the case. However his larger point--that ideas that are of religious origin may continue to circulate in disguised form--seems valid.
Other criticisms go to his assertion that modern capitalism could not have come to fruition in Europe without an ethic or spirit which had its roots in ascetic Protestantism. Thus it has been pointed out that the seeds of capitalism may be found in medieval Catholic Europe. This is indeed true, but whether these trends could have come to full flower without the intervention of the Reformation must remain uncertain--perhaps improbable.
Others hold that the driving force behind capitalism was not asceticism but rationality. The question then becomes, what is the origin of this rationality? One can certainly observe the use of rational methods of argument in the writings of Thomas Aquinas and other Scholastic thinkers. However, rationalism reached is full flower in Western Europe only in the 17th century, after the wars of religion that ensued in the wake of the Reformation had made clear the futility of dogmatic suppression of dissent--at least in some quarters of northern Europe, witness careers of Spinoza, Hobbes, and Descartes.
The economic historian Jacob Viner has pointed to an instance that seems a significant exception to Weber’s thesis. Pre-18th-century Scotland was a relatively backward country, despite its adoption of Calvinism in the form of the Presbyterian Church. One might argue, though, that the effect was merely delayed. Indeed, a Scotsman, Adam Smith, emerged as the most persuasive analyst of “the spirit of capitalism,” and indeed its actual workings.
Perhaps the most serious criticism of Weber stems from his Eurocentrism. He made a special study of the economic history of China and Japan, concluding that those countries were destined to remain backward because they were not Protestant. The failure of this prediction would appear to be damning.
Yet it is not if we enlarge the bounds of the Weber thesis into a general theory. This theory posits the role of various religions in fostering economic prosperity. It is noteworthy that the countries in Asia that have achieved the greatest economic prosperity--Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore--are all countries that share a heritage that combines Buddhism and Confucianism. Buddhism supplies asceticism and sefl-denial, with Confucianism complementing it through the emphasis on this-worldly bonds of family and clan. This mixture seems to function in Asia in a way that is analogous to Protestantism in Europe. Where these elements are lacking, as in the Philippines and Indonesia, economic backwardness persists. Thailand, to be sure, has Buddhism but (apparently) no Confucianism. Closer inspection shows that economic progress in Thailand is due mainly to “Chi-Thais,” ethnic Chinese who have settled there.
Nor is the fact that mainland China is officially Communist an obstacle to the application of the broader version of the Weber thesis proposed here. As we have seen with the case of Benjamin Franklin, Max Weber recognized that elements of the religious orientation could survive in secularized form.
What then about the advance of India? So far this has been a much more uneven process. Nonetheless, the Indian phenomenon probably reflects the role of certain high castes, especially the Brahmins, whose self-denying ethos shows significant similarities with that of Protestant asceticism. There is also the role of numerically small minorities, such as the relatively sparse Parsis, who follow the Persian faith of Zoroaster. Finally, one cannot discount the role of the (mainly Protestant) British colonialists. India is the only large nonwhite country of the former British empire to have successfully replicated the concepts of democracy and the rule of law promoted by its imperial overlords. It may well be that economic progress also reflects, at a remove to be sure, the Protestant values long cherished at home by the former colonizing power.
Returning to the question raised at the outset of this essay, religion is often a hindrance to economic advance. But not always. In various parts of the world, including most significantly East Asia, it has served to promote economic success.