Economies of faith: The Eurozone crisis and religious history

In a recent article on the Guardian website the deputy director of Warwick’s Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy Dr Sascha Becker suggested that the current turmoil in the Eurozone has been shaped in part by religious history. He argues that a noticeable north-south divide to the economic collapse, with Northern European countries such as Germany weathering the storm, while southern countries such as Spain and Italy flounder, follows Max Weber’s theory that the Protestant work ethic helped to further the cause of capitalism. Becker’s research has focused on a greater emphasis placed upon education by Protestants, arguing that this has led to more economic cohesion in Northern European countries.

Becker’s work is based upon statistical analysis and he stresses that religion is only one factor in the European economic crisis but for scholars of sixteenth and seventeenth century religious history it raises a series of questions.

Was the influence of monastic education and Jesuit schooling in Catholic countries taken into account? The Jesuit model of education was so successful that it was frequently copied in Protestant countries.

To what extent has the belief that Protestantism is the religion of the book inflected our understanding of education in this period? As Alexandra Walsham’s work has clearly demonstrated Catholicism was also a faith with a vested interest in scriptural study and literacy.

Becker argues that more women had access to education in Protestant countries, suggesting that Protestantism ‘was an early driver of emancipation’. This potentially discounts those women who may have been educated at home or in convents (it is not mentioned in the article whether there were statistics available for these groups).

As is pointed out in the article Becker’s analysis does not explain the current economic situation in France (predominantly Catholic) and Greece (Greek Orthodox), perhaps reflecting the fact that it is very difficult to apply a ‘one faith’ model to countries whose religious geography became increasingly confused during the Reformation, not to mention the fact that the borders of European nations have only relatively recently become fixed.

What do you think? Has the economic crisis in Europe got its roots in the Reformation?

Alexandra Walsham, Church papists: Catholicism, conformity, and confessional polemic in early modern England (1993)

Mary Laven, Virgins of venice: Enclosed lives and broken vows in Renaissance Venice (2002)

Thomas Worcester (ed), The Cambridge Companion to the Jesuits (2008)

One thought on “Economies of faith: The Eurozone crisis and religious history

  1. I wonder how Ireland might fit into Becker’s statistical analysis?
    Ireland is a country whose second level education system was mainly established under the auspices of the Catholic Church in the 19th and 20th centuries, but whose third level education system was largely developed by a predominantly Protestant British administration, beginning with the foundation of Trinity College Dublin in 1592. I suspect that if Becker were to broaden the scope of his analysis to include Ireland he might be able to use it as an exemplar in either direction – a traditionally Catholic country whose economy has suffered spectacularly in recent years, or a state imbued with the Protestant work ethic of its former colonisers and current neighbours that is recovering relatively well when compared to some of its southern European ‘Catholic,’ counterparts. In reality, the indiscriminate application of Weber’s theory offers little that can help us understand what has quickly become a series of irrational economic and political developments across Europe and the western world. If, as Weber suggested, the Reformation dignified a professional class that established a capitalist socio-economic model, then the financial crisis that has gripped the global economy recently is surely only the latest in a long line of bubbles, recessions and depressions that highlight the potential dangers of a capitalist system.

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