Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock ’n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.

John Lennon

In the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West has been so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.

Anonymous Fellow of the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences


In the course of roughly 500 years, as we have seen, Western civilization rose to a position of extraordinary dominance in the world. Western institutional structures like the corporation, the market and the nation-state became the global standards for competitive economics and politics – templates for the Rest to copy. Western science shifted the paradigms; others either followed or were left behind. Western systems of law and the political models derived from them, including democracy, displaced or defeated the non-Western alternatives. Western medicine marginalized the witch doctors and other faith-healers. Above all, the Western model of industrial production and mass consumption left all alternative models of economic organization floundering in its wake. Even in the late 1990s the West was still clearly the dominant civilization of the world. The five leading Western powers – the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Canada – accounted for 44 per cent of total global manufacturing between them. The scientific world was dominated by Western universities, employees of which won the lion’s share of Nobel prizes and other distinctions. A democratic wave was sweeping the world, most spectacularly in the wake of the 1989 revolutions. Western consumer brands like Levi’s and Coca-Cola flourished almost everywhere; the golden arches of McDonald’s were likewise to be seen in all the major cities in the world. Not only had the Soviet Union collapsed; Japan, which some had predicted would overtake the United States, had stumbled and slid into a lost decade of near-zero growth and deflation. Analysts of international relations struggled to find words sufficiently grand to describe the ascendancy of the United States, the leading power of the Western world: was it an empire? A hegemon? A hyperpuissance?

At the time of writing, in the wake of two burst financial bubbles, two unexpectedly difficult wars, one great recession – and above all in the wake of China’s remarkable ascent to displace Japan as the world’s second-largest economy – the question is whether or not the half-millennium of Western predominance is now finally drawing to a close.

Are we living through the descent of the West? It would not be the first time. Here is how Edward Gibbon described the Goths’ sack of Rome in August 410 AD:

in the hour of savage license, when every passion was inflamed, and every restraint was removed … a cruel slaughter was made of the Romans; and … the streets of the city were filled with dead bodies, which remained without burial during the general consternation … Whenever the Barbarians were provoked by opposition, they extended the promiscuous massacre to the feeble, the innocent, and the helpless … The matrons and virgins of Rome were exposed to injuries more dreadful, in the apprehension of chastity, than death itself … The brutal soldiers satisfied their sensual appetites, without consulting either the inclination or the duties of their female captives … In the pillage of Rome, a just preference was given to gold and jewels … but, after these portable riches had been removed by the more diligent robbers, the palaces of Rome were rudely stripped of their splendid and costly furniture …

The acquisition of riches served only to stimulate the avarice of the rapacious Barbarians, who proceeded, by threats, by blows, and by tortures, to force from their prisoners the confession of hidden treasure … It was not easy to compute the multitudes, who, from an honourable station and a prosperous fortune, were suddenly reduced to the miserable condition of captives and exiles … The calamities of Rome … dispersed the inhabitants to the most lonely, the most secure, the most distant places of refuge.1

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788, tells the story of the last time the West collapsed. Today, many people in the West fear we may be living through a kind of sequel. When you reflect on what caused the fall of ancient Rome, such fears appear not altogether fanciful. Economic crisis; epidemics that ravaged the population; immigrants overrunning the imperial borders; the rise of a rival empire – Persia’s – in the East; terror in the form of Alaric’s Goths and Attila’s Huns. Is it possible that, after so many centuries of supremacy, we now face a similar conjuncture? Economically, the West is stagnating in the wake of the worst financial crisis since the Depression, while many of the Rest are growing at unprecedented rates. We live in fear of pandemics and man-made changes to the global climate. There is alarming evidence that some immigrant communities within our societies have become seedbeds for Islamist ideology and terrorist networks. A nuclear terrorist attack would be far more devastating to London or New York than the Goths were to Rome. Meanwhile, a rival empire is on the rise in the East: China, which could conceivably become the biggest economy in the world within the next two decades.

Gibbon’s most provocative argument in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was that Christianity was one of the fatal solvents of the first version of Western civilization. Monotheism, with its emphasis on the hereafter, was fundamentally at odds with the variegated paganism of the empire in its heyday. Yet it was a very specific form of Christianity – the variant that arose in Western Europe in the sixteenth century – that gave the modern version of Western civilization the sixth of its key advantages over the rest of the world: Protestantism – or, rather, the peculiar ethic of hard work and thrift with which it came to be associated. It is time to understand the role God played in the rise of the West, and to explain why, in the late twentieth century, so many Westerners turned their backs on Him.

If you were a wealthy industrialist living in Europe in the late nineteenth century, there was a disproportionate chance that you were a Protestant. Since the Reformation, which had led many northern European states to break away from the Roman Catholic Church, there had been a shift of economic power away from Catholic countries like Austria, France, Italy, Portugal and Spain and towards Protestant countries such as England, Holland, Prussia, Saxony and Scotland. It seemed as if the forms of faith and ways of worship were in some way correlated with people’s economic fortunes. The question was: what was different about Protestantism? What was it about the teaching of Luther and his successors that encouraged people not just to work hard but also to accumulate capital? The man who came up with the most influential answer to these questions was a depressive German professor named Max Weber – the father of modern sociology and the author who coined the phrase ‘the Protestant ethic’.

