Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Dec/08

28

Which came first & why?

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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though denigrating “heathen Popery” is  no longer in fashion, there is often an implicit assumption that Protestantism superseded Catholicism in the same manner that Christianity supposedly superseded Judaism.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.

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15 comments

  • Gotchaye · December 28, 2008 at 1:12 pm

    Since there’s always been so much talk about whether or not there’s a point to having a blog like this, I thought I’d say that this seems to me to be exactly the sort of thing that a secular right blog is good for. Almost every mainstream conservative figure understands religion as freely chosen and as prior to mere facts about one’s life, and this makes them completely incapable of seriously analyzing any issue that requires an understanding of the empirical ways in which religious beliefs form and function. This leads to embarrassing claims of the type you point out – where a difference in religion must explain a difference in life outcomes and never the other way around.

  • Polichinello · December 29, 2008 at 7:00 am

    In support of your point, Razib, the former ambassador to Mexico, Jeffery Davidow, suggested that something like 40% of Chiapas (the poorest area in Mexico, and the most indigenous) was evangelical. One of the big reasons he argued that this was happening was because the women were attracted by evangelicalism’s teetotaling discipline. If it can cut down on alcohol abuse amongst Mexico’s indigenous population, I don’t see how it could not improve their situation.

    Of course, I have to admit, that the above paragraph is full of suppositions and one shaky number.

  • Polichinello · December 29, 2008 at 7:32 am

    Another structural reform Christianity would bring: monogamy. As I’m sure you’re aware, Sailer has been thumping the tub about African polygamy and its ruinous social effects. Christian monogamy would make for a healthier society, regardless of the truth behind its theology.

  • Author comment by Caledonian · December 29, 2008 at 9:34 am

    The poor embraced Catholicism because they needed a way to cope with the crushing realities of their daily lives, and Catholicism was the most effective thing available.

    In a manner of speaking, they were in pain, and would accept whatever opiate they could get.

    But its effectiveness at reconciling people to their state is dependent upon its ineffectiveness at changing that state.

    People who see that doing better than they are is possible, who want to improve their lives beyond what tradition permits, now see the faith of their ancestors as a hindrance to what they want to accomplish. They will therefore reach for Protestantism because 1) it’s different but fulfills some of the societal-cohesion functions of the old religions, and 2) it happens to be dominant in places that are/were doing quite well for themselves, relatively speaking.

  • Author comment by David Hume · December 29, 2008 at 9:41 am

    Christian monogamy would make for a healthier society, regardless of the truth behind its theology.

    FWIW, monogamy is a Greco-Roman norm, with Jewish Christianity picked up, just like Rabbinical Jews picked up matrilineal descent from Roman laws having to deal with the nationality of non-citizens.

    The poor embraced Catholicism because they needed a way to cope with the crushing realities of their daily lives, and Catholicism was the most effective thing available.

    You should stop making stuff up based on what little you know. Christianity (Catholicism) spread by elite emulation. The original core group of gentile Christians from the urban lower middle classes.

  • Polichinello · December 29, 2008 at 9:56 am

    FWIW, monogamy is a Greco-Roman norm, with Jewish Christianity picked up…

    Aha, but I know you’ve read your Stark, so you know, too, that Christianity added on prohibitions on contraception, abortion, female infanticide and divorce which made for a more stable family situation and gave them a competitive advantage against their pagan neighbors. So there!

    Still, even if we’re talking about pushing the Greco-Roman system forward under Christian colors, it does offer an improvement to sub-Saharan Africa’s polygamous environment.

  • Author comment by Caledonian · December 29, 2008 at 10:20 am

    “You should stop making stuff up based on what little you know. Christianity (Catholicism) spread by elite emulation.”

    That’s nice. As it happens, it also picked up a lot of existing religious beliefs along the way. But the poor clung to the result because they needed it, not because it was the belief of the most powerful.

    That’s why people cling to any religion. Which one they pick may have a lot to do with factors like the elites, but it has nothing to do with why they pick one in the first place.

    You should stop shooting your mouth off every time you don’t understand a comment.

  • Author comment by David Hume · December 29, 2008 at 10:41 am

    Aha, but I know you’ve read your Stark, so you know, too, that Christianity added on prohibitions on contraception, abortion, female infanticide and divorce which made for a more stable family situation and gave them a competitive advantage against their pagan neighbors. So there!

    I’m a lot more skeptical of Stark than I once was. I doubt a lot of the prohibitions were adhered to anymore (Christians didn’t adhere to them in the early modern period when we have data; instead of infanticide they simply gave away their children to foundling charities with mortality rates on the order of 99% before the age of 5).

    Still, even if we’re talking about pushing the Greco-Roman system forward under Christian colors, it does offer an improvement to sub-Saharan Africa’s polygamous environment.

