The BBC recently noted that interest rates on public debt in the Eurozone varied according to the religious majority of the population — Orthodox Greece had the highest interest rates, followed by the Catholic countries with the Protestant countries having the lowest. Interest rates being a measure of risk, this represented clear market judgements on reliability. Similarly, the (Catholic and Orthodox) Eurozone countries most in crisis are the same countries that were forced off the gold standard during its 1870s-1890s deflationary period, while the Protestant countries “stuck it out”.
If this seems some sort of fluke, the secular decline in homicide rates (pdf) in Europe from the C16th onwards happened earliest and most strongly in the Protestant countries of North-western Europe. Catholic countries tend to have higher rates of corruption, lower levels of trust and lower standards of living than Protestant ones. They also have different dominant attitudes to time — Protestant countries tend to be more future-positive, Catholic countries more present-hedonist or past-negative. The contemporary collapse in fertility rates has been stronger in Catholic (and Orthodox) countries than Protestant ones. Serbian historian Srdja Trifkovic, author of an excellent history of the Balkans, has observed that edicts of religious toleration in Protestant Europe tended to stick, those in Catholic Europe were generally not worth the paper they were printed on.
This is rather lot of differences across a range of social phenomenon and a considerable range of history. So, what gives?
Naked before God
The key difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is sola scriptura. In Catholic (and Orthodox) theology, scriptures are the product of the Church, understood as the community of believers. Religious authority in this world flows from the Church and only the Church. Priests are the necessary intermediaries between believers and God — in Catholic churches, the altar is between the priest and the congregation, which faces God through the priest.
In Protestantism, authority flows from the scriptures, from the Word of God via the vehicle of scripture. This authority is available to any believer who reads scripture. Which leaves each believer naked before God, without any priestly intermediary. This encourages the notoriously fissiparous tendencies of Protestantism, its multitude of denominations and sects. But it also places ultimate authority in the congregation, not the minister — the tendency of many forms of Protestantism to have lay election of their local minister or bishop reflects this sense of where authority lies. In Protestant churches the minister is normally between altar and congregation; they face God together.
If one is naked before God, then the believer’s attention is focused forward to that final accounting. This will naturally generate a future-focused attitude to time. Which directs attention to a future were common benefits can be created via common actions. For example, by higher levels of capital accumulation.
Nor can any priest relieve you of any burden for your actions. If you break your word, you are accountable for that, forever. This will tend to make you are more reliable bargainer, whether for debts, promises of toleration or whatever. Including common political action.
Especially as the sense of authority as residing in believers will encourage the development of more “embedded” institutions of political authority. Not least because future-focused political action to make institutions more accountable will be easier to arrange among future-focused reliable bargainers who have common, and more diffused, views of ultimate authority.
Future-focused, reliable bargainers who are naked before God with more “embedded” political institutions will also tend to produce lower homicide rates in an interaction between states more able to provide protective services and populaces more willing to rely on same and less likely to commit crimes.
All of this will encourage a higher trust, lower corruption, more future-focused society. Which will tend to lead to higher standards of living. Hence the range of differences noted above.
Conscience or doctrine?
That access to the authority of scripture is available to all believers also licenses individual conscience — yours and others — as part of this devolved authority. Political action, however radical, in Protestant Europe has tended to be open, democratic and reformist. Conversely, radical political action in Catholic (and Orthodox) Europe had much more of the Jacobin model of hierarchical, doctrinaire and violent political action. Whether the Jacobinised Marxism of Leninism, the Jacobinised nationalism of Fascism or the Jacobinised Aryan racism of Nazism (as mass movements, all originally products of Catholic and Orthodox Europe; they all tended to play less well in Protestant Europe). Jacobinism, in its origins and devolutions, may have overtly and violently rejected the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, but it tended to reproduce their notions of authority and structures of hierarchy. The Church being the model of organised social action that political activists were most familiar with while reformist movements in Protestant Europe tended to be more, well, Presbyterian, Methodist and Lutheran (or even positively Anglican) in tone and action. But similar differences can be drawn in the outlooks and behaviour of the dominant groups in Protestant compared to Catholic (and Orthodox) societies — outside the small countries (Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Monaco), the Catholic monarchies have mostly not survived, while the Protestant monarchies mostly have.
As for contemporary fertility rates, social policy is highly likely to be more female-positive in societies where the clerics are married and authority resides with the community of believers than in countries where priests are unmarried male clerics — so female experience has no “in” among the gatekeepers of righteousness. Once technology developed so that women gained control over their own fertility and access to independent income, if social policy does not given women at least some chance of having their own income while raising children then, faced between having their own income or giving up on children, income will win sufficiently often to drive down fertility rates. In other words, forcing that choice will create enough of a “womb strike” that fertility rates plummet.
Of course, priests and clerics are not the only way misogyny can be entrenched — Japan has also suffered a collapse in fertility because women are also confronted with such a stark choice of career or childbearing-and-domestic-drudgery.
Having religious authority a monopoly of celibate males also bit the Catholic Church over the child abuse scandals — a majority of the hierarchy became involved in cover-up and facilitation in jurisdiction after jurisdiction because said childless celibates lacked the visceral “that might be MY child!” response that largely insulated the Protestant Churches from similar failures. The increasing shortage of Catholic vocations — so the traditional method of locking erring priests up in a monastery on bread-and-water became both less available and less attractive — encouraged the embracing the delusions of therapy as “cure” so that, without the visceral “that might be MY child” response, the disaster unfolded.
Islam, with its belief in the Qur’an as the direct Word of God, is, in many ways, Protestantism-on-steroids. But the Qur’an is rather less accessible than the Christian scriptures, with their clear narrative structures. Furthermore, Islamic law is a product of religion, not a human creation; one administered by religious authorities based on specialised training. Hence the social device of the fatwa. Islam therefore rather lacks the licensing of individual conscience — both yours and others — that is a feature of Protestantism. Sharia is also explicitly based on a hierarchy of submission — male believers over female believers, believers over other One-God believers, non-People of the Book excluded utterly — which traditionally incorporates licensed predation. Not such a good basis for broad social bargaining. While political structures have been strongly autocratic. (One wonders whether a trinitarian conception of God encourages a broader view of social order and natural order than does a solitary whatever-He-wills Allah.) Greater reliance on lineage structures as social protection (particularly given the continuing salience of herding in the Middle East) encouraged devices such as cousin (“in-lineage”) marriage, rather than the investment in the common institutions of Christian (both Catholic and Protestant) Europe encouraged by medieval Catholicism’s strict consanguinity rules blocking reliance on lineage connections for social protection. The above differences between Protestant and Catholic Europe are differences within a common Christian framework.
Early Islam did produce sustained economic growth, but it then got institutionally “stuck”; blocked from engaging in the institutional experimentation and evolution that led to the European take-off — a take-off most intense in Protestant North-Western Europe.
Theology has consequences. Surprising and extensive ones that still affect contemporary social outcomes.