What remains of the ‘Protestant work ethic’ theory?

Was the Industrial Revolution an after-effect of the Reformation? (Getty)

The Wealth of Religions
Edited by Rachel McCleary and Robert Barro
Princeton, 160pp, £24/$29.95

I can only assume that I am the target of an elaborate practical joke. A time machine seems to have transported me back several decades and the theories of Max Weber (epitomised by his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, first published in English in 1930) are still being taken seriously.

You’ll know the gist of Weber’s audacious, brilliant and entirely bonkers idea. It’s the one where religion doesn’t really have much to do with God or faith and focuses a great deal on functionalism and inventive sociological analysis.

Rachel McCleary and Robert Barro don’t always take it easy on Weber. But they readily admit that he was a more nuanced thinker than is sometimes realised – the post-Weberians turned an intriguing little cake into a fancy croquembouche. They apply his ideas to a century’s worth of new data and, to their credit, greatly expand the geographical and denominational orbit of his philosophy. Their book will, by turns, make you scowl, smile and scream – but it is well worth a look.

Weber’s big idea was that religiosity did wonders for the Western Protestant economy. Its tenets (or a cherry-picked bunch thereof) made people aspire to lofty goals like thriftiness, hard work and plain-dealing.

Acquiring such characteristics made it seem more likely that you’d end up in heaven among the virtuous rather than in hell alongside the sluggards. Such behaviour could only ever be a hint or a sign of happy posthumous pastures – human agency did not determine such fates – but they represented an efficient carrot-and-stick mechanism. The proof could be found in the extraordinary expansion of Western economic influence between the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution. The better the earthly pew (a sure indicator of worldly respect and success), the better the heavenly bunk upstairs. If you found time and resources to fund education and charities, then so much the better.

It was a two-way street. Religion shaped character and improved the economy. Governmental economic social policy helped to define the nature of religious belief. Not that being overly interventionist was always a terrific idea. The authors also turn to Adam Smith’s obsession with the positive influence of competition and some of the book’s most interesting sections look at the relative virtues and vices of imposing (formally or informally) a state religion. This could enhance the sense of a common moral/economic mission but could sometimes make everything a little static.

Weber, of course, was no dummy. He accepted that spending big on religion siphoned off resources and anticipated that a follow-the-ethical-rules approach to salvation would lose its appeal. When things started going well, people would become less concerned with salvific factors: it would come down to making a buck or boosting your social status and the whole enterprise was highly individualistic (about you, not your pals, passing through the pearly gates).

How, though, has Weber’s theory played out? In general, the authors suggest it still has legs. Being part of the club on its way to glory is addictive. These days, we have harmless enough utopian communities and extreme cults which unabashedly offer salvation for sizeable donations. The gentler version of this logic still has pull in the mainstream, too. In many places, deeper, shared commitment to religious values can enhance economic growth. The landscape is, of course, much confused by the ranks of so-called “liminals” who embrace a sense of spirituality but gain more from chatting about religion at cocktail parties than from turning up every week at religious services.

The book is at its most insightful when it moves beyond Christianity. How come Islam – king of the cultural roost back in 1100 or so – fell so far behind economically? Did specific Muslim rules about property law, contracts, dealings with those outside the faith, and deep suspicions about the role of credit, limit room for manoeuvre? Worth remembering, too, that a Weberian paradigm never stood much of chance in communist Russia or China, where God’s popularity endured quite the slump.

The most explosive aspect of Weber’s theory is that it turned religious belief into a kind of human capital: a resource to be mined. There is something haunting about a phrase like the “value placed overall on religion”. I don’t doubt that such calculations were made by lofty Victorians, but I like to think that when some of the gang got together and listened to Bach their horizons could be broadened.

Further back, Luther and Calvin never shut up about working hard in the real world but they had their eyes on a higher prize, just as the kid in the gutter without a farthing still has some hope of glimpsing the transcendent. I tend to think that Weber fully realised that religion was about much more than an ethical or economic checklist and that God was not a “you scratch my back” kind of Deity. Weber simply had fun pointing out the ways in which such perceptions could blossom. Perhaps that’s not the worst definition of sociology: the science of demonstrating how silly we can be.