Religion and the Rise of Capitalism

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Benjamin M. Friedman
  • New York: 
    Penguin/Random House
    , January
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Benjamin M. Friedman’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism is an engaging but flawed study. It takes up the question of where ideas on how the economy works come from. Max Weber’s classic essay, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” (1904–1905), and the work of R.H. Tawney, whose 1922 study provides the title for Friedman’s monograph, stand in the background.

Friedman wants to argue religion plays a powerful role in shaping thinking on the economy. He takes for granted that Adam Smith’s insights are central to modern economic thought and searches for key insights into the origins of Smith’s thinking. Friedman’s central argument is that religious thought influenced Smith’s economic thought and that this influence has remained strong up to today.

Friedman faces a difficult task as he moves forward. First, the consensus of scholars is against him. Scholars contend Smith’s insights were built on “the Enlightenment’s quintessential assault on religion” (as Nicholas Phillipson asserts in his biography of Smith [Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life, Yale University Press, 2012], which Friedman cites on page xii). Second, if one looks to what “Smith and his contemporaries consciously intended” (xii), it only confirms the scholarly consensus. Friedman fully acknowledges this.

If everyone thinks the Enlightenment and not religion was the fountainhead for Smith’s insights, how does Friedman counter this view? He does so by digging underneath the conscious to “invisible” influences. But how does one identify such influences? How does one link Smith’s insights with unconscious forces in a way that represents a serious attempt to connect the two? The only option at Friedman’s disposal is to locate these unconscious influences in the worldview that characterized Smith’s era and describe these influences in a manner that appears sufficiently similar to elements of Smith’s thought to make a connection appear likely.

But this is effectively impossible. The only way to proceed would be to remain very general in suggesting one’s conclusions. Friedman goes much further than this and gets himself into trouble. After discussing Smith’s era, his philosophical background, his friendship with David Hume and others, the rise of Newtonian thought, and Smith’s development of some of his key insights, Friedman declares that “something else was at work as well, shaping the worldview—in Einstein’s sense” (108). This something else is religious thought, specifically developments in Christian theology. In the four hundred pages that follow, Friedman spells this out in considerable detail.

Smith’s insights focus, in part, on the capacities of humankind to discern what is in their own economic self-interests and to pursue it rationally in such a way that they are not deemed greedy and guilty of vice for so doing. Smith’s thinking reflects, Friedman intimates, a sense of human potential and possibility. Though we might seem to be moving in directions associated with secular Enlightenment ideas of the virtues of human reason, Friedman wants to insist that these qualities are found in new theological reflections on human nature that were popular and often discussed at the time rather than in Enlightenment ideas. Friedman notes that Smith was professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow University and taught on topics such as natural theology (xi); although one thinks of him today as an economist, he would not have thought of himself in that way as the term did not exist in his day. This Christian worldview had a profound influence, Friedman argues, on Smith and his insights—this is the “something else” that shaped Smith.

There are three difficulties with Friedman’s argument. First, the Enlightenment seems to explain Smith’s insights without the need for specific theological ideas. One could attempt, as Friedman does, to contend that there is more behind his insights, but when the more one is searching for relates to a positive view of human nature, one may well feel the Enlightenment offers this.

Second, Friedman’s narrating of theological developments contains serious errors that weaken his case. Arguing that Calvinism took hold of the British Isles in the 16th and 17th centuries, he wrongly ascribes three beliefs to it: (1) humankind is depraved and has no capacity to distinguish good from evil and no ability to act according to the perceived difference between them; (2) the doctrine of predetermination means human actions do not matter; (3) The sole purpose of human life is God’s glory and not, say, human happiness. Friedman then maps out Britain’s move away from these “harsh” (118) and “severe” (120) Calvinist ideas.

In contrast to Calvinism, the new theological movements held that humankind possesses inherent goodness and can distinguish good from evil within the moral and the amoral, ordinary life too. Humans can see what is to their own economic advantage. People have the capacity to choose; their actions mattered. They can make choices by which they pursue their economic advantage. Additionally, people understand human happiness is a good intended for them by God and are free to pursue it. Smith’s insights, Friedman argues, grew out of these new theological ideas. But Friedman’s understanding here is poor. Calvinism teaches sinners can distinguish right from wrong (see, e.g., Calvin’s Institutes 1.1–5); Calvin repeatedly asserts that predestination makes human actions profoundly relevant and meaningful (e.g., Institutes 3.21–24); and he teaches one’s pursuit of human happiness and of God’s glory are interconnected and not mutually exclusive (e.g., Institutes 3.7–10). If Friedman had decided to explore the impact Calvinism had on the 16th and 17th century British public, he could perhaps have developed a more persuasive case. But he does not adopt such an approach.

Third, the argument Friedman produces, particularly in his narrating of theological developments over the centuries, suffers from the problems identified by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the 1970s concerning prediction and bias. All of us tend to impose patterns on events. We assume things are causally connected when we have no way of knowing that they are. We see meaning and connections that are not there. This is what Friedman is doing.

It is, of course, possible that Christian theology influenced Smith. But Friedman is striving for something that is, for all intents and purposes, impossible: to identify invisible forces that have left their mark on the thinking of an individual whose writings do not attest explicitly and self-consciously to their impact.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jon Balserak is a senior lecturer in early modern religion at University of Bristol.

Date of Review: 
April 22, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Benjamin M. Friedman is the William Joseph Maier Professor of Political Economy, and formerly chairman of the Department of Economics, at Harvard University, where he has now taught for nearly half a century.


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