The Protestant Reading Ethic and Variation in Its Effects

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Max Weber's thesis that a “Protestant ethic” in a subset of Protestant sects created a “spirit of capitalism” is often interpreted as an explanation for the increase in economic growth in the Protestant parts of the West before and during the industrial revolution. One alternative pathway through which Protestantism might have contributed to high economic performance is that it was Protestantism's promotion of literacy that led to higher economic growth and not behavioral changes due to a Protestant ethic as suggested by Weber. To evaluate the “Protestant reading ethic” thesis, this study examines historical events for the period from 1500 up to the 1800s in nine countries. The study also explores available cross-national quantitative data on economic development and literacy for the same period. The qualitative and quantitative evidence supports the overall thesis that Protestantism promoted literacy and rises in literacy likely contributed to the economic development. The evidence also suggests that the impact of Protestantism on literacy varied depending on what actions were taken by Protestant states and Protestant national churches to promote literacy.

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