The World Economic Forum claims that there is a direct linkage between religion and economic development. Photo: Xinhua
The World Economic Forum claims that there is a direct linkage between religion and economic development. Photo: Xinhua

No link between secularism and economic development in the African set-up

By Siyabonga Hadebe Time of article published Nov 25, 2018

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PRETORIA – One of the foremost paragons of liberalism in the global sphere World Economic Forum (WEF) claims that there is a direct linkage between religion and economic development. The study also appears in the Science Advances journal of 18 Jul 2018.

The research draws this rather tapered conclusion based on the statistical data which compared 109 countries, including the likes Great Britain, Nigeria, Chile and Philippines over a hundred 100-year period starting from 1900 to 2000.

Basically this WEF study states that more prosperous countries tend to be secular (less religious), and that secularisation should come before the economic development, meaning there is no chicken or egg argument.

At face value the study appears to have credence up until you read between the lines. After all, it is impossible to take anything seriously when it comes from organisations that occupy the apex of the world’s neoliberal economic system such as WEF, credit rating agencies, etc.

And one person was sold this dummy and went on to suggest that African countries can draw some lessons from the WEF findings.

Unfortunately, the WEF continues to parade untruths and false ideas in efforts to reshape and remodel the global neoliberal agenda, whether in politics or economics. The neoliberal agenda is in dire straits, with the rising inequality and social problems that are said to be a direct outcome of its economic thought.

The WEF is one of those organisations installed to pretend that neoliberal economics is being reformed, while its predominant actors disregard all else in pursuit of profits and dominance.

Unjust or unfair

The WEF gets funded by the transnational corporations (TNCs) who benefit from the system which they often critique as unjust or unfair. The companies set up the WEF to be their parliament, which convenes every January in Davos, Switzerland.

Much of the research from this Geneva-based organisation speaks in metaphors while at the same time cushioning rich countries and their TNCs.

In the cold Alpine weather, the world’s elected leaders bow before the capital clergy in black suits to beg them to funnel investments to their countries. The WEF meeting sets the economic agenda of countries using the backdoor.

Back to the topic at hand. What the developed Western nations, particularly the United States, never fail to remind the world is that they owe their economic success to Protestantism. Some notable politicians are not afraid to declare that ‘America is a Christian nation’, although its constitution “contains no mention of Christianity or Jesus Christ.”

The foundations of this argument that Protestantism leads to better economic outcomes comes from the work of Prussian scholar Max Weber called ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ in 1905 wherein he argued that “the Reformation influenced European society by changing the values and ethics of people.”

Much more recently in 2009, in a study titled ‘Was Weber wrong? A human capital theory of Protestant economic history’, two economists Sascha Becker and Ludger Woessmann went at length to prove that the Protestant Reformation had a causal impact on economic outcomes.

Becker and Woessmann used econometric analysis to interrogate the data from 452 counties in 1871 Prussia. Their conclusion was that Protestants had significantly higher incomes than Catholics. The authors ascribed the success of Protestants to the Reformation.

It is therefore no coincidence that religion and colonialism are almost synonymous. Based on the notion of 4 Cs – Christianity, Colonialism, Commercialism and Conquer – Europe overcame the different parts of the world. In what today is usually referred to as the ‘Scramble for Africa’, historian Thomas Pakenham explains that the European powers carved up the African continent in order to create economic and political advantages.

Economic success

Weber and others in Europe always believed in the strong correlation and economic success. Embedded in the neoliberalism philosophy, according to Roman Sheremeta and Vernon Smith, are “concepts such as ‘work ethic’ and entrepreneurial spirit of Protestants, were originally suggested by Weber, while others, such as religious freedom and education, are deeply grounded in economic theory.”

Now, the WEF wants to twists minds about the lack of intimacy between Protestant religious institutions and economic institutions.

This is beautiful craftsmanship after the beneficiaries of a brutal system that flourished over many centuries through colonialism, oppression and looting suddenly change the tune to almost denounce religion as a problem in pursuit for economic success.

This led to one person to comment that at the heart of Latin American economic miseries is Roman Catholicism. Hence, evangelical Protestantism has been pushed down the throats of people in Latin America and other parts of the world with a view of promoting the Weberian tradition, which connects Protestantism with a capitalist world view.