Weber was a precocious youth. Growing up in Erfurt, one of the strongholds of the German Reformation, the thirteen-year-old Weber gave his parents as a Christmas present an essay entitled ‘About the Course of German History, with Special Reference to the Positions of the Emperor and the Pope’. At the age of fourteen, he was writing letters studded with references to classical authors from Cicero to Virgil and already had an extensive knowledge of the philosophy of, among others, Kant and Spinoza. His early academic career was one triumph after another: at the age of twenty-two he was already a qualified barrister. Within three years he had a doctorate for a thesis on ‘The History of Medieval Business Organizations’ and at twenty-seven his Habilitation on ‘Roman Agrarian History and its Significance for Private Law’ secured him a lectureship at the University of Berlin. He was appointed professor of economics at Freiburg at the age of thirty, winning fame and notoriety for his inaugural lecture, which called for a more ambitious German imperialism.

This arc of academic ascent was painfully interrupted in 1897, when Weber suffered a paralysing nervous breakdown, precipitated by the death of his father following a bitter row between them. In 1899 he felt obliged to resign his academic post. He spent three years recuperating, in the course of which he became increasingly preoccupied with religion and its relationship to economic life. His parents had both been Protestants; indeed, his maternal grandfather was a devout Calvinist, while his other grandfather was a successful linen merchant. His mother was a true Calvinist in her asceticism; his father, by contrast, was a bon vivant, living life to the full thanks to an inherited fortune. The link between religious and economic life was the puzzle at the heart of Weber’s own existence. Which of his parents had the right attitude to worldly wealth?

Until the Reformation, Christian religious devotion had been seen as something distinct from the material affairs of the world. Lending money at interest was a sin. Rich men were less likely than the poor to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Rewards for a pious life lay in the afterlife. All that had changed after the 1520s, at least in the countries that embraced the Reformation. Reflecting on his own experience, Weber began to wonder what it was about the Reformation that had made the north of Europe more friendly towards capitalism than the south. It took a transatlantic trip to provide the answer.

In 1904 Weber travelled to St Louis, Missouri, to attend the Congress of Arts and Sciences at the World Fair.2 The park where the World Fair was held covered more than 200 acres and yet still seemed to overflow with everything that American capitalism had to offer. Weber was dazzled by the shining lights of the Palace of Electricity. The Alternating Current King, Thomas Edison himself, was on hand, the personification of American entrepreneurship. St Louis was brimming with marvels of modern technology, from telephones to motion pictures. What could possibly explain the dynamism of this society, which made even industrial Germany seem staid and slow moving? Almost manically restless, Weber rushed around the United States in search of an answer. A caricature of the absent-minded German professor, he made a lasting impression on his American cousins Lola and Maggie Fallenstein, who were especially struck by his rather bizarre outfit, a checked brown suit with plus-fours and brown knee-socks. But that was nothing compared with the impression America made on Weber. Travelling by train from St Louis to Oklahoma, passing through small Missouri towns like Bourbon and Cuba, Weber finally got it:

This kind of place is really an incredible thing: tent camps of the workers, especially section hands for the numerous railroads under construction; ‘streets’ in a natural state, usually doused with petroleum twice each summer to prevent dust, and smelling accordingly; wooden churches of at least 4–5 denominations … Add to this the usual tangle of telegraph and telephone wires, and electrical trainlines under construction, for the ‘town’ extends into the unbounded distance.3

The little town of St James, about 100 miles west of St Louis, is typical of the thousands of new settlements that sprang up along the railroads as they spread westwards across America. When Weber passed through it a hundred years ago, he was amazed at the town’s huge number of churches and chapels of every stripe. With the industrial extravaganza of the World Fair still fresh in his memory, he began to discern a kind of holy alliance between America’s material success and its vibrant religious life.

When Weber returned to his study in Heidelberg he wrote the second part of his seminal two-part essay, ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’. It contains one of the most influential of all arguments about Western civilization: that its economic dynamism was an unintended consequence of the Protestant Reformation. Whereas other religions associated holiness with the renunciation of worldly things – monks in cloisters, hermits in caves – the Protestant sects saw industry and thrift as expressions of a new kind of hard-working godliness. The capitalist ‘calling’ was, in other words, religious in origin: ‘To attain … self-confidence [in one’s membership of the Elect] intense worldly activity is recommended … [Thus] Christian asceticism … strode into the market-place of life.’4 ‘Tireless labour’, as Weber called it, was the surest sign that you belonged to the Elect, that select band of people predestined by God for salvation. Protestantism, he argued, ‘has the effect of liberating the acquisition of wealth from the inhibitions of traditionalist ethics; it breaks the fetters on the striving for gain not only by legalizing it, but … by seeing it as directly willed by God’. The Protestant ethic, moreover, provided the capitalist with ‘sober, conscientious, and unusually capable workers, who were devoted to work as the divinely willed purpose of life’.5 For most of history, men had worked to live. But the Protestants lived to work. It was this work ethic, Weber argued, that gave birth to modern capitalism, which he defined as ‘sober, bourgeois capitalism with its rational organization of free labour’.6

