By Nathan Bierma

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The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Globalization

Two Harvard economists have dealt the secularization thesis another blow. The lead story of the Arts & Ideas section of the January 31 New York Timesreports the findings of Robert Barro and Rachel McCleary, a married couple who study the relationship between religion and economic development (article summary). They soundly reject the modern idea that societies shed their religious traditions as they get richer. "Religion affects economic outcomes mainly by fostering religious beliefs that influence individual traits such as honesty, work ethic, thrift and openness to strangers," they wrote recently in the American Sociological Review. "Beliefs in heaven and hell might affect those traits by creating perceived rewards and punishments that relate to `good' and `bad' lifetime behavior." Reviewing studies by Gallup, the World Bank and the University of Michigan on per capita GDP, education, urbanization, and life expectancy, they conclude that, especially in East Asian countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, and South Korea, the spread of Christianity is tied to economic growth (and note that in those countries the shift from Confucianism to Protestantism is especially intriguing).

Their theory may in fact be as old as Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, but the Times said the thoroughness of their data will make an impact among sociologists who habitually (or stubbornly) ignore religion when studying global economics. "The study's important less for what they found than that they looked," one sociologist told the Times, adding, "I think this is a new beginning for the rigorous relationship between religion and economic development."

Thanks in part to the vagueness of the terms "religion" and "growth," the data of Barro and McCleary both encourage and contradict some contrary assumptions. You would expect that people who live with a transcendent sense of larger purpose would be more motivated participants in an economy. On the other hand, you would also hope that religious belief tempers the kind of avarice that drives the American economy. And you might suppose that some believers' zeal to convert others and hold out for heaven might trump their zeal to earn (except for televangelists, where the twain often meets). Some of the voices in the Times piece identify the ambiguities that await sociologists in this search. "Are you really picking up religion or something that correlates with it, like certain laws or social and economic institutions?" asks one professor. Another cites her studies showing that religion tends to correlate with ethnic intolerance and sexism, two impediments of progress. Meanwhile, no one mentions the question of whether believers become more complacent in their faith as they get richer, as many have accused American Christians. Keep an eye on Barro and McCleary (and on Books & Culture, which has forthcoming pieces on Christianity and sociology), to see if they address these questions as they continue in what McCleary says is a long-term exploration of religion and global economics: "We see about five more years of study to get out all the stuff we want."

Getting over secularism


From the New York Times :

LECONG, China — The main street of Lecong is a five-mile Vegas-like stretch of gaudy showrooms and exhibition centers, factories and cavernous warehouses, leather suppliers and timber yards, all dedicated to making and selling furniture. Until a decade ago, this town, in Guangdong Province in southern China, was mostly rice paddies and sugarcane fields. Now Lecong, which promotes itself as the "furniture capital of the world," is a sales hub for the province's booming furniture industry, with 3,500 furniture stores and wholesalers representing many of the 6,000 or so furniture factories in the surrounding Pearl River delta region. … In the last eight years, China's total furniture exports grew about 30 percent annually, to about $7.3 billion last year, and more than half of the exports came from Guangdong. But the boom that transformed Lecong has now drawn Chinese-based manufacturers into the biggest antidumping case ever brought against a Chinese industry by American manufacturers.

VALLEY CENTER, Calif. — The thieves come in the dead of night, after it rains and the hillsides are empty, or during a full moon. They disappear into jungly thickets on steep, remote hillsides, stepping carefully through the groves to avoid crunching leaves before doing their dirty work. They operate stealthily, without clippers, amassing warty, thick-skinned booty by the hundreds. Allen Luce, a retired beekeeper, suspected the worst recently when he spied an unfamiliar red pickup truck parked beside the lush canopies of his neighbors' thousand-acre avocado grove. … They call it green gold. … Here in San Diego County, the source of nearly half of the nation's avocados, harvest season brings with it not only the promise of some $43.5 million worth of cilantro-laced party dip, but also a dreaded local crime: avocado theft. With the price now hovering around $1.20 a pound—roughly two avocados—Karen Grangetto awoke after a full moon last month to the telltale phantom stems at eye level on plucked boughs. She figured she had lost $1,000 to $2,000 worth of fruit.

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