Saturday, 27 October 2012


I enjoy receiving queries based on my website and answering them. I received this and provided this reply which may or may not have been useful:

Dear Dr.Worsfold,

I hope you don't mind me sending you an email. I study sociology and one of my fields of interest is Max Weber's Protestant Ethic. During a search on the internet I came across your homepage, which is really helpful. I am also interested in general sociology of religion and I learned a lot from your site. It's really great that you made this website. Since you know so much about sociology of religion I thought maybe you can give me an opinion.

What I wanted to ask you is wether you know Rodney Stark's publication "Victory of Reason" where Stark also criticizes Max Weber's Protestant Ethic thesis and openly calls it wrong a couple of times. I have just finished reading Stark's book and I'm not sure what to think about it. Stark's explanation sounds senseful and when you hear it then it all fits together and it looks like there was no reason at all for a Protestant Ethic which motivated the people and broke their traditionalism. I'd like to know what is your opinion on Stark's book? Do you think that Stark has disproven Weber or made the Protestant Ethic obsolete? In case you haven't read it I tried to give a short summary below:

According to Stark christianity is indeed a major force in the development of the western world and that's because christianity encourages the belief in reason. He lists famous scientists like Descartes,Newton,Galileo which were all christians and believe in a creator. The rise of science is on outgrowth of christian doctrine according to Stark.

The christian doctrine of free will encourages individualism and that only christianity emphasizes human rights and individualism while other religions only recognize the collective. And individualism puts the focus on the own actions of man.

Stark criticizes Weber buy saying that in the catholic culture work has been appreciated long before the time of the Protestant Ethic. Stark thinks that capitalism existed first in Italy in "full power" and then expanded to the northern countries, but only to those countries with enough freedom. He says that freedom and the right to personal property are immensly important and that the right to property was also a result of theologians who concluded from the bible that every human has the right to his own property. He also links technical innovations to freedom cause innovations only take place when there's freedom and property rights.

In short he says that christianity did not encourage capitalism through the Protestant Ethic but instead it encouraged freedom, individualism and it spoke in favor of commerce. He also says that it was not catholicism which impeded capitalism in France,Spain and Italy but in reality it was tyranny/lack of freedom, like for example through guilds which restricted free labor.

Best regards, M  W

I replied:

I think Stark is wrong for a larger reason. The argument goes round a bit so I'll try and make it.

Weber's Protestant Ethic is rather a Calvinist Ethic, based on people looking for clues about their own salvation already decided by God. They were committed to godly living (they didn't have to be after all - a few said seeing as God has already decided their salvation they may as well live as they please). So as a result they didn't consume but lived frugally, saved, invested and made lots of money. Thus the spirit of capitalism derived from Protestantism in this form. Further, there was a kind of inner rationality and drive to this Protestantism that was different from the timeless symbolisms and superstitions say in Catholicism and other world religions.

The problem is that in historical terms that Calvinists were too few in numbers. Also they may have made lots of money but it doesn't make them capitalists. I live in a house owned by the Leonard Chamberlain Trust, and he was a Calvinist who had pots of money, but he was a merchant and property owner before capitalism and the big ideological shift. Yes, they were in guilds and their first worship houses were based on guild buildings. Capitalists were likely to be both non-conformists and C of E in Britain, and across the religion in Europe. Capitalism is in part a result of the Scottish and French Enlightenment ideologically, and the rise of the middle class from the guilds who could make more money through their technological edge.

So Stark is right. But he is also wrong. The point about Weber is he has come up with an example as how ideology and belief can motivate someone's economic action, and this is in contrast to Marx who says that all ideology is a product of the stage reached in the ownership of technology. Weber's example is feeble and too close to his own family, whereas the general point is a good one.

So in as far as Christianity as a belief system encourages individualism and scientific endeavour (did it?), Stark is actually supporting the wider point being made by Weber. In general an argument can be made that those who made a scientific breakthrough were at some tension to Christianity as well as part of it - Newton was a unitarian (small u) who also believed in the Bible as the magic container of secret numbers. But he wasn't a Calvinist. Nevertheless ideas carried their own impact on to the economic sphere.

The counter argument has to be that capitalism was preparing itself all these ideas as it changed, and was a reinforcing circle. That's like looking into a glass darkly - it is evidence-free speculating.

Having provided such a reply I could see how it contained its own critique, so further wrote, in a later email:

You do realise, I hope, that in making reference to ideological shifts and technological edges (and ownership) that the reply above does allow for the Marxist view!

By the way, Stark is an apologist for Christianity, and trying to theologise into sociology a 'greater' Weberian view than the specific one Weber provided (which was my point).

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