Johan Fourie's blog

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Posts Tagged ‘religion

How religion shapes an economy

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Harare billboard

Source: Her Zimbabwe

Drive around Harare and you will notice something very peculiar. Billboards across the city do not advertise the latest car model or data bundle or washing powder. In Harare, by contrast, almost every billboard advertises church services. They all follow a precise formula: next to the photo of the charismatic spiritual leader is the date of the event and a promise, best summarised in this example: ‘Freedom from poverty/freedom from disease/freedom from barrenness.’ The implication: join us to improve your material welfare.

On my visit last year, I spoke to several university students who attend these services. One told the incredible story of a pastor who arrived one Sunday morning at his church with a truck full of bricks. These were ‘blessed bricks’, he proclaimed; one of them built into your house would, according to the good pastor, alleviate you from material want. According to the student, he sold each of the 10 000 bricks on the truck for $10. The last few ones even fetched as high as $50. Do the math. It would seem that at least one person’s material welfare did improve significantly.

This and similar stories by the students reminded me of something that had happened five centuries ago. By the 16th century, the abuse of indulgences – a payment to reduce the punishment for sins – had become a serious problem that the Catholic Church in Europe recognized but was unable to restrain effectively. A young German professor of theology, Martin Luther, rejected the belief that freedom from God’s punishment for sin could be purchased with money, and penned his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517, a date now considered the start of the Protestant Reformation.

Luther’s movement, and the ones it would kindle elsewhere, heralded an era of prosperity across Northern Europe. The Catholic city-states of Southern Europe – think Venice – were some of the wealthiest in 14th and 15th century Europe. But by the 17th and 18th centuries, these had been supplanted by cities in the Protestant North, notably in Holland and then England.

Many scholars have linked the Protestant Reformation – at least indirectly – to this reversal of fortunes. German sociologist Max Weber, for example, argued that the Reformation encouraged the ethics of hard work, thrift and efficiency, and that this resulted in a change in savings behaviour by the followers of the new religion, with consequences for investment and growth. Others highlighted the impact the new religion had on literacy and education, as it emphasized adherent’s ability to read and write, and that this channel of causation was what propelled the North forward. But proving these theories empirically was difficult.

A new NBER Working Paper by Davide Cantoni, Jeremiah Dittmar and Noam Yuchtman posit another channel and finds empirical support for it. The authors assemble a new, highly disaggregated dataset on the degrees received by German university graduates for more than 2000 German towns in the period following the Reformation. They then split the sample in two: those students that qualify with religious degrees, and those with secular degrees. The authors are also able to identify the occupations of these German graduates, and split the occupational sample in two: those who find work as monks and priests, and those who find work in administration and the private sector.

The results are remarkable. In those areas that experienced the Reformation, two things happen. First, the Protestant university students increasingly studied secular subjects, especially degrees that prepared students for public sector jobs, rather than church sector-specific theology. Graduates of Protestant universities, in contrast to universities that remained Catholic, also increasingly took secular, especially administrative, occupations.

Second, the Reformation affected the sectoral composition of fixed investment. In Protestant regions, new construction shifted from religious toward secular purposes, especially the building of palaces and administrative buildings, which reflected the increased wealth and power of secular lords.

In short, the Protestant Reformation changed the preference for physical and human capital investment from unproductive to more productive activities. Importantly, this reallocation was not caused by preexisting economic or cultural differences. The interpretation is therefore that it was the Reformation, and not some other underlying factor, that resulted in this shift to the secularization of graduate degrees and the workforce.

This had profound long-run consequences. With more students studying secular subjects and more of them finding jobs in the public or private sector (instead of the religious sector), a process of cultural and intellectual change was set in motion that culminated, ultimately, in the enlightenment, the scientific revolution and modern economic growth.

Which brings us back to the pastors of Zimbabwe. In a country devoid of private sector opportunities, religious entrepreneurship is a popular calling for charismatic individuals. But if the brightest young minds choose professions in the religious sector – and the little surplus capital that there is, are used to fund mega-church buildings (as you will find when you drive around Harare) – then Zimbabwe is experiencing exactly the opposite of the Protestant Reformation. Selling ‘blessed bricks’ is the modern equivalent of the sixteenth-century indulgences sold for salvation.

The result? Productive investments in human and physical capital becomes investments in unproductive activities. The circle of poverty is strengthened, exploited by religious entrepreneurs who themselves profit from others’ hardship. Are we returning to the Middle Ages, or will our generation’s Martin Luther rise up?

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine on 16 November 2017.


Written by Johan Fourie

January 4, 2018 at 10:57


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December’s festive mood usually allows for some wider reading, and this year I was lucky: Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense is without doubt my favourite book of the year. Written by Francis Spufford, a word guru who teaches writing in London, Unapologetic is many things: a crusade, a pilgrimage, a meditation, and its one of the best books on religion I’ve read.

