Tuesday | March 3, 2015

Religion and development

Published:Sunday | February 10, 2013
Martin Henry

Martin Henry, Contributor

JLP email activist 'John Blake' temporarily laid off attacking the Pain-P, as he labels the other party, to attack religion as an impediment to progress.

Blake was pouring praise upon Ian Boyne's sceptic's column 'Is the Church helping us?' (The Sunday Gleaner, February 3, 2013) Boyne is an ordained Christian minister on Sabbath but is often a contrived sceptic and debating philosopher journalist Sunday to Friday. His Bible speaks somewhere about avoiding vain disputations. At another place, it warns that no man can serve two masters. And, in yet another place, it boldly declares that every idle word spoken must be given account of in the judgement.

What the business of the Church is and its role in society as seen through the eyes of its founders, and not the eyes of its critics, secular social engineers, or modern adherents who believe that the Church is a partner of the State, is an important question for another time.

Today's business is John Blake's sweeping assertion that "so many incidences of religious countries doing poorly in economic development and high crime rates cannot continue to be deemed coincidence and defended forever".

In his diagnosis of Jamaica's problems of poor economic performance, he asserts, "We continue to believe in something that cannot be tested or proved, hence our failure in creating and applying science, technology and math for solutions and prosperity, unlike the Japanese, the Germans and other Western European countries."

Philosopher Boyne should offer John a little lesson in the regression to untestable assumptions and beliefs in all knowledge systems, including the worshipped sciences in which I am formally trained and can speak about with reasonable authority. But John is quite right: All truth claims, those of religion not exempt, should be subject to rational examination and empirical testing.


Blake writes glowingly of the progress of Western countries in contrast to the violent backwardness of "religious" countries. 'As a matarafak' (as the Jamiekan New Testament renders the phrase), all countries, all peoples, all persons are religious. As a matarafak, there have been only two sets of officially atheistic states, which ended up worshipping No-God: Revolutionary France and recent communist states. Their violence and atrocities against their own people, totalitarian suppression of freedom, and their early demise, falling under their own deadweight, are too well known to be laboured here.

The prosperous and 'progressive' West and, by extension, its progenies, richly eulogised by John Blake, are very much a product of religion - Christianity. The West, historically, has been shaped by at least five great forces: science and technology; democracy; the rule of law; capitalism, and freedom - all products of the Christian faith.

Presentism and prejudice, that is, an ignorance of long-range history and a dismissive bias against religion (both of which Mr Blake suffers from), have been crudely used to sweep aside this fact, often with persecuting zeal wrapped in pretentious pseudo-intellectual sophistication.

It is not the moral stance of Christianity which interests us here, or any claim of moral superiority. It is the practical, empirical out - turn of a set of religious ideas and a certain religious view of the world capable of standing up to Mr Blake's intellectual rigour, if applied without prejudice. Humankind, including professed Christians, continues to be an abject moral failure. Hence the Christian proposition of the need of a saviour and its unique doctrine of grace.

Science historian Stephen F. Mason, includes in his classic work, A History of the Sciences, a chapter on 'The Scientific Revolution and the Protestant Reformation'. I have more than a passing acquaintance with the history, philosophy and sociology of science.


After empirically demonstrating the sheer dominance of Protestants in the early scientific societies of Europe, Mason writes, "Apart from the absence of an Inquisition in Protestant lands, the predominance of Protestants ... among the great scientists of modern Europe may be ascribed to three main factors: first, to a congruence between the early Protestant ethos and the scientific attitude; second, to the use of science for the attainment of religious ends; and, third, to an agreement between the cosmic values of Protestant theology and those of the theories of early modern science."

In intellectual tactical moves that would warm scientist John Blake's heart, Stephen Mason uses the rest of his brilliant chapter to pile up a mountain of empirical evidence in defence of his thesis that the Protestant Reformation was a root cause of the Scientific Revolution.

One of the brightest lights of early modern science, Sir Isaac Newton, was also a theologian. Newton not only wrote Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica ('Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy'), but he produced an exegetical treatise on the prophetic book of Daniel, which predicted "knowledge shall increase". Prophecy constitutes the primary empirical test of the veracity of the Scripture.

