Max Weber, one
of the founding fathers of Sociology, is described as ‘our greatest resource as
a sociologist’ (Collins, 1986: 5), for many contemporary sociologists consider
that Weber contributed most to the discipline. His essay, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904; 1976), is acknowledged to be his most famous
work. As Bendix notes, this essay was Weber’s most controversial work (Bendix,
1959: 49) and is at the heart of ‘the greatest and certainly longest-running
debate of twentieth century’. (Lee and Newby, 1983: 183). The main focus of
this debate is the question of the validity of the thesis and whether or not
Weber intended to claim that a Protestant ethic actually caused the rise of
essay served as a foundation stone for identifying strong and stable
connections between European economic performance and the Protestant religion
and, therefore, in this essay I shall debate whether or not this connections
are still relevant today.
I argue the
Weber’s emphasis on Protestant/Northern Europe values are no longer a valid
starting point in explaining economic disparities between countries in the
twenty-first century, as his findings at that time, namely the link between
religious ethics and economic growth are no longer relevant in today’s Europe,
a more secular continent. Moreover, since the time it was written until today,
other factors have started to reshape the level of economic growth, such as
culture or education (i.e. factors that even if can be traced back in history
as well, are not necessarily related to religious values and beliefs)
Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber famously argued that
religion has played a major role in the development of the European economies.
Protestants, Weber argued, were more inclined to business pursuits and achieved
greater economic successes than Catholics. This observation had been made many
times before. Weber himself noted that Catholic congresses in Germany had
frequently discussed the matter (1930:3); Trevor-Roper (1967) traces the
argument back 100 years before Weber (Villers 1804). Weber’s contribution was
to give a reason for it – to turn the observation into a ‘grand socio-economic
theory’ (Young, 2009: 3).
that religion belief possessed a greater influence on daily life than it does
today. The original thesis of Weber refers to capitalist spirit that has its
roots in a Protestant ethic, but has grown into an independent, even secular
worldview over time. Therefore, the impact of religion may be still felt today,
even though these patterns of action may be perceived as entirely nonreligious
For example, on
basis of Weber’s work we would therefore not so much expect a link between
one’s ethic and being a Protestant now, as a link between one’s ethic and
whether one lives in a society historically dominated by the Protestant ethic.
Easterlin argued that ‘the worldwide spread of modern economic growth has depended
chiefly on the diffusion of a body of knowledge concerning new production
techniques’ (Easterlin 1981: 1). Like Weber, he argues that the Reformation was
a crucial cultural moment in the development of capitalism, because it made
literacy a central part of religious devotion. Rather suddenly, and for
completely non-economic reasons, the medieval reign of ignorance was rejected,
in its place were demands for investmen in human capital.
Scotland is a
great example of this. A founding principle of the Scottish Reformation (1560)
was free education for the poor. Perhaps the world’s first local school tax was
established in 1633 (strengthened in 1646). In this environment grew the
Scottish Enlightenment: David Hume, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Ferguson, and the
godfather of modern economics, Adam Smith. By this time, Scottish scholarship
stood so far above that of other nations that Voltaire wrote, “we look to
Scotland for all our ideas of civilization”.
As Becker and
Wossman noticed in their study, ‘Was Weber Wrong? A human Capital Theory of
Protestant Economic History’, Protestantism was indeed associated with both
higher economic prosperity and better education. As a consequence, it can be
argued that the level of literacy between countries can account for the whole
gap in economic prosperity. Firstly, unlike the Catholic religion, where only
the priests were able to read and therefore to spread God’s Word, Luther
demanded that all Christians should be able to read the Gospel by themselves.
Secondly, he also encouraged universal schooling for the simple reason that
people had to be literate in order to be able to read God’s Word, the Bible.
His actions led to increased literacy among Protestants, which, incidentally,
could then be used in economic activities. In this view, religion in the form
of Protestant denomination may well be associated with economic affluence, but
not because of any difference in work ethic, but rather incidentally because it
furthered the creation of human capital (Becker & Wossman, 2007: 2).
Conversely, after controlling for the positive effect on literacy on economic
success, there remains no significant difference in economic success between
Protestant and Catholic countries. Thus, taking into account how education has
been spread throughout the world during the last century, determining a global
literacy rate of 86,7% (Wikipedia), later studies have demonstrated that any
denomination-based work ethic assumptions made by Weber proved to be somewhat
false, making his theory more inconsistent in present.
revolution is sometimes traced back to the patenting of James Watt’s steam
engine in 1769. But machine technology was not a major force in the British
economy until some time later. Indeed, Adam Smith, the “godfather” of modern
economics, felt that Watt’s engine was an interesting invention but saw little
useful application for it. Before 1800, the steam engine was really just a
curious gadget. Strong and sustained growth in average incomes did not begin
until the 1800s. Per-capita GDP has grown exponentially,4 and with little
interruption, since about 1820. This is what has set Europe (and the “Western
offshoots”) apart from the rest of the world, and has made the
Protestant–Catholic differential trivial by comparison.
the religious domains of Western Europe remained divided by economic
prosperity. Between 1850 and 1940, Protestant Europe had much higher per capita
GDP growth than Catholic Europe (223% vs. 137% respectively). The real
industrial powerhouses were Protestant countries. During this period, every
Protestant country except the Netherlands had a much higher growth rate than
even the best performing Catholic country. By 1940, Protestant countries were
substantially richer, with a per capita GDP of $5,800 – 40% higher than in the
Catholic countries. The spread of the industrial revolution across Europe
produced very large increases in income. At the same time, the differential
between Protestant and Catholic Europe continued to widen.