Religion, innovation and economic progress – Part II

This post is part of a series.

moralsThe Religion and the Open Society Symposium, sponsored by The Council on Foreign Relations, covered the positive impact of Protestant Christianity on economics and innovation in history. In contrasted the various world views to show which were most influential and why.

In Part I, I covered the comments of Lawrence Hamilton, Director, Cultural Change Institute and Lecturer, the Fletcher School, Tufts University, who discussed the economic progress of nations based on their predominant ideologies.

Today, I review the comments of Robert Woodberry, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Texas at Austin, and contributor to the 2008 volume Markets, Morals, and Religion.

Woodberry on how technology itself does not lead to social advances, and neither does secularism – as it turns out, Protestantism spreads advances into society:

There are lots of things that we think have a secular origin or origin due to technology, which actually have religious origins and then we forget.

One of the things you can you look at with that is, for example, the spread of printing and mass literacy. We think that’s a technological development, which inevitably leads to  newspapers and mass literacy and other things like that. It’s not. The early places to have mass printing — or the early places to have significant printing — were Germany, Italy, France and Spain. The early places to have mass literacy were Scandinavia, Geneva, the Puritan areas of England, lowland Scotland, New England, Iceland, et cetera — not the places with early printing.

As it turns out, this pattern is shown throughout the world – that Protestant Christianity is what led to heightened literacy, not just availability of the printing press.

You can show that most societies knew about printing and had examples of printing in their own language for 200 to 300 years before they ever used it. The Chinese and the Koreans invented printing and they had moveable fonts, metal type, prior to Europe. They didn’t have newspapers until the 19th century until they were introduced by Protestant missionaries. They didn’t have [mass] literacy until the 19th century when it was introduced by Protestant missionaries.

Throughout Asia — throughout Asia, the first people to print significantly were Catholic missionaries, but they mostly printed only 100 to 200 copies of their texts and it didn’t overwhelm the copyists and no one ever copied them. Foreign trade companies also printed treaties, but also in small numbers. It didn’t overwhelm the copyists. No one copied them.

When protestant missionaries came, they printed so many copies it overwhelmed the ability of people to copy by hand. So in India, the first three British missionaries — who actually had to go to Danish colonies, because they were banned from British colonies — printed over 200,000 copies — over 200,000 books in 14 languages in 32 years. Copyists could not keep up. The first printers — Indian printers — were people who had worked with the missionaries. And I can show that throughout Asia. And the early people who printed newspapers, indigenous people, had also worked with missionaries…

On why modern Catholic education is so good – because they needed to compete with Protestantism

I think an important thing to emphasize is that religious traditions are not static. They change and they change through interaction and competition….

But through competition, these things spread to other cultures. And so if you compare Catholic education in Ireland or North America, it’s really quite good. They didn’t want the Catholics to become Protestant, so they invested in education to fight the Protestant education and the Protestant state education. And that happens everywhere.

On how Protestant advances were copied by other traditions, not initiated by them, and in doing so, spread the  advances of Protestantism without conversion:

People don’t have to be converted to be influenced by the idea that everyone should be educated or you should have mass printing or you should have organizations outside state control.  They spread, and people copy them.

So you get these Protestant-initiated social movements or organizational forums, like the YMCA, and then you get the Young Men’s Muslim Association, the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, and the Young Men’s Buddhist Association. You get movements to fight Sati in India, and then you get the rise of Brahmo Samaj and Calcutta Darama Sabah (sp) and these other organizations that copy the same tactics and organizational forms to fight them and become the foundation for political parties and civil society prior to decolonization, et cetera. So people don’t have to convert in order to copy.

Via personal correspondence, Woodberry sent me a couple of publications of his that you can download and read. He is working on a book now.

5 thoughts on “Religion, innovation and economic progress – Part II”

  1. jurisnaturalist says:

    I think you may have fallen into a teleological trap with these posts. Just because it is only in those nations where Protestantism held sway that remarkable advances were made, does not prove that it was the Protestantism that did it.
    Indeed your examples of China and Ireland are sufficient to reject that notion, first spread by Max Weber.
    I believe certain aspects of the Christian ethic, when rightly applied, do make a significant difference, but that those elements can also appear in other belief systems (although rarely, I admit.)
    First, believing in the long run. Static cultures do not make preparations for the long run future, they are focused more on daily survival. Therefore, they never accumulate enough capital to invest in technological advances, and they become stagnant. Protestant cultures believe in the infinite long run – heaven. They also believe in providing an inheritance to their children, which encourages saving.
    Second, believing in the rule of law or the principle of non-violence. While it is possible to give up violence as a means for achieving one’s ends independently, the Christian ethic demands it. Cultures which have adopted good legal systems with strong feedback mechanisms and strong restrains on arbitrary lawmaking, systems with strong foundations of precedents, such as the English Common Law, tend to do remarkably well. These legal systems cannot encourage new growth, but they prevent destruction of already generated wealth. Australia and New Zealand, not especially religious nations, though somewhat Protestant, exhibit strong rule of law.
    Third, limited government. Competition among competing governments from 1000 to 1300 in Muslim nations encouraged growth and prosperity. Because power holders were primarily engaged in fighting other power seekers, they did less to hold back the everyman from doing well. In other places the lack of centralized governments has encouraged growth. Somalia is currently an example of this phenomenon, as was frontier America.
    Finally, free trade. Trade creates wealth. The Lydians demonstrated this thousands of years ago. But even Protestant nations which eschew free trade can stifle themselves.
    Nathanael Snow
    Graduate Student in Economics
    George Mason University

  2. danielg says:

    Just because it is only in those nations where Protestantism held sway that remarkable advances were made, does not prove that it was the Protestantism that did it.
    While causation has not been proved, the correlation is remarkable, and the author quoted above has suggested the logical mechanisms by which these things have occurred. I think he makes sense. Sociology and history are a bit of a soft science, and proving causation is difficult, if not impossible. So we rely on reasonable assumptions and theories.
    I believe certain aspects of the Christian ethic, when rightly applied, do make a significant difference, but that those elements can also appear in other belief systems (although rarely, I admit.)
    Actually, the author says that clearly (esp. the one in part I) – but the point is, historically speaking, it was the Protestant value and belief systems that led to significant implementation of these principles and technologies. He argues that the historic pattern shows that these other systems of thought, though containing some of the same common wisdom, either had their own value systems that hindered implementation, or merely adjusted to compete with the protestants.

  3. jurisnaturalist says:

    My reason for contention is the teleological nature of the argument. “There is a correlation between Protestantism and prosperity, therefore we ought to enforce Protestantism.” This fails. I see the Christian Ethic as only working when practiced outside the use of force – or the state, and even then there is no Biblical guarantee that prosperity will arise – rather we are promised persecution.
    I cannot advocate the Weberian hypothesis.
    Nathanael Snow

  4. danielg says:

    There is a correlation between Protestantism and prosperity, therefore we ought to enforce Protestantism.
    I understand your contention, but the author is going beyond mere correlation, and stating what he believes to be the causative process – sure, he may have not (yet) empirically proved that contention, but the mechanism he suggests does incorporate the existing data well, which is one test of a scientific model.

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