The piece that Walter mentioned below makes an interesting assertion:
Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I’ve just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.
This isn’t too surprising a comment from someone of the Anglo-Saxon persuasion; though denigrating “heathen Popery” is no longer in fashion, there is often an implicit assumption that Protestantism superseded Catholicism in the same manner that Christianity supposedly superseded Judaism. But instead of being grounded in soteriology, Protestant superiority impicitly relies a crass Weberian thesis that a shift in specific religious ideas drove social and economic changes more broadly.
As it happens I’ve long been interested in the Protestant Reformation (and the Catholic Reformation). During the 16h century Protestantism was strongest among the urban middle class. Most Protestants might have been rural peasants, as were most Catholics, but a higher percentage of urban dwellers were Protestant, and a higher percentage of Protestants were urban dwellers. This dichotomy is evident in Switzerland, where the Protestant strongholds were cities such as Zurich or Geneva, while the rural areas such as the Forest Cantons remained Catholic. The same pattern was, and is, evident in the Netherlands and France. In England the more isolated rural regions resisted the change to Protestantism most forcefully.
Today another region of the world is seeing a rise of Protestantism at the expense of Catholicism; Latin America. But here the dynamics are different, in large part because the world is different. The majority of Latin Americans are already urban. In places like Chile and Guatemala Protestantism is particularly strong among the marginalized (the poor, the indigenous, etc.). In Brazil the rivalry between Afro-Brazilian cults and evangelical Protestantism is suggestive of the demographic in which the new religion is growing more robustly. Among the middle and upper classes Protestantism has had less success; one reason being that the Roman Catholic Church has long been aligned with the elites in many nations.
It may be that a “Protestant ethic” will now emerge among the evangelized lower orders in many Latin American nations. But my point is that the fact that one would be careful in asserting that Protestantism made these people poorer than Catholics; they were poor before they Protestant! Rather, the causality in Latin America is that the marginalized are disproportionately attracted to Protestantism because their attachment to Catholicism is weak. In other words, religious affiliation is contingent upon socio-demographic variables, religious affiliation does not drive socio-demographic variables. Similarly, although there has been much dispute (and general rejection from what I can tell) about the Weberian thesis of the Protestant ethic, it stands to reason that Protestantism should seem to have an association with economic growth in the early modern period, because it was in urban areas where this religion was strong that the modern economy was primed to lift off with industrialization!
When it comes to debates about the social utility of religion these sorts of causal confusions remain. In South Korea Christians have a lower fertility than those with no religious affiliation, but this has mostly to do with the fact that in South Korea Christianity appeals to the middle and upper middle classes, while less educated rural dwellers are least likely to have a religious affiliation. So back to one section of the piece:
At 24, travelling by land across the continent reinforced this impression. From Algiers to Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Central African Republic, then right through the Congo to Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya, four student friends and I drove our old Land Rover to Nairobi.
We slept under the stars, so it was important as we reached the more populated and lawless parts of the sub-Sahara that every day we find somewhere safe by nightfall. Often near a mission.
Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers – in some ways less so – but more open.
Matthew Parris, the author, was 24 in 1973. Over the past 25 years Christianity has waxed in Africa, and likely grown at a faster clip than Islam (e.g., in Nigeria most of the peoples of the “traditionalist” middle belt have shifted to Christianity, not Islam). When he was traveling in 1973 Christians would have been a smaller proportion of the population, and those who were Christian were almost certainly selection-biased from a particular segment of society. The personality differences might have had less to do with Christianity, and more to do with the type of person who would convert to a world religion and leave their tribal affiliation. In 1550 Protestantism was most vigorous in the regions of England which were most developed by modern economic indices, London and East Anglia. There would have been a strong correlation between Protestantism and development. By 1650 that correlation within England would have disappeared; not because something had changed in Protestantism, but because 95% of the English were now Protestant.