Science has subsequently sought to artificially divorce itself from religion (as Blake would have it) but is now coming back face to with Spirit, especially at the frontiers of the ultra-small and the ultra-large, the nano and the cosmic, with the riddles of life in-between. Stand by, John!

I put it to John Blake that Jamaica's problem with the use of science and technology is not religion in a broad-brush sense but too strong an attachment to a certain kind of religion which is counter to the ethos of science, a pervasive animist ancestral religion.

Max Weber, with respect to the emergence of capitalism, came to essentially the same conclusion in his famous work, 'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism', as Stephen Mason for science. As Wikipedia explains, "The Protestant work ethic is a concept in theology, sociology, economics and history which emphasises hard work, frugality and prosperity as a display of a person's salvation in the Christian faith."

While science is now uncritically worshipped, especially by those who least understand it, capitalism has been severely criticised (but not by John Blake, one of its champions). Whatever faults may be found in it, and no human creation is free of fault and sin, capitalism has harnessed human creativity and acquisitiveness to deliver the most spectacular production of goods and services priced to be available to the widest range of people in history.

We now know, with extreme clarity, that capitalism requires a moral conscience if it is to flourish. In his chapter, 'Goodness and the GNP', in the anthology, 'Is Capitalism Christian?', Warren T. Brookes, an economic columnist, proposes that "plainly, then, a national economy, like an individual business or a specific product, is the sum of the spiritual and mental qualities of its people, and its output of value will be only as strong as the value of society." Brookes quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson: "A dollar is not value, but representative of value, and, at last, of moral values."

I put it to John Blake that Jamaica's problem with harnessing the productivity of capitalism has more to do with the wrong ethic, poor attitudes, poor governance, and an endemic wickedness and lawlessness which stymie productive effort.

From before Magna Carta, the Anglo-West, in particular, has been slowly and steadily developing the rule of law in a corpus of common law based on the dignity and rights of the individual person anchored in a Christian view of humankind and society. The rule of law was a platform for democratic governance and the free enterprise commerce of capitalism. The apex of that movement is perhaps the American Declaration of Independence which roots the self-evident truth of "inalienable rights" (sic) in the premise that "all men are created equal" and "that they are endowed by their Creator" with these rights. Mr Blake, what is the empirical test confirming the 'truth' of this revolutionary declaration?

The West, including the writers and signers of the American Declaration of Independence, kept slaves, which is why we New World black people are here. But the Christian West is the only society in history which has voluntarily repudiated slavery on moral grounds, following a revival and reformation of the faith. Muslim and animist Mali, much in the news now, only outlawed slavery in 1961 and has never been able to completely suppress the institution. The Guardian newspaper (UK) ran a story last October: "Mali conflict puts freedom of 'slave descendants' in peril - Anti-slavery activists are fighting to stop former masters using the crisis to recapture Malians whom they see as their property." And the Canadian Globe and Mail in November, carried the story 'Mali chaos gives rise to slavery, persecution'.


One of the greatest scholars of slavery, our own Harvard-based Orlando Patterson, has written Freedom in the Making of Western Culture. Patterson writes, "No one would deny that today freedom stands unchallenged as the supreme value of the Western world." Freedom, he says, "is also the central value of Christianity." But "for most of human history, and for nearly all of the non-Western world prior to Western contact, freedom was, and for many still remains, anything but an obvious or desirable goal. Indeed, non-Western peoples have thought so little about freedom that most human languages did not even possess a word for the concept before contact with the West."

Judged by our high ranking in press freedom by Reporters Without Borders, 13th out of 179, and outranking the United States at 32nd, Jamaica is a rambunctiously free place. If only that freedom could be anchored to the other Christian-based constructs which have shaped the West. People like John Blake, and sooo many others, have short-range vision.

Reading the long-range past, it is going to be very interesting to see if the West and its progenies progressively repudiating Christian faith can sustain the fruits of the faith. It is certain that Jamaica will not progress well without a stronger adoption of the virtues of religion.

Martin Henry is a communication specialist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.