Thursday, December 15, 2005

Catholic: It's the new Protestant

New York Times columnist David Brooks builds his Thursday column (subs. req'd) around "The Victory of Reason," by Rodney Stark. In the Brooks version (not having the read the book, we have to take his word for it), Stark claims to overturn the idea that the Catholic Church was a hindrance to the development of capitalism and argues that instead it was an incubator:

Catholic monasteries emerged as capitalist enterprises, serving not only as manufacturing and trading centers, but also as investment houses. And engineers invented or commercialized a vast array of technologies: the compass, the clock, the round-bottom boat, wagons with brakes and front axles, water wheels, eyeglasses, and so on. These innovations and discoveries, Stark argues, were not made by the newly secular, but by people who had a distinctly Christian sense of the sacred ...

The church recognized the dignity of free labor at a time when most other cultures did not. It valued private property and emphasized the essential equality of human beings despite their unequal incomes and stations.

Better historians than us will need to sort this out, but the Brooks version never specifies what the assumed alternative is -- how do we know that monasteries and universities sponsored by royals were not just as productive as the church's centers of scholarship? Indeed, one of the reasons why the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy or Roman was that the princes liked to keep a fairly close eye on what was going on in the religious institutions, a tension that was one of the seeds of the Reformation.

But anyway, the really strange part of the Brooks column is the lessons for today:

it is not enough to simply liberate people and assume they will automatically pursue economic prosperity. People need to be instilled with certain beliefs, like the belief that the future can be better than the present and that individuals have the power to shape their own destiny.

Ideas and culture drive civilizations. The Catholic Church nurtured one of the most impressive economic takeoffs in human history.

That's an interestingly vague use of 'need' -- who does the instilling? And exactly who needs it? Presumably not Brooks himself, but maybe certain others, an attitude that cropped up recently in the context of the neocon original gangstas, Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, and Gertrude Himmelfarb, nicely summarised by James Wolcott:

Mind you, I have no proof, but I imagine that the Fox Newsers, like Kristol and co., profess and promote religious faith must more than they practice it. They caricature liberal elites for "looking down" on religion while they themselves only pretend to look up to it, like Noel Coward imagining himself a nun. They approve of religion in part because, you know, it gives the little people something to do and makes them more manageable.

Finally, Brooks seem to be wondering where the recipe can be applied next:

Today, as Catholicism spreads in Africa and China, it's important to understand the beliefs that encourage people to work hard and grow rich.

China, which is doing just fine with a tiny Christian community, and Africa which is struggling to get any kind of momentum even with the most diverse religious mix in the world.

One point of Irish interest. The supposed constricting effect of Catholicism on economic growth was always one of the more hackneyed explanations of why only Ireland's northeast industrialised. But it's presumably just a coincidence that the Republic has prospered just as the church has gone into decline!

UPDATE: In the context of Christianity in Africa, reader C.I. submits the following Desmond Tutu quote:

When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said "Let us pray." We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.

Another perspective on Brooks' equation of Christianity with progress.

2nd UPDATE: More on Stark's book in the NYT here & here.

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