On Halloween, or Reformation Day, a Guardian article asks whether denomination could be affecting the relative success of Europe’s economies. Read it here. My discussion thread response is nailed to the Wittenberg doors below:

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Articles like these test how far we’ll accept generalisations: Protestants busy; Catholics lazy? In Europe there are so many exceptions (southern Germany, Austria) you wonder why it’s called a pattern. But let’s not completely ditch generalisations; they have uses. Sharing anecdotes doesn’t overturn that.

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Let’s not underestimate how profoundly an underlying denomination/religion impacts national culture. Even if many of the actors driving economic success/failure (bankers, financiers, industrialists) have rejected Christian Protestant values, their minds are still formed in a culture shaped by them, and the emphases of each church filter into the wider population. Even if you reject Protestantism (the 16th century Protest Movement), you still notice its effect on making you you when you step into another culture.

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Let’s not forget religion is ONE factor among many. Climate, geography, recent (500 years) history, eg whether your country was crushed by a totalitarian state for 50 years, whether your denomination was persecuted, all mix the picture up. BUT the influence of Protestantism can still be discerned through that mixing.

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What few have attempted to discuss is WHY Protestant-base countries do better economically (though true success involves more criteria -eg happiness, family stability, lifestyle, ethical quotient).

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Eg. stezza’s response is engaging but misinformed: “America’s brand of protestant belief, is more rapture based. That is the good will go to heaven and the bad will stay on earth etc to die.” But actually, fate isn’t allocated according to whether you’re “good” or “bad”.

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The defining characteristic of Protestantism is its emphasis on grace, ie that even though I don’t deserve God’s goodness, he gives it to me anyway. Grace means getting what we don’t deserve, and is the other side of the coin from mercy –not getting what we do deserve. Getting your head round the Protestant concept of grace is vital if you’re going to understand Protestant cultures and their work ethic.

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The implication, taught in Protestant churches, is that our motivation to do good, to work hard, to strive to be the best, isn’t to attain salvation (already given freely by grace), but out of thankfulness to and love for God. As far as a stereotype contains truth, this percolates up via education for females and males to scientific and technological innovation and thereby economic competitiveness.

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Responsibility, frugality, servant leadership, activism and personal integrity become culturally popular when a broad population base are being challenged to live that way by personally reading the Bible, rather than being passive learners.

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Another thing is Protestants are keener for everyone to read, so they can read the Bible for themselves and get an education for the sake of self-improvement. Hence why the world over Protestants have invented alphabets and opened schools and hospitals.

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Of course other ‘values-matrices’ (combinations of philosophy, family culture, religion, history etc) globally produce comparative hard-workers, eg China, Korea. But it’d be rash to dismiss the effect of the Protestant work ethic on northern Europe/America, and myopic to solely focus on the blip of the present economic crisis.

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It’s also a sobering thought to ponder the cultural change to the collective work ethic if the tide of the Protestant faith in Europe continues to go out, although other factors (climate, historical momentum) will alleviate this. But the future isn’t written yet.

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