Saturday, November 24, 2007

Religion, natural resources and development

There is a running line on headtops of many: the more religious the country and its population, the less developed thus less probability for a better future of that country. In addition, the contrary is generally held as true. The less religious the country or society, the more probable it will soar to a higher level of life standards.

This approach became intuitive only in the light of 21st century history. Religiousness had more than a passing negative impact on the level of development of a society or nation, and that is what I am going to elaborate here.

I will have to hinge on three basic premises. One, a country’s development level (positive or negative) depends on the availability of natural resources in the country. Two, this development depends, among other things, on the religiousness, i.e. the measure of how religious the country’s population is, independently of the religion’s nature. Three, this development depends on beliefs and intentions of its leaders, in other words, man or women who hold the power. I will then give weight to each of these three dimensions.

development = a*natural-resources + b*religiousness + c*leadership

where a, b, and c are corresponding weights.

One of the first inventions, which brought enormous momentum to the world development (entailing much exploitation of natural resources by depletion of minerals), was the revolutionization of warfare, and most importantly the “discovery” of iron.

At the beginning, there was the “Golden race” of people who lived like demigods with carefree heart, remote from toil and misery and who, at the end of their reign, were transformed into “divine spirits … watchers over mortal men, bestowers of wealth.” Then there followed the Silver race, “much inferior” to the Golden race, “but they too have honor.” The third race, that of Bronze men was “a terrible and fierce race,” characterized by violence and lack of agriculture – a clear sign of civilization’s absence – a people who ate only meat and wild things growing in forests. They were “unshapen hulks, with great strength and indescribable arms growing from their shoulders above their stalwart bodies.” They didn’t have iron, or at least they didn’t know how to work it, and they now lived in the “chill Hades’ house of decay.”[1]

The present is located in the fifth age, the age of the race of Iron men. In terms of moral character, the world of Hesiod’s Iron race contemporaries seems to have been situated somewhere between that of the deformed and violent and primitive Bronze age and that of demigods who lived in the Blessed Isles: although troubled with vice, selfishness and dishonesty, at least the Iron race is civilized. However, Hesiod later introduces the notions of justice and morality as paths that mortal men and women can choose to follow and in which “a kind of Golden Age is open to those who deserve it by their just and virtuous lives.” [2]

Iron needs higher temperatures than copper (1100o – 1150o) to be separated from its ore and, unlike copper and gold, is never found free in nature. Isn’t it remarkable that Hesiod, in his own time, already conceived humans as living in the Iron Age – the age of a metal, which is the most used (with its alloy steel) of all metals, comprising roughly 95% of all the metal tonnage produced worldwide? Evidence suggests the first people to work iron were Hittites during 15th – 13th centuries BC, which happened to coincide with their Golden Age. Hittite lands were rich in mineral reserves of copper, lead, silver and iron. Trade with other countries was limited. Whenever Hittites needed special natural resources, conquest provided the solution, not foreign trade. Hittites zealously guarded the technique of making iron, which they regarded as more precious than gold and which, given its versatility, hardness and low cost, was to proliferate later on.

The art and architecture of Hittites was strongly influenced by neighboring countries. They used stone and brick as well as wooden columns to erect their houses and temples. The Hittites built large palaces, temples and fortifications, upon which carved relieves, adorned walls, gates and entrances. Their religion was one of great syncretism, their central elements being gathered from the Sumerians, Babylonians, and other peoples. It is often characterized by the expression, “1000 gods of Hatti.” By incorporating foreign gods into the Hittite pantheon, the Hittite rulers secured their control over the subdued people. Hittites performed daily cultic rituals, in which the deities were brought food and drink. There were also other festivals, on monthly and annual bases.[3]

And the bigger picture? Metallurgy was already well developed by 3000 BC, from whence the gold plating began. Three uses of metals had the most profound impact: the development of swords, mirrors and coins. Swords, firstly bronze then iron and then steel, revolutionized the entire warfare. Hittites and other nations, which became influential, owned much to this development. Mirrors served to advance human experiences and knowledge about the universe and stars above and ultimately gave birth to the science of optics. Money existed as commodity, from salt to tobacco to cows, from primordial times. The English salary comes from Latin salarius, ‘of salt’ (Roman soldiers were paid in salt). The transition from this proto-money to money proper, coins, took place in Lydia, the Neo-Hittite successor, in 7th century BC. First coins were made of electrum, a natural admixture of gold and silver. Money was what drove the commoditization of products and thus development of economies. As a consequence, the first retail market was introduced in Lydian city Sardis, where everyone could buy and sell for money. The resulting boom of trade transformed Lydia into one of the flourishing cultural and trade centers of the world.[4]

The second important driving force behind the momentous development of the world (also entailing depletion of world forestry and dumping of dangerous chemicals into the nature) was the invention of paper. Among its most profound influences that changed the face of the world has been its usage for producing books, and most notoriously the most republished book in the world – the Bible (well over 1000 major editions since 5th century).

