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Protestantism and capitalism, but a Protestant 'ethic' and a 'spirit' of capitalism. Such subtlety, however, may in fact be a weakness, and it is not the only one that critics can point to. Weber's method of ideal types -in other words, his practice of constructing an idealized image from the blurred historical reality -may in fact do an injustice to the historical record, since it means shutting one's eyes to the messiness of reality. It may also have meant taking a situation that was specific to Germany, where Catholic education had suffered greatly from the confiscations of the revolutionary era, and mistakenly assuming that it was a generality true throughout the western world.

Is there then any hard evidence that bears Weber out? There is really none in Weber's original essay, for what little statistical evidence it contains does not stand up well to scrutiny. And much of the evidence that Weber's supporters point to - that Protestants were over represented among merchants, inventors, and entrepreneurs - is in fact inconclusive, for it could easily result from factors unrelated to Weber's Protestant ethic. If many of the early inventors and entrepreneurs in England happened to be Nonconformists, it could simply be that they were barred from pursuing careers in the government or the military. Similarly, the fact that Britain was the birth place of the Industrial Revolution might stem not from the influence of Puritanism, but from the country's secure property rights, low transportation costs, and abundant supply of skilled metal workers.

A real test of Weber's thesis has to take into consideration all these other factors that influence economic growth and try to distinguish their effect from that of Protestantism. One way to do that is to use statistics. When statistical techniques are applied to historical evidence from the countries of Europe over a long period stretching from 1300 to 1850, however, they suggest that there was no firm relationship between Protestantism and economic growth. Similar studies, which have been done using modern data, are also relevant here, for if the Weber thesis held in the past, it should hold today as well. But the most careful of these recent studies finds no clear evidence that Protestantism is more favourable for economic growth than Catholicism.

Another way to test the Weber thesis in an unambiguous way is to study Protestants and Catholics who live in the same community. Because they are both part of the same economy and polity, the non-religious factors affecting their economic success would therefore be nearly the same. The only major difference would be their religion, and by examining their fortunes, one could see, for instance, whether the Protestants saved more and were thus more likely to increase their wealth.

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