Flirting with Faith

Flirting with Faith


Does the Protestant Work Ethic Hold Up in the 21st Century?

posted by Joan Ball

This was originally posted last year, but it’s on my mind again today…

Reading a “secular” textbook this morning about the roots of Americans’ tendency to define themselves by the work they do and came across this:

“Calvin’s doctrine of predestination led his followers [to view] success in work…as a visible sign that one was predestined to eternal life. This view of work resulted in the notion that one was obligated by God to achieve the highest possible, and most rewarding, occupation. As a result, striving for upward mobility became morally justified. Thus, the Reformation brought about the view of work labeled as ‘the Protestant work ethic’. The value attached to hard work, the need for all persons to work, and the justification of profit emerging for Calvinism would eventually form the basis of modern capitalism and industrialism.” (Niles and Harris-Bowelsby, 2002).

Whether we identify as Christian, Wiccan, Atheist, Agnostic, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim or New Ager, most Americans have embraced these principles to one degree or another when it comes to work. Wondering your thoughts on this. Have you considered our cultural predisposition to “more is better” to be rooted in Calvinism? Does this perspective on work hold up in the 21st century? Should it?

 

Niles, S.G. & Harris-Bowlesby, J. H. (2002). Career development interventions in the 21st century. Merrill Prentice Hall: New Jersey.

 



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queenofromania

posted May 25, 2011 at 3:25 pm


Interesting attachment to Calvinism and the Protestant work ethic forming the basis of modern capitalism. Being more community-minded and egalitarian, I tend to think that cooperation between equals is what’s best for us all. Capitalism breeds competition between individuals and sets up a hierarchical continuum, so, while it’s really good for those on top, it’s not so hot for those under them. Is the Protestant work ethic important in the twenty-first century? If we want to keep doing what we’ve been doing and having the same results we’ve been having, then it is. If we want change for the betterment of all, then it isn’t.



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Julia

posted May 25, 2011 at 3:50 pm


I think the Protestant Work Ethic has mutated into the “more is better” attitude concerning work. Calvin’s religious basis for his doctrine seems to have been replaced by a passion for material objects leaving very few Americans aware of the oigin of the Protestant work ethic.
This conversation reminds me of Jesus’ parable of the talents in Matthew 25. We are expected to make the best use of the talents we’ve been given. How does using our abilities/talents correlate to “hard work?” Looking at the question in light of the parable, neither Calvin’s doctrine or the pursuit of material gain should be what motivates Christians to work – whatever the century.



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Tara Rodden Robinson

posted May 27, 2011 at 10:26 am


Hi Joan,

Thanks for bringing this interesting topic to our attention! A lot of ideas come up for me in reading this quote.

When I read “highest possible, and most rewarding, occupation,” I interpret that as a “calling.” There is a persistent idea in American society (and perhaps all of Western culture) that everyone has a calling. For example, Oprah talked about callings during her last show this past Wednesday. And callings are usually thought of as purpose. From recent scientific research, it seems that attraction to purpose and meaning is deeply rooted in the human psyche and is a powerful, and perhaps primary, source of motivation. So perhaps Calvin was simply recognizing and articulating something that preexisted in human psychology and framed that in religious terms?

The second thing that comes to mind for me is the preoccupation with “productivity” (and I should know, I’m a productivity coach). From watching and working with many ambitious, very hard working people, I’d say that the work ethic has been thoroughly secularized yet still has a sort of mythic quality. By that, I mean most people I work with don’t see working hard as having any sort of spiritual significance in the sense that Calvin and his followers did. Yet, working hard is somewhat idolized and painted as a certain path to material success.

Finally, this made me think of still persistent notion of material success as a transactional reward–the Jabez model, if you will. This goes a little like, “Do the right things and God will reward you with things like wealth and status.”

Thanks again for the super thought provoking post!

With best wishes,
Tara



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Ed Preston

posted September 25, 2011 at 10:03 pm


About 5 hours ago I wrote the following comment for a spiritual assignment to describe “My Dream Statement: Service.” After then discussing “The Protestant Work Ethic” with my wife, I came in and Googled it. I founds this discussion string. My earlier comment was:

“Working and being of service have been, and always will be, synonymous in my life. I learned of the Protestant Work Ethic early in my life. It is still part of my life. When I work, I serve. When I serve, I feel useful. When I am ‘of use’ I am alive and in relationship with the things or people I serve.”

So, I guess it is not about “Protestantism” in my life. I was not raised in a religion. I went for a year to a Lutheran nursery school, got kicked out of Methodist Sunday School after 8 weeks, dated a Baptist and was a Congregationalist until I ran into the Apostle’s Creed. Ultimately I became a “spiritual Unitarian’ or Religious Scientist. But even if we remove the word “Protestant” from “Protestant Work Ethic” the Work Ethic is something that should be addressed. I’m now retired after long careers in the military and computer science, and I’ve worked “hard” often in service. I am now a volunteer hospital chaplain and I have “worked” at that, sometimes “hard”. It is no different from other “work”. I am of service. Maybe we should call it the “Service Ethic”.



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