Weber observes that according to the occupational statistics of countries of mixed religious composition, business leaders and owners, as well as the higher skilled laborers and personnel, are overwhelmingly Protestant. This fact crosses lines of nationality. Weber observes that this could be partly explained by historical circumstances, such as the fact that richer districts tended to convert to Protestantism. This, however, leads to the question of why, during the Protestant Reformation, the districts that were most economically developed were also most favorable to a revolution. It is true that freedom from economic traditions might make one more likely to also doubt religious traditions. However, the Reformation did not eliminate the influence of the Church, but rather substituted one influence for another that was more penetrating in practice. Weber also says that though it might be thought that the greater participation of Protestants in capitalism is due to their greater inherited wealth, this does not explain all the phenomena. For example, Catholic and Protestant parents tend to give their children different kinds of education, and Catholics have more of a tendency than Protestants to stay in handicrafts rather than to go into industry. This suggests that their environment has determined the choice of occupation. This seems all the more likely because one would normally expect Catholics to get involved in economic activity in places like Germany, because they are excluded from political influence. However, in reality Protestants have shown a much stronger tendency to develop economic rationalism than Catholics have. Our task is to investigate the religions and see what might have caused this behavior.
One explanation that has been given is that the Catholics are more "otherworldly" and ascetic than the Protestants, and are therefore indifferent to material gain. However, this does not fit the facts of today or of the past, and such generalities are not useful. Furthermore, Weber argues that there might actually be an "intimate relationship" between capitalist acquisition and otherworldliness, piety, and asceticism. For example, it is striking that many of the most ardent Christians come from commercial circles, and there is often a connection between otherworldly religious faith and commercial success. However, not all Protestant circles have had an equally strong influence, with Calvinism having a stronger force than Lutheranism. Thus, if there is any relationship between the ascetic Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, it will have to be found in purely religious characteristics. In order to understand the many potential relationships here, it is necessary to try to understand the characteristics of and differences among the religious thoughts of Christianity. It is first necessary, though, to speak about the phenomenon we wish to understand and the degree to which an explanation is even possible.
Throughout his essay, Weber will be making both empirical and theoretical arguments. It is therefore important to understand the differences and connections between the two kinds of arguments. An empirical argument is based on observation or experiment; it describes facts that can be proven. For example, Weber's claim that Protestants are more involved than Catholics in capitalistic activities is an empirical argument, based on his observations in Germany and elsewhere. Other studies might question the validity of such a claim, and in fact Weber has been criticized for many of the empirical arguments that underlie his study. Theoretical arguments are more speculative; their purpose is to give meaning to empirical observations. For example, Weber notices a correlation between ascetic Protestantism and the spirit of capitalism. What could explain such a connection? It is not possible to simply run an experiment or do a statistical study; this might show correlations, but it will not tell a causal story. Thus, Weber explores more about the "spirit" of capitalism, and about ascetic Protestantism, hopefully getting an accurate description of each (this is empirical work). He then attempts to tell a coherent story about what happened, given the information available (this is theoretical). He looks at his information through the lens of his theory, and ideally his theory would account for all of the relevant facts available. In reality, the world is far too complex for any theory to possible capture all of its intricacies, and Weber himself is very cautious about the limited ability of any theory to explain the world. However, theory is still useful, since it is the only way to give empirical facts any broader meaning.
Weber's study has important implications for how we look at religion. Weber does not simply take religion on its own terms, seeing what it means to its founders and followers. For Weber, religion also has another function. It can create broader social values and be instrumental in the creation of social institutions completely unrelated to its own goals and ends. Religion has a generative power, and the influence of its ideas should be studied in areas seemingly unrelated to its theological principles, such as the creation of economic institutions.