By Dr. Niaz Murtaza
Until East Asia’s rise, white-majority countries monopolized progress, allowing white supremacists to claim race-based differences in IQs. However, scientific evidence quickly refuted this theory and soon no serious writer dared propound racist theories. Attention then shifted to the supposed superiority of Christianity, especially of the ‘Protestant ethic’, in facilitating progress. This theory receives some backing in the west even today, despite its weaknesses.
First, there is an absence of rigorous empirical evidence. Sans evidence, proponents provide a selective, self-serving listing of teachings from different religions to show that Christianity encourages development-friendly attributes, such as hard work and risk-inclination, while others do not. Thus, some argue that Islam discourages risk-taking and personal responsibility by propagating fate. However, like other Abrahamic religions, Islamic teachings about ultimate judgment based on worldly deeds emphasize personal responsibility. The ban on interest encourages greater risk-taking in investments than under other religions. Similar teachings related to all such attributes can be found in all major religions.
Second, teachings about these attributes (encouraging or discouraging) do not constitute the inflexible core of religions but merely their peripheral aspects. Thus, Islamic teachings about risk-taking, for example, are not sacrosanct–beyond modification or divergent interpretation–unlike the five basic pillars. Where people’s adherence to even core teachings is mixed, proposing religion as a major determinant on peripheral issues makes little sense.
Third, historical evidence undermines this theory. If Christianity facilitates development, why did it take 1000+ years for Christian-majority countries to start developing? Why did China, the Abbasids and India start developing, however modestly, before Europe? Why did Europe develop only after the church’s influence declined? Why have so many Christian-majority countries in Africa still not developed? Why are non-Christian countries in Asia developing–more rapidly than Christian countries ever did? Nor do arguments about Protestant virtues withstand serious scrutiny. Catholic Italy was the cradle of the Renaissance—the foundation of European development. France, Italy and Germany are more developed than virtually all Protestant European countries today.
Religion has certainly been abused under certain groups, thereby undermining larger societal progress, e.g., under the Taliban and during the peak of papal control in Europe whose end undoubtedly facilitated progress there. However, such instances represent particular interpretations of these religions and a small portion of their vast temporal and geographical spread. Thus, they have had limited impact on the current overall developmental fates of their adherents.
So, if not race or religion, what then? Proponents invoke the last bastion of western supremacist thought, i.e., that western culture, and not race and religion, is superior. Thus, the scope of claimed supremacy shrinks further! They suggest, with some empirical evidence, that hard work, risk-taking etc. are more common in western countries. Personal experiences reaffirm scholarly findings. East Asian success is also explained under this theory as based on increasing adoption of ‘superior’ western culture and becomes a basis for exhorting other countries to follow suit.
Culture includes food, clothing, music and festivities, which are at least as good in non-western cultures. Culture includes social/family structures. Western structures provide more freedom but non-western ones provide more support and stability. Culture includes work and general ethics, where western societies undoubtedly have a wide edge at present. So, unlike sweeping racial, religious and overall cultural superiority claims, a major western edge exists, presently, on only one cultural aspect, though admittedly one perhaps most crucial for material progress.
How did Europe achieve this superiority when around 1400s similar ethics prevailed even there, e.g., exploitation, voodooism, and fatalism? Renaissance is the answer, but why did it emerge only in Europe if racial, religious and other cultural differences (and even colder geography) were irrelevant? Renaissance emerged in the trading cities of Italy because they received intellectual currents from around the world, especially Asia, through the silk route. Additionally, Copernicus, Galileo and others, like most great thinkers, were cosmopolitan cultural and religious deviants. Thus, cities and individuals that catalyzed change did so not by immersing themselves deeply into ‘superior’ European religions and cultures, but by often bucking them and ‘virtually’ connecting themselves with the best thought globally (as happens even today). Thus, a deviant cosmopolitan minority, as almost always in cataclysmic changes, helped unleash society-wide change. Rationality and better work ethic are common human heritages, like the wheel and fire.
But why did Asia stagnate despite being ahead of Europe earlier? Just before Europe’s take-off, Baghdad, India and China were attacked by Central Asian nomads, who reveled particularly in destroying formal knowledge. India’s Nalanda University burned for 3 months after Khilji’s attack while Mongols piled the books in Baghdad’s House of Wisdom to cross the Tigris. Without such attacks, some Asian intellectual centers too may have soon then sparked Europe-like societal changes. While Europe suffered warfare too, its intellectual repositories survived them.
European colonialism followed Central Asian attacks in Asia. Many consider colonialism a blessing as it provided European technology. However, this could have occurred through trade too, as under the Silk route trade. Such inventions would then have fostered local progress rather than European exploitation. Japan is the only country to rival the West today, as it remained free but gained western inventions through trade. Freed from colonialism, some of the same Asian countries are growing the fastest today.
Thus, as throughout history, Europe developed not just due to good or better attributes alone, but through a combination of the good (work ethic), the bad (colonization), the lucky (escaping Mongolian attacks) and the copied (Asian knowledge). This has strong future implications. We clearly owe gratitude to western progress. However, western-style progress has also exposed humanity to serious risks, such as climate change, nuclear destruction, recessions and social breakdown, due to over-rationalism, over-individualism and over-risk inclination. Non-western holistic thought offers antidotes for these problems. Thus, humanity’s future lies not in cultural arrogance and monotony but, as almost always, in diversity and mutual respect and exchange.
The writer is a Research Associate in political economy issues at the University of California, Berkeley.
email@example.com. This article recently appeared in Dawn.