Empirical data drawn from a study conducted by the University of Washington’s Anthony Gill, however, fails to support this view. This is a signal that the religion is not a factor to determine people’s attitudes to consolidating “democratic capitalism” in the developing world.

The challenge of the WEF findings is that they are based on the old problem that discourages plurality of ideas and equality in the world, one idea has to be seen to be above others. For neoliberals, it is not possible to have different settings existing at the same time, be it capitalism and socialism, China and the US, Protestantism and Catholicism, or Christianity and Islam.

Another problem is that the majority of what is regarded as developing nations, or the Third World, do not even have a prescribed religion in their laws. But their economic challenges stem from protracted historical plundering and colonial legacies, that continue to persist with the assistance of a global economic framework that keeps them in the bottom.

I doubt if problems in some the world’s poorest nations like Haiti, Yemen, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan rank bottom in economic development standings due to the concentration of religion. WEF’s views are not only ahistorical but they are utterly condescending.

Now after many years pushing the Protestant work ethic as the only way to economic success, liberal thought favours secularism.

It could be that the WEF is taking a jibe at Moslem countries but the manner in which they go about their business is dishonest. Politics and religion are intertwined in a majority of countries that have Islam as the main religion. There are few instances where secularism is permitted.

The contribution of Moslem countries in the development of humankind is not oil and terrorism, as we are often told. It appears that these years Islam replaced Catholicism as a hated religion. However, it may be necessary to demonstrate how Muslim civilisation, which predated European civilisation, contributed to science and medicine.

The Islamic Golden Age

The Islamic Golden Age spanned the 8th to the 15th centuries. This is at the time Moslems occupied southern Europe, the Iberian Peninsula and north Africa. It is during this time the oldest existing, and continually operating educational institution in the world, the University of Karueein, was founded in 859 AD in Fez, Morocco.

The 10th-century physician Abu ‘l-Qasim al-Zahrawi, from Muslim Spain, for example, wrote a book that described surgical procedures and gave detailed illustrations of the necessary surgical instruments. According to Ingrid Hehmeyer and Aliya Khan, this work “had a profound influence on the emerging medical science in medieval and early modern Europe, where the author was known as Abulcasis or Albucasis.”

Another Muslim scholar, Al-Idrisi in 1166 created accurate maps, which included a world map that had all mountains and continents labelled. One doubts if the European crusades around the world would have been possible without this knowledge. Also, there is some evidence that link Moor connections to the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the Americas, after their expulsion from Spain in the late 1400s.

Present scholarship also belittles the contribution of the Islamic world, and tends to overly focus on the Greek era as if nothing happened in between. The same attitudes led to the demise of German as a language of science, philosophy and literary thought. Politics of the previous century resulted in the defeat of Germany in two wars, and its language.

Princeton University’s Rosengarten professor of modern and contemporary history Michael Gordin explains that in fact English was not the dominant scientific language in 1900, but German. Scientists from the German world such as physicist Albert Einstein and many others from the Third Reich era, who all moved to the US after the war, shaped scientific knowledge as we know it today.

It could happen that individuals have been discriminated based on religion as in Myanmar and elsewhere. Also, data shows that the majority of countries in the world do not have a ‘state religion’, religion prescribed by law. Besides mostly Moslem and Buddhist nations, highly developed jurisdictions such as cantons in Switzerland, Monaco and Liechtenstein as well as Scandinavian countries recognise some form of Christianity as their state or official religion.

WEF should have rather focused on race and ethnicity. large parts of the world find themselves where they are mainly because of the prevalence of these two variables, that shaped colonial policies for many years. For example, it is more policies that promoted racial supremacy that created economic exclusions in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere.

There is no evidence to suggest that there is a positive correlation between underdevelopment in rural South Africa, among others, with religion. Secularism also does seem to help South Africa to escape the economic woes that trace their origins to racial discrimination. Perhaps the study was meant for other parts of the world, may be Europe.

I therefore dismally fail to positively link secularism and economic development in the African context.

Siyabonga Hadebe is an independent commentator on socio-economic, politics and global matters based in Pretoria.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.


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