Monday, 21 August 2017

Religions make poor rulers but so does capitalism

From two different sources in recent days has come an idea I had previously not considered: that religious control of a State may affect its economic performance. How was it, one asks, that the Middle East went from being the intellectual and artistic powerhouse of the World, via the vagaries of history, to being an under-performing group of still tribal countries which perform economically less well than their neighbours to the North in Europe? What happened to that intellectual drive? The second source suggests something similar in respect of Spain in the 18th century: a State watching without emulating the scientific and artistic dynamism of France and Britain in the Enlightenment.

The answer posited by the respective authors lies in religious power in both cases: the Caliphate in the former; the Inquisition in the latter. In each, the defence of dogma is said to have prevented acceptance of new ideas, especially in science and technology, which elsewhere transformed communications, leading to economic growth among adopters. Religions, being based on fictions rather than reality, tend to defend the teachings of their hierarchies. Take the outlawing of Tyndale in the 16th century as an example closer to home. Allow the combination of translation into common language with the printing press, and suddenly the people, or at least those educated enough to read, can see or hear the words as written in the Bible instead of being given selective extracts which suit the aims of those in power. Suppression of innovations can have a dampening effect on uptake and on the impacts on daily lives which should follow from them.

This analysis seems to confront religion as Luddite, which may be fair. It also assumes, it seems to me, that economic growth is all; that a capitalist economy is desirable. Philosophies, including religions, are not there to support economies but to guide people into a better way of life. It may be that the ordinary people of the Arab countries in the Middle Ages or of 18th century Spain appreciated some aspects of the way they were governed or guided; and may not have been as comparatively badly off as their modern-day counterparts. Inequality is certainly plentiful in today’s capitalist model. Happily, modern, democratic Spain is a dynamic and cultural country. But look at the position of the Arab states, whether engorged with unearned riches, destroyed by religion-based wars or ruled by bigotry, they show little sign of restoring their intellectual capital or sharing wealth at all fairly among their peoples. Nor does secular, capitalist Britain.

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