Peter Berger is perhaps the world’s most prominent living sociologist. He has written two dozen books including seminal texts in the development of the sociology of religion, the sociology of knowledge, and the sociology of modern development. He may be the most qualified person to speak with authority on matters pertaining to the relationship between religious beliefs and economic development, so I decided to ask him to explain this to me. This interview is the result, and it’s worth listening to in full. At age 84 Berger is still sharp as a tack and has a long lifetime of study and analysis behind him (and I expect quite a number ahead of him).
When I asked him what he has learned in a lifetime of studying these questions, he told me that there are certain social preconditions to economic development, and that the way a society operates is important in regards to how prosperous that society can become. This is largely a matter of culture, and for most of the world culture basically means religion. Religion drives culture; culture drives social forms; social forms drive development.
Regarding different religions and their level of conduciveness to growth, he said that they are not equally conducive. He pointed out the work of Max Weber, whose seminal work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, argued that the lifestyle which arose from Protestantism played a decisive role in the creation of modern prosperity. For Weber, and Berger agrees, the Calvinistic lifestyle of worldly asceticism became a source of growth and capital accumulation. Worldly asceticism (Weber’s phrase) upheld the virtue of productive labor in this world, as opposed to an otherworldly orientation often associated with medieval Catholicism. The focus on this life as opposed to the afterlife tends to create large income streams. But worldly asceticism looks askance at lives of excessive spending and conspicuous consumption, which are often associated with wealth. The result is a well-educated, highly skilled diligent work force and large pools of capital. Without this, or something like it, modern capitalism would not have arisen as it did.
Not all religions, at least in the current form, have these same characteristics, therefore not all religions are equally conducive to development. Not surprisingly, Berger says he has been accused of racism or bias because of these views. But he points out that it’s not a matter of bias; it’s simply a matter of facing the facts.
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