Max Weber and the (so-called) Protestant Work Ethic

It is about time I wrote about this topic on this blog.

The Freakonomics podcast ran an episode last week entitled, “Is the Protestant Work Ethic Real?” The majority of the episode focused on research by Gharad Bryan, James Choi, and Dean Karlan evaluating the effects of a faith-based development program implemented by International Care Ministries in the Philippines. I wrote about this paper, back in March, but this podcast brings up a couple additional points worthy of discussion.

The first point is that Max Weber may have been right about the Protestant work ethic while misunderstanding the doctrine of the early Calvinists.

To get to this point, some context is necessary. The program implemented by International Care Ministries in the Philippines includes three integral parts. (1) A Christian theology module, (2) a health module, and (3) a livelihood skills training module. The idea of the study by Bryan, Choi, and Karlan is to disentangle the role of the first component, the Christian theology module, in causing economic outcomes. Any sort of positive effect of Christian theology might be able to provide empirical evidence supporting Max Weber’s theory of the Protestant work ethic.

The authors find that income increased by 9.2% due to being exposed to the Christian theology module. Although this may seem like a relatively modest gain, indicating roughly $8.60 more income per month, the effect is causal and not merely an association and these households are quite poor so this additional income can be very beneficial.

Wait, so why is this happening? Why does Christian theology cause an increase in income? Enter Max Weber and his theory of the Protestant work ethic made famous in his book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Weber’s idea was rooted in his observation of Dutch Reformed Calvinist Christians whose faith was built on the idea that salvation is given by God’s grace alone. That is, there is no amount of “good works” that one can do to earn salvation. Weber took this to mean that, since salvation is out of the control of the Calvinist, then they did not actually know whether they were saved or not. This, he thought, lead to radical insecurity. So, Calvinists who are desperately trying to prove to themselves that they are saved, channel that anxiety into hard work.

This is an interesting theory, but ultimately a misunderstanding of the motivations of early Dutch Calvinists. To the contrary, Calvinists are not (at least in general) motivated by radical insecurity. Rather, the obedience and hard work through service and vocation (i.e. work) of Calvinists was motivated by their gratitude to God for the gift of salvation. So, remarkably and despite this misunderstanding, Max Weber may have been right about the so-called Protestant work ethic.

The second point is that in the present day it is entirely plausible that the so-called Protestant work ethic applies to more than just Calvinists or even Protestants.

I think that the effects identified and found in the study by Bryan, Choi, and Karlan could hold in an alternative context where, rather testing the effects of a Christian theology module, researchers instead test the effects of an Islamic, Buhdist, or Hindu theology module. I say this as a self-described Calvinist.

Again to understand this point, some context is necessary. At the end of the medieval period, the religious perspective almost universally considered the physical world as foreign. Human beings were simply aliens traveling through. Any spiritual act was focused inward on intellectual contemplation rather than outward on physical action.

The reformers—such as John Calvin and Martin Luther—came along with a radical set of ideas for the time. Chief among these reforms was the idea that anyone through their own vocation—as a tailor, merchant, or a farmer—can live a life that is holy and pleasing to God. This essentially allowed for the idea that religious faith actually had implications for how people are to physically act and live.

Although this perspective was revolutionary at the time, my observation is that it is more or less mainstream across the major world religions today. My friends who profess different faiths than me all seem to derive some direction for their actions, behavior, and career choices from their faith. To be totally honest, I sometimes feel my friends who are Muslim and Buddhist practice this sort of outwardly expressed obedience much more transparently than my friends who call themselves Christians.

So, here this leads to the idea that the so-called Protestant work ethic could apply to more than just Calvinists, Protestants, or Christians. My hypothesis is that if someone with a Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu background were to engage with God in a way that truly inspired hope in their life, then this faith or belief could lead to important benefits in their material life. Ultimately, we do not have a good way of knowing if this hypothesis is true or not, but my point is that we also cannot claim that the effects measured by Bryan, Choi, and Karlan are distinct to Protestantism.

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