Peter Berger is perhaps the world’s most prominent living sociologist. He has written two dozen books including seminal texts in the development of the sociology of religion, the sociology of knowledge, and the sociology of modern development. He may be the most qualified person to speak with authority on matters pertaining to the relationship between religious beliefs and economic development, so I decided to ask him to explain this to me. This interview is the result, and it’s worth listening to in full. At age 84 Berger is still sharp as a tack and has a long lifetime of study and analysis behind him (and I expect quite a number ahead of him).
When I asked him what he has learned in a lifetime of studying these questions, he told me that there are certain social preconditions to economic development, and that the way a society operates is important in regards to how prosperous that society can become. This is largely a matter of culture, and for most of the world culture basically means religion. Religion drives culture; culture drives social forms; social forms drive development.
Regarding different religions and their level of conduciveness to growth, he said that they are not equally conducive. He pointed out the work of Max Weber, whose seminal work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, argued that the lifestyle which arose from Protestantism played a decisive role in the creation of modern prosperity. For Weber, and Berger agrees, the Calvinistic lifestyle of worldly asceticism became a source of growth and capital accumulation. Worldly asceticism (Weber’s phrase) upheld the virtue of productive labor in this world, as opposed to an otherworldly orientation often associated with medieval Catholicism. The focus on this life as opposed to the afterlife tends to create large income streams. But worldly asceticism looks askance at lives of excessive spending and conspicuous consumption, which are often associated with wealth. The result is a well-educated, highly skilled diligent work force and large pools of capital. Without this, or something like it, modern capitalism would not have arisen as it did.
Not all religions, at least in the current form, have these same characteristics, therefore not all religions are equally conducive to development. Not surprisingly, Berger says he has been accused of racism or bias because of these views. But he points out that it’s not a matter of bias; it’s simply a matter of facing the facts.
According to him, this Protestant effect expressed itself in different ways in different times and places: historically in America in her Puritan heritage. Currently in the developing world, it reveals itself in the explosive growth of Evangelicalism which is helping to create modern developed economies. Perhaps Pentecostalism plays a role in the Third World similar to that played by Calvinism in Europe and North America, or at least is an important factor in the emergence of a middle class.
There is an important caveat in all this: Religions change over time and so it’s not helpful to do this sort of analysis in terms of the characteristics of a religion in general, but instead in a certain historical context. For example, Christianity in the Middle Ages may well have retarded economic progress through its embrace of usury laws (which I would argue it got from Aristotle rather than from Christ.)
Another caveat urges us to avoid confusing the effects of a religion on institutions with its effects on individuals. According to Berger, Confucianism preaches many of the virtues, such as education, hard work and delayed gratification, which are conducive to prosperity among individuals, but that Confucian disdain for commerce has tended to create societies which are more conducive to entrepreneurial stagnation. Therefore a Confucian China can stagnate for millennia. But when Chinese people migrate to more open societies in Southeast Asia, they become the wealthy ‘overseas Chinese,’ Jews of the East, prospering and helping to prosper the societies they live in, part of the vanguard of economic development. Groups like the overseas Chinese become easy scapegoats for demagogues.
Regarding Islam, Berger does not discount the possibility that it might be able to coexist with liberty and prosperity, but points out that historically the subservient role of women in Muslim nations is a source of economic drag. To isolate half of the talent of a population from productive activity is bad enough. But to add to that a pattern of leaving women uneducated makes things even worse because of the role that mothers play in the intellectual development of children. He points to Turkey as a beacon of hope. I am less optimistic than Berger about the much vaunted ‘Turkish model,’ but time will tell.
Islamic economics is a subject unto itself and deserves at least one future column of its own. But in case you’re not quite ready for that topic yet, I’d suggest that you listen to my interview with Peter Berger. Because when it comes to talking about religious differences, there is a policeman in your head who twirls his night stick every time you question the current dictates of our pervasive political correctness speech code, and Peter Berger might help you put that policeman into a helpful retirement.
Mr. Bowyer is the author of "The Free Market Capitalists Survival Guide," published by HarperCollins, and a columnist for Forbes.com.