Before World War I, German sociologist Max Weber famously linked the work ethic of Protestant Christians to the economic development of Europe. The “spirit of capitalism,” he argued, was sparked by Martin Luther’s emphasis on calling and his argument that “worldly” labor was no less holy than the ascetic “spiritual” practices of monks and priests.
Puritans and other Calvinists, he said, later recast that labor as an ascetic practice itself—working was a way of fulfilling one’s duty to God. Wealth for Protestants became “bad ethically only in so far as it is a temptation to idleness and sinful enjoyment of life.”
Methodists, Baptists, and others shared these basic ideas, Weber said. He cited John Wesley’s advice as representative: “If those who gain all they can and save all they can will likewise give all they can, then the more they gain, the more they will grow in grace and the more treasure they will lay up in heaven.”
In short, Weber argued, these Protestant religious beliefs led inevitably to Europe’s work ethic, to its attitude toward wealth and specialized labor—and, in short, to modern capitalism. It’s worth noting that Weber’s essay is more lament than celebration. “The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so,” he said. “Since asceticism undertook to remodel the world and to work out its ideals in the world, material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history.” But summaries of Weber are often less polemical and more descriptive: Europe experienced economic growth largely because of its Protestant beliefs.
Over the past century, Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism has become one of the most discussed texts across a range of disciplines. Theologians and historians have debated many of Weber’s summaries of Protestant doctrines. Sociologists, economists, and others have probed the relationship between spiritual beliefs and economic outcomes. Some are unconvinced by Weber’s argument. After all, haven’t countries such as Japan and China thrived economically without a dominant Christian influence? Perhaps Weber’s observation was a spurious correlation and the birth of the Industrial Revolution coincidentally happened to take place in countries rich in Protestant Christian belief. Can we test his theory?
Scholars have tried, looking intensely at Protestantism specifically and religion in general. They have found positive correlations between religion and life of an objectively higher quality, even by secular measures. Religious people tend to be more economically successful and have better physical health, lower crime rates, and reduced rates of drug and alcohol abuse. And studies backed up Weber in finding connections between Protestantism and self-discipline, hard work, honesty, and other economic values. But researchers have not been able to separate causation from mere correlation. Can these positive outcomes be directly attributed to religious beliefs, or are economically successful people (or countries) more likely to be religious? Perhaps a third factor, such as patience, self-control, or persistence, causes people to be both more religious and more economically successful. As leading scholar of economics and religion Laurence Iannaccone wrote two decades ago, “Nothing short of a (probably unattainable) ‘genuine experiment’ will suffice to demonstrate religion’s causal impact.”
It’s not unattainable anymore. Researchers have now carried out just such an experiment.
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Source: Christianity Today