The word paper comes from the Greek term for the ancient Egyptian writing material called papyrus, which was formed from beaten strips of papyrus plants. However, paper was invented in China during 2nd century AD. That paper was thin and translucent, not like modern Western paper, and thus only written on one side. Books were invented in India, of Palm leaves. Modern papermaking typically does begin with trees as the raw material, although many non-woody plants can be used. Plants used for papermaking include cotton, wheat straw, sugar cane waste, flax, bamboo, and linen rags. Cotton is used to make US currency, which is 75% cotton and 25% linen, according to the US Treasury Department. But it is the wood pulp that is most commonly used to make paper. The major environmental problems of wood pulping come from its negative impact on forest resources and from its waste by-products such as dioxins and furans; in high pulping areas such as British Columbia, high concentrations of these contaminates led to the closures of some fisheries in 1992.

The increased usage of paper, especially after Gutenberg’s invention of printing mechanism with movable type in 15th century, allowed a rapid proliferation of not only literature-, philosophy- and science-related materials and ideas but also a vast spread of religious doctrines via the Bible (in Europe), which in turn, “boosted” the Renaissance Age and was at grassroots of the Industrial Revolution in and eventual supremacy of Europe, capped by presence of kings such as Louis XIV. Muslims didn’t embrace this technology at that time deeming it un-Islamic.

Now, let’s have a look at several countries in modern times and their level of development.

The Kingdom of Norway is the current top-ranked nation in the UN Human Development Index.[5] The Norwegian economy is an example of mixed economy – a combination of free market and government control. The government controls key areas, such as the vital petroleum sector. The country is richly endowed with natural resources such as petroleum, fish, forests, and minerals. Recent research shows early evidence of massive amounts of coal. Norway has around 4.6 million inhabitants of which 86% belong to the Church of Norway, which professes the Lutheran Christianity. Despite this big number, one survey has found that Norway was the least religious country in Western Europe.[6]

But Norway wasn’t always well developed. Prior to mid-19th century, agriculture was pervasive in the country. The Industrial Revolution started to take pace in Norway somewhat later than in the rest of Europe, and by 1910 the industrial output exceeded the agricultural one. It was only in 1969 that oil reserves were discovered. From this moment on, it was clear to Norwegian leaders that the only way the country could effectively use petro-krones for sustainable development of the economy was via increased investments in research and development and continuous alliances and collaborations with European and American institutions and companies.[7]

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's economy is petroleum-dominated; roughly 75% of budget revenues and 90% of export earnings come from the oil industry. The oil industry comprises about 45% of Saudi Arabia's GDP, compared with 40% from the private sector. Saudi Arabia possesses about 25% of the world's proven total petroleum reserves as of 2005. The Basic Law of Government adopted in 1992 declares that the Koran is the constitution of the country. There are no recognized political parties or national elections. The king must retain a consensus of the Saudi royal family, religious leaders, and other elements in Saudi society. Saudi Arabia, unlike Norway, is the 76th in the UN Human Development Index.[8] Innovation (thus research and development) is largely stifled and is considered by majority of population as un-Islamic. Saudi Arabia ranks 85th on the Index of Economic Freedom.[9]

Summary table


In ancient times religiousness came in handy as was seen from the Hittite story. It was also important to have visionary leadership at the top which would lead the country in a direction of prosperity.

Numerous ancient civilizations including Aztecs, Inca, ancient Egyptians, and ancient Chinese were, with small exceptions, notoriously religious. Their religions gave not only push-forward for development of their art, culture, science, and sophisticated social structures but also served as governance and law dispersal systems. However, their religions were being perpetually revived and were never considered to have obtained a final form.

In Middle Ages both Europe and Muslim countries were religious. The latter were, almost till 14th century, more developed than the former. Since the Industrial Revolution, the situation has reversed. Majority of Chinese and Indians are still religious and both countries are poised to overtake the US in terms of development.

It became almost a common-folklore that natural resources and leadership corruption are correlated and a country with religious population and leaders and abundant natural resources is doomed to decline. These premises were present in past but the result was the total opposite. Many can state that this is rather true in cases of Saudi Arabia and Iran nowadays. It thus seems that, besides natural resources and religiousness, the leadership and their political agenda matter as well.

What is the prediction for future? The three dimensions might give a rough estimate of what the future of a region, a country or of the world might look like. Without further ado I will give here the resulting weights I calculated using some empiricism and evidence from American and Chinese histories, not provided here. Normalizing the above equation of development level, we obtain the following result for modern times and future:

development = 0.25*natural-resources + 0.3*religiousness + 0.45*leadership

The development will depend 45% on the leadership, 30% on religiousness of the population and 25% on the availability of natural resources.

One vital fact, it seems, is that the “fixedness” of a religion (ex. Islam, which is as it was in 6th century) plays a crucial role in determining the “sign” of the religiousness factor in the above equation. When the religion is “fixed” the factor b (0.3) obtains a negative sign and development and religiousness become negatively correlated.

We also must not forget that the equation yields only a probability, not a guarantee, that a country will develop.

There are no whole truths;

All truths are half-truths.

It is trying to treat them as

Whole truths that plays devil.

- Alfred North Whitehead, Dialogues (1953)

[1] Hesiod, Theogeny and Works and Days, translated with an introduction by M.L.West (Oxford University Press, 1988).

[2] Giamatti, Earthly Paradise and the Renaissance Epic.

[3] See Encyclopedia LexicOrient - .

[4] Peter Watson, History of Ideas, Oxford 2005.

[7] See, for example, the article at about the role Norway plays in the scientific and technological cooperation with other European countries and Australia.

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