The social consequences of theology

By Lorenzo

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.

Chartist meeting, Kennington Common, 1848

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.

Who counts?
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.


  1. Posted November 12, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] There is a link between Protestantism and secularism, though the example of France shows Catholic countries are hardly immune.

  2. Peter Hindrup
    Posted November 12, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Legal Eagle: The interesting thing about Protestantism is that it inevitably leads to secularism (or so I believe). If your relationship with God is up to you, well you can decide there is no God at all.

    Seems logical, and a great outcome to me!

  3. M A
    Posted November 12, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    What about Germany?

    Economic growth is driven by the Catholic south (Bavaria/Swabia) while hiearchy and violence was driven by the Protestant north (Prussia).

    Secularism, as contemporarily practiced, is a descendant of Protestantism/Anglo-Calvanism/Puritanism/Unitarianism/Transcendentalism.

  4. Posted November 12, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Actually, Prussia tended to be more meritocratic than the Catholic South. And Nazism originally came out of the Catholic regions of Germany. As for economic growth, Bremen and Hamburg were pretty major growth centres. And the original C19th growth surge was when Germany was dominated by a Protestant establishment.

  5. John H.
    Posted November 12, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    And Nazism originally came out of the Catholic regions of Germany.

    Milgram’s famous experiments suggested Catholics were more inclined to inflict a lethal electric shock though the data on that may not be sound. He argued that the reason for the finding is that Catholics are used to submitting to authority and so more instinctively than others.

    In Deceit and Self Deception Robert Trivers cites research indicating that extreme religiousity is associated with the dopamine D4 receptor, the stronger the function of that receptor the more inclined to religiousity. Good book by the way, we are very good at fooling ourselves … .

    Trivers also cites that religion and parasite loading correlate, though I found his examples suspect. There are good genetic reasons for such a move and it highlights how we tend to ignore evolutionary and biological dynamics when thinking about thinking.

    In the Evolution of God by Robert Wright he cites strong evidence how theology is impacted by the prevailing contingencies, especially in the theology that addresses those outside the group.

    Trivers arge that the great failure of cultural anthropology is its side stepping questions of how biology shapes culture and belief. Psychology is analysed largely independent on these considerations but that is slowly changing. Social theorists however still maintain a cultural analysis as if it can exist independently of biological and environmental considerations.

    It is uncomfortable to entertain the belief that our biology may inform our deepest and most “profound” thoughts about being human. I think the above arguments are over stated but it is early days yet and the research is very embryonic.

    So theology has consequences but also keep in mind that biology and environment have consequences for theology and religion.

  6. Posted November 13, 2012 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    The social consequences of correlations with theology

    What evidence is there that theology leads, rather than follows, social and cultural mores?

  7. John H.
    Posted November 13, 2012 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    What evidence is there that theology leads, rather than follows, social and cultural mores?

    Desipis the book by Robert Wright, The Evolution of God, very much argues that theology is primarily a response to changing environmental and social circumstances. It may look like theology is leading the way when one only has to look at how the church has changed in response to various influences to realise that the church accommodates the culture and alters its theology. As noted on Yes Minister: theology was invented so atheists could stay in the church.

  8. Posted November 13, 2012 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    I am not going for some simple theological determinism here. Yes, of course theology and churches respond to conditions. But usually fairly slowly. And what I am pointing to are some very basic and enduring aspects of theology.

  9. Holden Caulfield
    Posted November 14, 2012 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    I would argue that what we recognise as modern religion was a product of a number of ‘cognitive switches’ that accompanied that very particular moment in history when population growth and increases in agricultural productivity and metallurgy provided the surpluses to underwrite urbanisation and long-distance maritime trade.

    And that particular moment began some time after the recovery of the Mediterranean from the Bronze Age collapse – from about 800BC to 200BC. It was during this 600 years that so many similar civilisational ‘jumps’ occurred largely independently among the Chinese, Persian, Greeks, and Indans.

    It was during this period that we see bronze-age religions get swamped by more monotheistic-type religions emerge closely linked to the rise in literacy. All these religious innovations have literature devoted to the new religious order triumphing over the old, and invariably a new patriarchy, also invariably linked to a psychological retooling away from earth-worship to sun/sky-worship.

    This sun/sky period is the period of mathematics, particularly, geometry and astronomy. It is also the period where literary genres explode – poetry, tragedy, theatre, Olympic games, choral, philosophy, ethics, observation, experimentation,and classification of the physical/natural world. We also see the move away from monarchical/god rule, with the most progressive, the democracies in Greece, which also invented the notion of private property rights being linked to government structures – democracy, and where money arrives as a key conduit of exchange and distribution.

    When we look at indicators of wealth, productivity, and growth, they max out just beyond this period, then decline/plateau until the Industrial Revolution.Funny thing is everything else plateaus as well, and all come to life again around 1800.

  10. Holden Caulfield
    Posted November 14, 2012 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    There is a link between Protestantism and secularism, though the example of France shows Catholic countries are hardly immune.

    OTOH, comparing how the world changed under the leadership of the Protestant British empire versus the French/Spanish is very instructive.

  11. Holden Caulfield
    Posted November 14, 2012 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    Early Islam did produce sustained economic growth, but it then got institutionally “stuck”;

    I think what happened here was the frontier Arab armies were able to stop the Persian and Byzantine armies fighting. This fighting had been sapping commercial and cultural activity out of the eastern Mediterranean for too long. With the breather, commercial and cultural institutions, technologies, and networks, which had existed for well over 1,000 years quickly rejuvenated without all those shy high transaction costs associated with war. Even then, the contributions of Sunni Islam to any restoration of prosperity was minimal. It was basically Persian Shia reconvening the Greek/Persian/Indian intellectual and trade networks to exploit the new imperial peace.

    “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.”

    I think a lot of this also had to the medieval warm period, which swung things decidedly to the advantage of Germany, Scandinavia, and Britain, while the over-farmed, and over-trodden lands of the near East, northern Africa, and east of the Euphrates just dried up.

  12. Posted November 15, 2012 at 4:56 am | Permalink

    Yes Minister: theology was invented so atheists could stay in the church.

    Not just Sir Humphrey, either – this was a standard pagan Roman quip directed at the early Christians (from the jurist Celsus to the senator Symmachus). It’s one reason why early Christians were sometimes accused of atheism; the Romans thought they were bullshitting about their ‘beliefs’.

  13. Jolly
    Posted November 19, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    The Bible says ‘God created man in His image’. The philosopher says ‘Man created God in his image’. The feminist says ‘God is neither male nor female. God is Spirit’. And I say God is one’s conscience.
    All religious laws and rituals are paternalistic. Both Catholicism and Islam are dogmatic and rather authoritarian. The fear of losing power/control over the masses keeps the mean-spirited old men of faith sprinting to subvert enlightenment for orthodoxy. I continue to believe in human grace.

  14. Rien Huizer
    Posted November 22, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Permalink


    Entertaining piece and probably deserving some empirical work. Then you need a slightly more complex approach to those religions and their characteristic properties in order to link properties to socio-economic effects (or maybe vice versa). One problem: Calvinism was typically a bottom-up religion. Anglicanism (is that protestant??) top-down and Lutheranism only took off after it being adopted as state religion by certain German and Scandnavian princes. guess that your protestantism is calvinism.

    Your piece reminds me of attempts by rather distinguished economics academics to link legal systems (usually the simplistic dichotomy of common law/civil code) to cross country variations in economic structure and performance. Also fraught with problems, but superficially appealing..

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