Productivity and the sociology of religion

Max Weber, a founder of sociology and author of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Photo from Wikipedia
Religious variation may be an important root cause of the euro crisis and indeed of global inequality too.

I have earlier argued that religion, or rather religious culture, has been a major determinant of north-south differences in Europeans» attitudes to European integration. But these days a far hotter issue is the north-south split in Europe over economic policy, spending, debt and the euro. Why is the northern part of the European Union, notably Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland and Denmark, faring so much better than the south, notably Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal? Why such differences between northern creditor countries and southern debtor ones?

Recently, I stumbled across some interesting sociological pointers (inspired by Max Weber) to this puzzle in an article by Lawrence E. Harrison, director of the Cultural Change Institute at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Boston. The article is called «Do some religions do better than others?» and it appears in an anthology edited by Peter Berger and Gordon Redding, The Hidden Form of Capital. Spiritual Influences in Societal Progress, Anthem Press, London and New York, 2011. Indeed, Harrison provides important clues to understanding the problem of developmental differences and inequality at the global level.

Harrison has examined the performance of 117 countries, each with a million or more people of whom a majority identify with one of six religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Protestantism, as well as one secular code, Confucianism. He also included one country that is predominantly Jewish, Israel.  Lawrence did this by calculating the 117 countries» score on ten indices: The UN’s Human Development Index; UN data on literacy, UN data on female literacy; UN fertility data; Freedom House’s Annual Survey of Freedom in the World; the chronology of democratic evolution; World Bank per capita income data; WB income distribution data; World Values Survey data on trust; and finally Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

While stressing a number of caveats, Harrison draws nine broad conclusions from the data (as summarized by the editors in the book’s introduction):

  1. Protestantism has been far more conducive to modernization than Catholicism, above all in the Western Hemisphere;
  2. The Nordic Countries are the champions of progress.
  3. Confucianism (a surrogate for Chinese culture, which includes several other currents including Taoism and ancestor worship) has been far more conducive to modernization than Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism.
  4. The most advanced Orthodox country, Greece, was the poorest of the European Union members prior to the 2004 accession. There are some parallels between the Orthodox Christian and Catholic countries. But there are also some apparent residues in Orthodox countries from the Communist experience.
  5. Islam has fallen far behind the Western religions and Confucianism in virtually all respects. There are some significant differences between Arab and non-Arab countries.
  6. Hindu India’s democratic institutions have held up well, and it has experienced rapid economic growth during the past two decades. But it has been very slow to educate its people, particularly its women, and it does poorly in the Corruption Perceptions Index.
  7. It is difficult to generalize about Buddhism, but the data suggest that it is not a powerful force for modernization.
  8. Traditional African religions are an obstacle to progress.
  9. Close parallels among the values propagated by Protestantism, Judaism, and Confucianism suggest the existence of a universal culture of progress. All three promote the values of control of destiny, achievement, education, diligence/work ethic, merit, saving, and social responsibility, albeit in different degrees. And those values tend to persist even in the face of secularization, as the Nordic countries demonstrate.

Instead of «spiritual capital», Harrison prefers the expression «cultural capital». He concludes that «by focusing on the values, beliefs, and attitudes widely shared in a society, [the notion of] «cultural capital» can illuminate both the sources of human and social capital and, most importantly, the avenues that offer the possibility of progressive cultural change».

2 thoughts on “Productivity and the sociology of religion

  1. […] Wiedswang framhever riktignok også betydningen av mer ideologisk argumentasjon, spesielt at Norge har vært relativt lite berørt av europeiske kriger. Men vi ble da sterkt berørt av andre verdenskrig, sterkere enn Sverige, Danmark og Finland, som alle nå er med i EU. En forklaring av hvorfor nordmenn er så opptatt av nasjonal suverenitet, av “sjølstyre” bør legge enda større vekt på ideologi, kultur og religion (mer om det her). […]

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