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Religion, innovation and economic progress – Part II5 min read

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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.