The primary purpose of religion is not economic, but over the centuries religion has had a huge effect on society, and hence on economics. In the Dark Ages religion preserved learning (very economically positive!) then in early modern Europe the pendulum swung so that religious wars and Catholic obscurantism retarded the development of the Catholic half of Europe. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, religion preserved the social order, thus helping economic output. However since 1900 and particularly in the 21st century, religion of all stripes has become increasingly opposed to the free market. With Pope Francis’ economic observations, this is reaching the point of being truly damaging.
Religion’s primary purpose is the search for spiritual truth, little or nothing to do with worldly economic wealth. However religious institutions are also part of society, and play a positive or negative role in the success of that society. In Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, for example, the traditional religions were bulwarks of the society, whether the rulers were republican, royal, pharaonic or imperial. The values propagated by those religions were helpful in preserving peace, upholding the authority of the governments, and lessening the likelihood of ambitious outsiders succeeding in rebellions.
As Edward Gibbon pointed out two centuries ago Christianity, when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire, was thoroughly subversive of that Empire in a number of ways, causing divisions between Christian and non-Christian forces, and even within Christian forces between the orthodox and those who had been pronounced heretics. It also greatly lessened the ability of the Empire to cope with Gothic invaders, since it imposed religious obligations on Gothic tribes allying with it, obligations which disrupted the social structure of the tribes themselves. To early Christians, obligations to the Church were far more important than residual obligations to the Imperial government; thus as Gibbon smugly observed, Christianity was at that time a subversive rather than a constructive force.
Having destabilized the Roman Empire, Christianity then played a vital role in preserving most of its knowledge. The Islamic world, likewise, not only preserved the knowledge of the ancients but added to it in several important ways (notably the decimal number system and al-gebra) while acting as a conduit for the independent knowledge acquired in China. Throughout the Middle Ages, the monasteries were important repositories of knowledge and stimulants of new thinking, founding the European universities – as well as imposing modest moral inhibitions on the period’s incessant warring, without which civilization would have degenerated into Game of Thrones. Thus for 1,000 years following the destruction of the Roman Empire religion, however imperfect in itself, was a major economic boon to a struggling society.
With the Reformation, this changed. Catholicism, relatively tolerant of new thinking while it dominated the West’s intellectual life, became intolerant as new heresies appeared and proliferated, notoriously persecuting Galileo and imposing the intellectual straitjacket symbolized by the Spanish Inquisition. This attitude persisted in the Catholic Church well into the nineteenth century.
Pope Gregory XVI (1831-46) opposed technological advance in the Papal States, refusing to permit gas lighting and railways, believing they would promote commerce, leading to bourgeois enrichment and secularization. From his own institutional point of view, Gregory XVI was of course entirely correct; there can be no question that industrialization and enrichment of the populace has indeed promoted secularization and the decline of religious belief and observance. The Medici papacy promoted arts, sciences and the promotion of wealth, the Baroque papacy opposed new knowledge and the early 19th century papacy opposed the Industrial Revolution; in this way the Catholic Church transitioned from an economic boon to an economic drag.
Conversely Max Weber in his 1904 essay “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” postulated that Protestantism had caused large numbers of people to work to accumulate wealth. Thus the Reformation stimulated an outpouring of individual effort in northern Europe, initially in the Netherlands but later in Britain. Protestantism was also more open to new ideas than Catholicism, since it was built on the questioning of accepted Catholic doctrine.
The Church of England in particular became economically helpful in the late sixteenth century, partly because of its position as an Established Church, seeking directly to uphold the established political and social order, in a way the distantly-managed Catholic Church had not directly done. The Church of William Laud, upholding the existing political system and providing a moral guide for the mass of the people, was a thoroughly helpful institution, as was recognized by Tory ministers through Lord Liverpool.
The main instigators of industrialization were Methodists or free-thinkers, and the Whig version of the Enlightenment took a somewhat anti-religious stance. However the Industrial Revolution followed the Scientific Revolution with no opposition from the Church, which nevertheless provided support for the regime and spiritual comfort for those disturbed by the unprecedented pace of economic and social change.
Under Gregory XVI’s reforming successor Pius IX, the Catholic Church abandoned outright opposition to railroads, but it never really accepted the free market system. Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Dr Rerum Novarum announced that the function of the state was to promote social justice and favored unionization and collective bargaining, although it restated the church’s view that private property was a fundamental right.
While the Catholic Church remained at worst neutral on capitalism, the Anglicans during the 20th century moved solidly into opposition to it. Archbishop William Temple (1942-44) was a strong socialist, and after an interval of Geoffrey Fisher, most of his successors have followed his ideological lead. Consequently, just as the Liverpool-era church reconciled the populace to capitalism, the church of the last 50 years has stirred up opposition to capitalism, to the extent it has any remaining influence at all.
The Catholic Church under Pope Francis now appears to have taken the same path. Under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the Church certainly wasn’t strongly pro-capitalist, any more than it had been under Leo XIII, but it had a basic tolerance of the market system and an understanding that the main alternative of socialism came with unacceptable economic and political costs. Francis, brought up in the economically eccentric Argentina, appears to take a more hostile approach. He is about to bring out an encyclical which is expected to enshrine the “global warming” hysteria among the canons of Church teaching, he has canonized an El Salvador bishop who was among the leaders of leftist “liberation theology” in the 1970s and he has attacked capitalism as “a new tyranny.”
Under Francis, therefore, the Catholic Church has joined the Church of England in undermining the free-market system, in propagating anti-market ideas, and in stirring up popular suspicion of the market system and those who succeed under it. Evangelical Protestant churches remain generally more supporting of market structures, as does Judaism. On the other hand much of Islam, which 1,000 years ago was so helpful to preserving and extending learning, now seems to be becoming increasingly hostile to it.
In recent years, a new economic field has opened up in which the Church is active, largely in a direction hostile to progress and the market. This is genetic engineering, where Church leaders have extended the moral structures of the Bible, which did not in itself discuss the topic, to outlaw most forms of genetic engineering and human species improvement.
Naturally, the Bible regards the human race as exceptional and, to the extent it was fashioned in the image of God, perfect; its writers knew of no other possibility. We, who know of the infinite possibilities of life in other solar systems, and have begun to see the infinite possibilities of accelerating and guiding the evolutionary process, can respect the writers of the Bible, while recognizing that the biological beliefs embodied in it are no more eternal than the cosmological beliefs that postulated a universe beginning in 4004 BC. As science advanced after 1500, the Protestant churches took a more enlightened view than Catholicism, with only a few obscurantists like Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (1805-73) opposing Darwinism outright, for example.
The combination of Church hostility to capitalism and Church hostility to genetic advances is disquieting. As I have suggested in recent weeks, the forces tending to stop human economic advance in its tracks have strengthened greatly since the turn of the millennium, and Church hostility will slow conventional economic advance as additional state barnacles are added to an already overburdened economy. It will also, by stimulating restrictive legislation, prevent the genetic engineering breakthroughs that offer the best opportunity of casting off our current economic fetters to attain a peaceful world of greater prosperity for all.
If economic progress reverses and we descend to living standards of pre-industrial misery, as this column has suggested appears unpleasantly possible, organized religion should bear a considerable amount of blame for that descent. Its spiritual consolations will then be all too necessary.
(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)