Can religion dictate economic growth? How can it change people’s behaviour and can this have implications for the economy? German sociologist and political economist Max Weber believed so. Focusing on the history of Christianity in the West, he argued that the cultivation and normalisation of beliefs and values by Christianity was significant to capitalist development in the West.
Weber argued that this was because attitudes to work and subsequent economic action was dependent on people’s perception of work and duty was defined differently in the various strains of Christianity. Within Protestantism, specifically the Puritan strand, work was taught as something undertaken for the glory of God, as a means not just for subsistence but the pursuit of righteousness. And so work was seen as a religious duty, what Weber labelled as one’s ‘calling’. With the development of the Puritan strain of Christianity, definitions of morality shifted from materialistic abstinence to fulfilment of ones calling.
Therefore, as Christianity changed and evolved the pursuit of profit became moralised. Opportunity to make a profit was now seen as a God-given opportunity, refusing this opportunity would be the equivalent of refusing ‘God’s stewardship.’ In contrast with previous doctrines work could be spiritually righteous as one could labour to gather riches for God instead of themselves. The acquisition of wealth also became moralised. Wealth as a temptation for idleness and worldly, sinful enjoyment of life was still immoral but as a result of the strong performance of one’s ‘calling’ was morally permissible.
Weber believed that such a shift in religious interpretations of work had subsequent effects on the economy. The Puritan version of the calling provided an ethical justification for the specialisation and division of labour as well as business ventures. Whilst the upper classes that indulged ostentatiously was still deemed immoral, the self-made, middle-class man was praised.
This helped set the right conditions for the development of what Weber labelled ‘the spirit of capitalism’. Weber referred to the spirit of capitalism as the drive to maximise profit and gain as an end in itself – to make this the sole purpose of one’s life and work.
Weber emphasised that this ethic is irrational and would not arise from other religions. For example, Catholicism does not teach the doctrine that work can be a calling and God-ordained. Weber believed that capitalism would not materialise in doctrines where traditionalism reigns, where it is not normal to maximise wages or profit as an end in itself but simply to live and earn as much as what’s necessary.
Since the publication of his theory Weber has received criticism on numerous fronts. Historian H. M. Robertson argued that Protestantism was not unique in its teachings of ‘the calling’ whilst economic historian Amintore Fanfani argued that Europe was acquainted with capitalism before the Protestant revolution. Economic historian R. H. Tawney indeed agreed that capitalism and Protestantism were connected but in the opposite direction. He countered that Protestant doctrine did not inherit but adopted the risk-taking, profit-making spirit of capitalism.
Historically whilst religious influence in the form of Protestantism may be a factor in the West, other countries without a majority Christian population, such as China and India, have seen significant economic growth without a Christian let alone Protestant background. Weber himself states his analysis is limited in scope, as it only focuses on Western English history. Despite the controversy and critiques that have ensued, Weber highlights an interesting consideration of how religious institutions can influence societal attitudes and the economic structures we have established.
Weber, M., Weber, M., & Kalberg, S. (2012). The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. [electronic resource]. New York, Routledge.
Pierotti, S. (2003). Backup of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: Criticisms of Weber’s Thesis. http://www5.csudh.edu/dearhabermas/weberrelbk01.htm.