Weber’s thesis is not without its problems. He saw ‘rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the calling’ as ‘one of the fundamental elements of the spirit of modern capitalism’.7 But elsewhere he acknowledged the irrational character of ‘Christian asceticism’: ‘The ideal type of the capitalistic entrepreneur … gets nothing out of his wealth for himself, except the irrational sense of having done his job well’; he ‘exists for the sake of his business, instead of the reverse’, which ‘from the view-point of personal happiness’ was once again ‘irrational’.8 Even more problematic was Weber’s scathing sideswipe at the Jews, who posed the most obvious exception to his argument.* ‘The Jews’, according to Weber, ‘stood on the side of the politically and speculatively oriented adventurous capitalism; their ethos was … that of pariah-capitalism. Only Puritanism carried the ethos of the rational organization of capital and labour.’9 Weber was also mysteriously blind to the success of Catholic entrepreneurs in France, Belgium and elsewhere. Indeed, his handling of evidence is one of the more glaring defects of his essay. The words of Martin Luther and the Westminster Confession sit uneasily alongside quotations from Benjamin Franklin and some distinctly unsatisfactory data from the German state of Baden about Protestant and Catholic educational attainment and income. Later scholars, notably the Fabian economic historian R. H. Tawney, have tended to cast doubt on Weber’s underlying argument that the direction of causation ran from religious doctrine to economic behaviour.10 On the contrary, much of the first steps towards a spirit of capitalism occurred before the Reformation, in the towns of Lombardy and Flanders; while many leading reformers expressed distinctly anti-capitalist views. At least one major empirical study of 276 German cities between 1300 and 1900 found ‘no effects of Protestantism on economic growth’, at least as measured by the growth of city size.11 Some cross-country studies have arrived at similar conclusions.12

Nevertheless, there are reasons to think that Weber was on to something, even if he was right for the wrong reasons. There was indeed, as he assumed, a clear tendency after the Reformation for Protestant countries in Europe to grow faster than Catholic ones, so that by 1700 the former had clearly overtaken the latter in terms of per-capita income, and by 1940 people in Catholic countries were on average 40 per cent worse off than people in Protestant countries.13 Protestant former colonies have also fared better economically than Catholic ones since the 1950s, even if religion is not a sufficient explanation for that difference.14 Because of the central importance in Luther’s thought of individual reading of the Bible, Protestantism encouraged literacy, not to mention printing, and these two things unquestionably encouraged economic development (the accumulation of ‘human capital’) as well as scientific study.15 This proposition holds good not just for countries such as Scotland, where spending on education, school enrolment and literacy rates were exceptionally high, but for the Protestant world as a whole. Wherever Protestant missionaries went, they promoted literacy, with measurable long-term benefits to the societies they sought to educate; the same cannot be said of Catholic missionaries throughout the period from the Counter-Reformation to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962–5).16 It was the Protestant missionaries who were responsible for the fact that school enrolments in British colonies were, on average, four to five times higher than in other countries’ colonies. In 1941 over 55 per cent of people in what is now Kerala were literate, a higher proportion than in any other region of India, four times higher than the Indian average and comparable with the rates in poorer European countries like Portugal. This was because Protestant missionaries were more active in Kerala, drawn by its ancient Christian community, than anywhere else in India. Where Protestant missionaries were not present (for example, in Muslim regions or protectorates like Bhutan, Nepal and Sikkim), people in British colonies were not measurably better educated.17 The level of Protestant missionary activity has also proved to be a very good predictor of post-independence economic performance and political stability. Recent surveys of attitudes show that Protestants have unusually high levels of mutual trust, an important precondition for the development of efficient credit networks.18 More generally, religious belief (as opposed to formal observance) of any sort appears to be associated with economic growth, particularly where concepts of heaven and hell provide incentives for good behaviour in this world. This tends to mean not only hard work and mutual trust but also thrift, honesty, trust and openness to strangers, all economically beneficial traits.19

Religions matter. In earlier chapters, we saw how the ‘stability ethic’ of Confucianism played a part in imperial China’s failure to develop the kind of competitive institutional framework that promoted innovation in Western Europe – even if China was far from the static, unchanging society described by Weber in his sequel to ‘The Protestant Ethic’, Confucianism and Taoism (1916). We saw how the power of the imams and mullahs snuffed out any chance of a scientific revolution in the Islamic world. And we saw how the Roman Catholic Church acted as one of the brakes on economic development in South America. But perhaps the biggest contribution of religion to the history of Western civilization was this. Protestantism made the West not only work, but also save and read. The Industrial Revolution was indeed a product of technological innovation and consumption. But it also required an increase in the intensity and duration of work, combined with the accumulation of capital through saving and investment. Above all, it depended on the accumulation of human capital. The literacy that Protestantism promoted was vital to all of this. On reflection, we would do better to talk about the Protestant word ethic.

The question is: has the West today – or at least a significant part of it – lost both its religion and the ethic that went with it?

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