Religious Pervasiveness and the Curse of Capitalism

I am currently working my way through Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart’s Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, and I was struck by two comments they made on Max Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic thesis. These points have much wider implications and I just wanted to share them with you quickly.

I don’t have time to go into the details of Weber’s thesis, detailed at length in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, but essentially he theorised that a minority Protestant emphasis on proving that you were “saved”, led many to start trying to earn money for the sake of earning money, and not for things that they needed. This led to investment, re-investment, and the development of Capitalism as we know it today. I haven’t checked out the accuracy of the Wikipedia article, but if you want a quick overview of the thesis you can find it here.

The first quotation from Norris and Inglehart that I would like to share with you is this:

“It should be stressed that Weber did not claim that the restless go-getting entrepreneurial class of merchants and bankers, shopkeepers and industrial barons were also the most devout ascetic Protestants; on the contrary, he argued that “those most filled with the spirit of capitalism tend to be indifferent, if not hostile, to the Church.” He therefore did not expect an individual-level relationship to exist between personal piety, churchgoing habits, and adherence to the Protestant work ethic. Instead, this cultural ethos was thought to be pervasive, influencing devout and atheists alike, within Protestant societies. Any attempt to analyse the Weberian theory should therefore be tested at the macro-level, not the individual level.”

Norris, Pippa and Inglehart, Ronald, 2004. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 161.

I think this just perfectly summed up for me just how pervasive the influence of religion can be in society. I am not saying that this is a good or bad thing. It is just worth noting that even if everyone in society decided to abandon their religious faith, the vestiges of the major religious faiths in that society would remain pervasive throughout culture, law, morality and more for many, many years. Just look at what Phil Zuckerman has found in his research in Scandinavia (see Society Without God): although Denmark and Sweden have among the highest rates of unbelief in the world, with minimal church attendance and belief in God and the afterlife (I’m sorry I don’t have the figures to hand just now), the vast majority of the population are still tax-paying members of the Lutheran Church, have their children baptised, get confirmed, have weddings and funerals in churches, and positively identify as “Christian” whilst shunning the label “Atheist”. Religion does not have to be important in people’s lives for it to exert an influence and, additionally, people do not have to hold to the tenets or practices of a religion for them to consider it important.

And secondly:

“It seems clear that today, contemporary Protestant societies place relatively little value on the virtues of labour, in terms of both material and intrinsic rewards, especially compared with contemporary Muslim societies. Systematic survey evidence from a broad range of societies indicates that by the late twentieth century the work ethic was no longer a distinct aspect of Protestant societies – quite the contrary, they are the societies that emphasise these characteristics least of any cultural region in the world. Any historical legacy, if it did exist in earlier eras, appears to have been dissipated by processes of development.” (ibid:169)

Something which has struck me lately, especially in the case of Britain, is that we are generally incredibly lazy. We may not like to admit it, but in the majority of cases if we can get away with doing a job in a half-arsed manner, then this is what we will do. If  asked to do more work, we complain. We prefer sitting on the sofa and watching television to reading a book, going out for a walk, or building something. I know I am making massive generalisations here, and we are not as bad as all that, but at the same time can you imagine our grandparents’ generation being quite as inactive in their prime as we are today? Maybe “development” carries its own curse? Maybe there is a peak after which a society ceases to apply itself to collective endeavours with the same zeal as it did in the past? Maybe we will all end up like the sad remnants of humanity depicted in Wall-E?

I haven’t thought any of this through… these quotations just provoked some thoughts, and I thought I might as well let them do the same for you.


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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

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