    Sure, but you do know that much of indigenous African Christianity accepts polygamy? That’s one of the (unfortunate) attempts to de-Europeanize Christianity.

    Caledonian, you’ve confused a secondary factor with the primary cause. You know why you have, but I’m sure you’ll keep repeating yourself as you always do.

  • Polichinello · December 29, 2008 at 12:08 pm

    I’m a lot more skeptical of Stark than I once was.

    With good reason. I read a recent work of his where he unquestioningly passed along the “100 million Christians in China” stat, which raised a few flags.

    I doubt a lot of the prohibitions were adhered to anymore (Christians didn’t adhere to them in the early modern period when we have data; instead of infanticide they simply gave away their children to foundling charities with mortality rates on the order of 99% before the age of 5).

    Well, can you really compare behavior during the early Enlightenment–when Christianity was a somewhat faltering, though regnant faith–with the first few centuries of Christianity, when it was a minority religion being fueled by little else beyond its followers’ zeal?

    Sure, but you do know that much of indigenous African Christianity accepts polygamy?

    Eagerly accepts or looks the other way? There is a difference in that you still have an ideal of monogamy. As you know, you could find these sorts of economical compacts in Europe when Christianity was spreading, too.

  • Author comment by David Hume · December 29, 2008 at 1:06 pm

    Well, can you really compare behavior during the early Enlightenment–when Christianity was a somewhat faltering, though regnant faith–with the first few centuries of Christianity, when it was a minority religion being fueled by little else beyond its followers’ zeal?

    OK, that datum was from French orphanages. But those orphanages were run by the church, and were simply extensions of the foundling institutions which had existed from the early medieval period on. Your point about the zeal of a small minority is on point, and Stark observes that. But that’s why I found his model of exponential growth indefinitely implausible at the end of the day. Adherence to the norms of Christianity weaken with increased size; a negative feedback loop. Though I’ve found other data which does show a noticeable logistic in Egypt using analysis of names.

    Eagerly accepts or looks the other way? There is a difference in that you still have an ideal of monogamy. As you know, you could find these sorts of economical compacts in Europe when Christianity was spreading, too.

    Local African churches without European connections accept it. Churches with European connections look the other way. The analogy with Europe fails because of the Reformation: it destroyed the unified institutional structure which would put a clamp on increased variance in practice as the religion spread. The international norms of European Christianity during the pre-Reformation era was mediated by a cosmopolitan clerical class which had a Latin lingua franca which spanned national divisions. That’s not possible now outside of Catholicism because the precedent for faction exists in any Protestant church.

  • Author comment by David Hume · December 29, 2008 at 1:09 pm

    To be clear:

    1) I think Christianity was expanding in a manner which could be modeled as a logistic growth curve

    2) I’m more skeptical than I was in the past of Stark’s claim that Christians behaved differently by the time they got to 10% of the Empire’s population. Remember that Christianity was mostly an urban religion until 400, and urban areas were notorious population sinks. The math doesn’t quite add up.

  • Fred · December 29, 2008 at 2:59 pm

    I think it is worth consideration that protestantism arose to some degree out of the Celtic/North European/Germanic cultural independence and internal competition noted by Caesar in his Commentaries and others since. They were noted for the fluidity of the social order based on individual achievement, usually in combat.

    Those who have been taught in a myriad small ways that the helping hand they seek is at the end of their own arm do not bow easily to religious authority. I think it more likely that social values drove religious reformation than the other way around.

  • Polichinello · December 29, 2008 at 3:19 pm

    I’m not inclined to put too much emphasis on the cultural thing. While you can’t completely discount it, it has to be noticed that you had other attempts at reformation in non-Celtic and Teutonic areas, like Bohemia and Toulon. Also, Ireland is as Celtic as they come, and it remained Catholic for its own historical reasons, but none going back to Julius Ceasar. Even Italy had its rebellions during the Renaissance.

    A better reason to explain the north’s ability to break through is that it was simply further from Rome’s influence. None of the areas that became Protestant ever saw any sort of serious Papal inquisition, for example.

  • Author comment by David Hume · December 29, 2008 at 3:25 pm

    I think it is worth consideration that protestantism arose to some degree out of the Celtic/North European/Germanic cultural independence and internal competition noted by Caesar in his Commentaries and others since. They were noted for the fluidity of the social order based on individual achievement, usually in combat.

    I don’t think this generalization adds utility. Speaking as someone who has read a fair amount about the emergence of Protestantism across Europe.

  • J. · December 30, 2008 at 7:30 am

    Nazi officers and leaders tended to be papists (or lapsed papists), the soldiers of the Wehrmacht, lutheran-evangelical. Sort of Colonel Klink -Sergeant Schultz dichotomy (still noted in America–lots of baptist infantryman, but there are plenty of catholic officers in the ranks, including Petraeus). There were a few exceptions: Reichmarshall Goering was lutheran.

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