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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

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.


  • The 'religion gap' in presidential elections couldn't be clearer. Weekly churchgoers favor Republican candidates by overwhelming and growing numbers. Not so fast, says Beliefnet editor-in-chief Steven Waldman in Slate. How many people know that "at least 10 million white 'evangelical Christians' voted for Al Gore in 2000"? How many people to whom, "if it's not about Jerry Falwell or Joe Lieberman, it's kind of a blur," can correctly debunk seven myths about evangelical voters? The first myth is that evangelicals all vote Republican. Instead, moderate evangelicals are about split between the two parties, Waldman says. The second myth: the Religious Right turned out more voters than devout Catholics in the 2000 election. The fifth—extremists can only be found on the right. And when it comes to Catholics and abortion, myth upon myth flourishes. Full story
  • The nation's breadbasket is emptying out, says The Week magazine. The Great Plains—one fifth of the country's land mass—are in a state of seemingly irreversible decline. The family farm, that irreplaceable ingredient of Americana, faces a hopeless situation: it can't afford the technology to become more efficient, so it can't sell as much food—but since corporations can do both, food prices (and thus profits) keep falling. And those same corporations get the bulk of government subsidies, further dooming the independent farmer. Younger generations are turning their backs on family farms passed down through generations, and are leaving for cities. Those who remain see a grim situation in which crime and drugs are running rampant. "Crystal meth has hit small-town America the way crack cocaine once hit the cities," says The Week. "Much of the Plains region is already well on the way to becoming a series of ghost towns." The Week doesn't say whether more equitable subsidies are a priority of any lawmakers—or whether they would be enough to reverse the Plains' decline. Full story
Related:Rural life lures, disappoints ex-urbanites, from the Washington Post

• Cities crave childless young professionals to live in lofts, go to coffee shops and art galleries, and rescue their vacant downtowns (see second item here). But the coming retirement of the baby boomers may put a spin on this conventional wisdom of new urbanism, says the Los Angeles Times. Two outlying cities north of Los Angeles— Lancaster and Palmdale—are constructing massive senior centers not off a golf course or on the sprawl frontier, but in the middle of town. The town's over-60 population will nearly double by 2020, and developers figure they'll want social, walkable urban communities. The article hints that this may only be true for cities such as these two—which already have low crime and older residents—and the story never quite makes up its mind whether this is a significant larger urban trend. Excerpt of story
• One of the scholarly skirmishes that was supposed to subside with the end of the Cold War was the debate over what sustained the Soviet Union. "Totalitarian" scholars cited the power and intimidation of the political regime. "Revisionists" said that the Soviet people supported the empire. While the debate has largely quieted, yielding many moderate scholars who draw from both arguments, certain circles keep up the fight, says the Chronicle of Higher Education, which examines how the debate has changed since the Cold War and how it continues. Full story

  • Lay off the caffeine, we are repeatedly scolded. But what, exactly, is so bad about caffeine? The Chicago Reader Cecil Adams and isn't sure. "Nobody claims caffeine is a health food," he says. "It can cause jitters, insomnia, indigestion, and other temporary side effects when consumed in excess and is almost certainly mildly addictive." But: "Whether it can do more serious harm, though, has yet to be conclusively established." As he shows, this isn't for lack of trying. Full story
  • Miscellaneous: What's going on in Iran, from the London Guardian and The EconomistWhat we can learn about gay marriage from Scandinavia, from the Weekly StandardParking lots and global warming, from the Christian Science Monitor - Julia Keller on the phrase "band of brothers," from the Chicago Tribune

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Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant at Books & Culture.

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