Karl Marx vs Max Weber: Does religion affect politics and economy?

I haven’t read this paper  fully but found it really interesting.

Marx said economy influences culture but it is not the other way round. Weber said both influence each other.

Does culture, and in particular religion, exert an independent causal e ect on politics and the economy, or is it merely a re ection of the latter? This question is the subject of a long-standing debate in the social sciences, with Karl Marx and Max Weber among its most famous proponents. The former famously opined that while the economy did influence culture, the reverse was not true. The latter, on the other hand, rejectedthat view and insisted that causality runs both ways. In particular, in The Protestant ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”, Weber claimed that Reformed Protestantism, by nurturing stronger preferences for hard work and thriftiness had led to greater economic prosperity.

This paper looks at a natural experiment in Swiss economy in 16th century to see Marx vs Weber:

Our paper provides new evidence on this fundamental question, exploiting a quasi-experiment in Switzerland. Switzerland is well suited to study how religion a ects politics and the economy as it is one of the few countries exhibiting genuine within-country variation in religion. Early in the 16th century, some cantons adopted the Reformation whereas others did not, which leaves us with both a treatment and a control group. But Switzerland is also a geographically and institutionally diverse country and the decision to adopt the Reformation was indeed correlated with geography and institutions. Most of the urban Confederates adopted the Reformation whereas the rural and mountainous center remained Catholic. To address this issue we focus on an institutionally and geographically homogeneous subset of the Confederation: the area in western Switzerland that is comprised of the present day cantons of Vaud and Fribourg.

What are the findings? It shows Weber’s viewpoint wins:

We have shown that in a 100% Reformed Protestant municipality, support for more leisure is predicted to be about 13 percentage points or more than 1.5 standard deviations 
lower than in a 100% Roman Catholic municipality. This lends empirical support to Max Weber’s famous hypothesis of a ”Protestant work ethic”, thus deviating from earlier work in this literature such as Becker and Woessmann (2009) or Cantoni (2009). A plausible explanation for these differences is that the latter two papers looked at Lutheran Protestantism, whereas we focus on Reformed Protestantism.

Looking beyond the “work ethic” literature, we have argued that the works of MaxWeber as well as the more recent literature in sociology can be seen to imply also predictions
whereby Reformed Protestantism nurtures preferences for smaller government, and our empirical results confirm such predictions. Correspondingly, we also find Protestantism
to lead to greater income inequality.

On a more general level, our results imply that religion is not just, as Karl Marx would have us believe, “People’s Opium”, but can, by its own force, significantly change people’s preferences, both self-regarding and social ones. To what extent such different preferences do then also translate into different economic outcomes will certainly depend
on the framework of political institutions.

Hmmm.. I am really clueless about all this religion, beliefs etc. Liked this deep dive into history and run a natural experiment to understand what leads to what…

7 Responses to “Karl Marx vs Max Weber: Does religion affect politics and economy?”

  1. Saurabh Says:

    For years economy and religion have moved in tandem. India is a living and a prominant example of it.
    -Vibrant economy developed around the several religous centres and pilgramages.
    – Religion is deeply rooted with economics. Some years back when Congress government decided to do a survey on the backward muslims of the country it was decried by BJP as anti-secular move. Any such survey would surely give a skewed picture.

  2. Critical Reading Says:

    “The former [Marx] famously opined that while the economy did influence culture, the reverse was not true.”

    Boy, you wonder where academics get this kind of stuff from—certainly not from reading Marx and Engels. Here’s Engels describing the framework that he and Marx actually employed:

    “According to the materialistic conception of history, the production and reproduction of real life constitutes in the last instance the determining factor of history. Neither Marx nor I ever maintained more. Now when someone comes along and distorts this to mean that the economic factor is the sole determining factor, he is converting the former proposition into a meaningless, abstract and absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis but the various factors of the superstructure – the political forms of the class struggles and its results – constitutions, etc., established by victorious classes after hard-won battles – legal forms, and even the reflexes of all these real struggles in the brain of the participants, political, jural, philosophical theories, religious conceptions and their further development into systematic dogmas – all these exercize an influence upon the course of historical struggles, and in many cases determine for the most part their form. There is a reciprocity between all these factors in which, finally, through the endless array of contingencies (i.e., of things and events whose inner connection with one another is so remote, or so incapable of proof, that we may neglect it, regarding it as nonexistent) the economic movement asserts itself as necessary. Were this not the case, the application of the history to any given historical period would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.”


    They central difference between Marx and Weber over the origins of capitalism was whether religious changes explain the emergence of capitalism, or whether the development of capitalism explains religious changes (like the Reformation). On that score, I think Marx wins handily.

  3. The Shape of Twentieth Century Economic History « Mostly Economics Says:

    […] do look at how developments then led to economic development. For instance, I just pointed to this recent paper which looks at whether religion affects economy etc in Swiss setting in 17th century. Read the […]

  4. Political economy of Greece crisis and why India did not go the Greece way? « Mostly Economics Says:

    […] but as a form of the redistribution of existing wealth marked by pervasive inequality. Well even Weber was right in a way as both consciousness and economy reinforce each other. They oppose privatisation as many Greeks […]

  5. Massage Says:


    […]Karl Marx vs Max Weber: Does religion affect politics and economy? « Mostly Economics[…]…

  6. Thanks for your help my friend! Says:

    Thanks for your help my friend!…

    […]Karl Marx vs Max Weber: Does religion affect politics and economy? « Mostly Economics[…]…

  7. 小室直樹 Part2 | 面白ダイエット速報。 Says:

    […] Karl Marx vs Max Weber: Does religion affect politics and economy? https://mostlyeconomics.wordpress.com/2011/10/31/karl-marx-vs-max-weber-does-religion-affect-politics… […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: