Economist: Holy relevance
Faith can influence economic behaviour—but not always directly
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. ...