Spufford makes the case for why he believes in a god, why that God is the Christian God and, to a lesser extent, why he is a member of a Protestant church. The book is not a scientific response to the popular work of Richard Dawkins and others that claim there is no God (“because how could anyone know that – or indeed its opposite”); it’s what Spufford calls an emotional one:

Starting to believe in God is a lot like falling in love, and there is certainly a biochemical basis for that. Cocktails of happy hormones make you gooey and trusting; floods of neurotransmitters make your thoughts skip elatedly along. Does this prove that the person you love is imaginary? It does not. The most the physical accounts demonstrate, where God is concerned, is that He isn’t necessary as an explanation. Which I feel does not really amount to news. I kind of knew that anyway, my philosophical starting-point for all this being that we don’t need God to explain any material aspect of the universe, including our mental states; while conversely, no material fact about the universe is ever going to decide for us whether He exists. God’s non-necessity in explanations is a given, for me. For me, it means that I’m only ever going to get to faith by some process quite separate from proof and disproof; that I’m only going to arrive at it because, in some way that it is not in the power of evidence to rebut, it feels right.

It is a very different argument to Dawkins and his disciples. It’s also, probably, not new (what ever is?), but what makes this book a treat is that it’s not written by the classic Christian crusader: a virtues priest, preacher, or philosopher. It’s written by someone with a self-declared “human propensity to fuck things up”. Actually, as Spufford notes, “human beings all exhibit different varieties of fuck-up”, which is at the core of his message that Christianity is for everyone: “Christianity isn’t supposed to be about gathering up the good people (shiny! happy! squeaky clean!) and excluding the bad people (frightening! alien! repulsive!) for the very simple reason that there aren’t any good people.” We are all losers, he says, but we “are engaged in the impossible experiment of trying to see each other the way God sees us”. Thus, Christians are realistic optimists (or “kind pessimists”), hopeful that things will go better, but with the knowledge, too, that we will – inevitably and repeatedly – fuck up and fail in our attempts for perfection. Which is very different from the superficial way the Christian life is often portrayed:

Take the famous slogan on the atheist bus in London. I know, I know, that’s an utterance by the hardcore hobbyists of unbelief, the people who care enough to be in a state of negative excitement about religion, but in this particular case they’re pretty much stating the ordinary wisdom of everyday belief. The atheist bus says, ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ All right then: which word here is the questionable one, the aggressive one, the one that parts company with actual recognisable human experience so fast it does’t even have time to wave goodbye? It isn’t ‘probably’. New Atheists aren’t claiming anything outrageous when they say that there probably isn’t a God. In fact they aren’t claiming anything substantial at all, because really, how the fuck would they know? It’s as much of a guess for them as it is for me. No, the word that offends against realism here is ‘enjoy’. I’m sorry – enjoy your life? Enjoy your life? I’m not making some kind of neo-puritan objection to enjoyment. Enjoyment is lovely. Enjoyment is great. The more enjoyment the better. But enjoyment is one emotion. It makes no more sense to say that you should feel the single emotion of enjoyment about your life than to say that you should spend it entirely in a state of fear, or of hopping-from-foot-to-foot anticipation. Life just isn’t unanimous like that.


Human emotion is varied, and Spufford shows why Christianity’s appeal may by so strong: it nurtures our emotions rather than simply our thoughts. (In 2004, Alistair McGrath published The Twilight of Atheism, arguing that contrary to the popular opinion, Christianity is on the rise across the globe.) Even if you don’t take religion seriously, you’ll enjoy this book. (I wish I could just quote the first 10 or so pages, which is brilliant and entertaining.) The book is surprisingly funny (like laugh-out-loud funny), but there’s also irritation in his voice, as the frequent but accurate use of ‘fuck’ attests to. (By the way, it’s not often that you would find references to blow jobs and Viagra in a text on religion, or references to God as a sky pixie or the Spaghetti Monster). Unapologetic is light reading, but it is filled with deep insight and profound one-liners. Prediction: Spufford will soon replace Henry Nowen as the quintessential sermon quote – bar the one-liners with ‘fuck’, of course.

What Spufford does best is to show that Christianity is not, firstly, loony (the belief that “our fingers must be in our ears all the time – lalalala, I can’t hear you – just to keep out the plain sound of the real world”) and, secondly, embarrassing. Christianity is not awkward church society meetings or handing out pamphlets when everyone else is partying. It’s not talking in strange languages or singing centuries-old songs or drinking wine and eating bread or pouring water over one’s head. It’s not conservative right or liberal left. It’s not anti-evolution, anti-abortion or antipathy towards anyone. In fact:

…there may well not [be a God]. I don’t know whether there is. And neither do you, and neither does Richard bloody Dawkins, and neither does anyone. It not being, as mentioned before, a knowable item. What I do know is that, when I am lucky, when I have managed to pay attention, when for once I have hushed my noise for a little while, it can feel as if there is one. And so it makes emotional sense to proceed as if He’s there; to dare the conditional. And not timid death-fearing emotional sense, or cowering craven master-seeking sense, or censorious holier-than-thou sense, either. Hopeful sense. Realistic sense. Battered-about-but-still-trying sense. The sense recommended by our awkward sky fairy, who says: don’t be careful. Don’t be surprised by any human cruelty. But don’t be afraid. Far more can be mended than you know.


Written by Johan Fourie

December 31, 2012 at 14:36