Weber’s puzzle: Why is Nigeria so religious, yet so poor?
A few months ago, the popular American preacher TD Jakes came to the church I attend in London. Preaching on leadership and wealth, he said prayer is not leadership and won’t make anyone rich. “If prayers were enough”, he said, “Nigeria would be one of the richest countries in the world”.
Most people in the congregation clapped in agreement. Several weeks later, The Times of London wrote an editorial on the relationship between religion and wealth, in which it said: “A period of increasing religiosity in Nigeria heralded a period of falling wealth”. So, Nigeria has become a global case study of how a nation can be deeply religious and yet not prosperous. But where does the idea that religiosity leads to prosperity come from? And why has the causal relationship held in reverse for Nigeria?
The major secular source of the idea is Max Weber, the German philosopher and political economist. In his book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber argues that only the “spirit of capitalism” can engender prosperity and that the “spirit” is strongly correlated with religion, particularly Protestantism.
But what’s the explanation for Nigeria’s religiosity without prosperity? Well, to explain this puzzle, we must first understand what the “spirit of capitalism “and the “Protestant ethic” mean and, then, examine whether Nigeria’s religiosity induces the spirit of capitalism; in other words, is there a correlation between the religiousness of Nigerians and the ethos that drives a capitalistic or market economy and, thus, prosperity?
First, what is the “spirit of capitalism”? Weber drew on the work of Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s founding fathers, who set out key principles, such as “Time is money” and “Credit is money “as well as the virtues of industry, frugality and honesty. Thus, the spirit of capitalism combines two elements (1) the impulse to accumulate wealth and (2) a frugal life-style. The former requires a disciplined labour force and a regularised investment of capital; the latter requires thrift and “this-worldly asceticism”. The idea is that wealth should be accumulated not for conspicuous or spontaneous consumption but for the betterment of society.
But the spirit of capitalism is also ethically driven. Capitalism may be about the greed to accumulate wealth, but it’s greed with a moral underpinning, as evident from reading Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations with his The Theory of Moral Sentiments. According to Weber, “the capitalistic economy forces the individual to conform to capitalistic rules of action”, and “the manufacturer who acts counter to these norms will be eliminated from the economic scene just as the worker who cannot adapt himself to them will be thrown into the streets without a job”. In other words, the capitalistic economy is a competitive, no-nonsense one, and only those who play by the rules, that is, who demonstrate the spirit of capitalism–thrift, industry and enterprise – will, in the long run, survive.
Weber then goes on to argue that the spirit of capitalism is embodied in the religious values that derive from Calvinism. These values, found in the Bible, include diligence, hard work, self-control, thrift and honesty. The overarching ideas of “duty” and “calling” are common to both capitalism and Christianity. For instance, Ecclesiastes 9:10 says “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might”, and 2 Thessalonians 3:10 puts it more bluntly: “If any would not work, neither should he eat”. The Bible abhors laziness and idleness, as well as profligacy and waste. It sets out the injunctions to save, invest and act with honesty, prudence and discretion in business. Of course, the spirit of capitalism can exist independently of religion, and can be found in other religions apart from Christianity. However, Weber believes that the spirit is particularly associated with the “this-worldly asceticism” found in Calvinism.
But the spirit of capitalism and the religious ethic work in conjunction with institutions. Weber lists efficient market system, rule of law and developed bureaucracy among the“preconditions for the development of rational capitalism in Europe”. In his book, Civilisation: The West and the Rest, the economic historian Niall Ferguson lists what he calls “the Six Killer Apps” that gave the West a competitive edge over others. The “killer apps” are competition; science (the Scientific Revolution preceded the Industrial Revolution); property rights, including the rule of law; medicine (after all, “health is wealth”); consumerism (industrialisation depends on a consumer society) and work ethic. The idea is that the spirit of capitalism and the moral energy of religion, in conjunction with these social, political and economic institutions, drive the capitalistic economy or “commercial society”, as Adam Smith put it, that delivers wealth and prosperity.
All of which brings us back to Nigeria. First, we can all agree, I assume, that Nigeria does not have the social, political and economic institutions to support a viable market economy. Nigeria doesn’t have the tradition of rule of law, the property rights, the disciplined and efficient bureaucracy, the social institutions (health, schools, social security etc), the right politico-governance structure, the scientific or technological base, the physical infrastructure base, the market system, the competitive environment etc that can bring about a viable capitalistic economy or a commercial society.
But these institutions do not emerge by accident. They are products of a cognitive or ideational process and of deliberate policy choices that a country makes. Since Nigeria has not made these choices, we can say that it lacks the spirit of capitalism necessary to do so. Finally, we can also say that, since, according to Weber, there is a strong link between religious values and the spirit of capitalism, Nigeria’s religiosity lacks the moral fervour and drive to engender a viable capitalistic economy and thus prosperity.
Now, let’s briefly illustrate all this with a few examples. Take the two elements of the spirit of capitalism: the accumulation of wealth and thrift. Nigeria is an oil-dependent mono-economy that has failed woefully to diversify. Once it discovered oil in the 1970s, it abandoned all other economic sectors, including agriculture. A capitalistic economy doesn’t behave like that; it fires on all economic cylinders, not just one, in a bid to accumulate wealth.
What about thrift? Well, Nigeria is a profligate country; it hardly saves or invests but rather borrows and spends. All the successful Asian countries, including China, financed investment out of savings. Nigeria could easily have built the infrastructure for a strong economywith all the money it made from oil. But, alas, it didn’t, but squandered the money. That’s not how a capitalistic economy behaves. At the individual level, Nigerians indulge in conspicuous consumption. A few years ago, there was an event in Kenya. All the prominent Nigerians that attended went in their private jets to the amazement and amusement of Kenyan journalists. Weber would argue that such behaviour is inconsistent with the spirit of capitalism and the Protestant values.
And what about work ethic? No country has ever developed without an efficient bureaucracy. The economic success of Singapore and China is partly associated with the quality of their civil service. But Nigeria has a dysfunctional bureaucracy. The following are words used by the Office of the Head of Service of the Federation, in various press releases, to describe federal civil servants: “habitual late coming”, “truancy”, “lukewarm and shoddy attitude to the discharge of duties” and “corrupt practices”. Yet Nigeria is a deeply religious country, where everyone wears their religion on their face. But the work ethic of most of the people is not consistent with the “duty in calling” associated with religion and the spirit of capitalism.
Truth is, religion has failed to impact positively on governance in Nigeria. The Bible says, “Righteousness exalts a nation”, and that “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice”. But these Biblical blessings continue to elude Nigeria. Why? Well, because there is so much unrighteousness, injustice, oppression and abuse of power in the country. A deeply religious country that produces the 100th richest person in the world and yet, at the same time, has the largest number of extremely poor people in the world, according to the Brookings Institution, certainly has a problem that should scar its conscience.
Nigeria may be a deeply religious country, but its religiosity is shallow; it doesn’t inspire the spirit of capitalism needed to generate wealth and prosperity and tackle poverty. Sadly, Nigeria’s religiosity erodes, rather than help, prosperity!