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Protestant Ethics and Spirit of Capitalism

Sociology of religion was an area studied by many early sociologist. Marx and Weber have written extensively about the relationship between society and religion and the role of religion in socio-economic changes. "The Theory of Religion" or "Sociology of Religion" established by Max Weber clearly indicated that there is a close relationship between the religious beliefs of the people and their economic activities.

Weber's essay on "Protestant Ethics and Spirit of Capitalism" contributed more, than any other work to his fame. Weber’s sociology of religion says that there is a direct link between the economic system and the practical ethics of a community. So both are interdependent. The economic system affects the ethical ideas and the ethical attitudes are responsible for developing a particular economic system.

According to Marx, the art, literature and religion are merely super structural and therefore, strictly determined by the economic reasons. However, Weber discarded this theory and he believed that the economic factor is only one among the many other variables of social change. He tries to establish relation between religious ethics on the one hand and the economic behavior on the other. He compares the world religions like;
  • Confucianism 
  • Judaism 
  • Hinduism

a) Confucianism: 

Ancient China had well developed economy but western style of capitalism did not develop there, because; 

  1. Belief in the order of the universe, the cosmos.
  2. Man should aim at being in harmony with the nature and the cosmos.
  3. Behavior is to be guided by traditions, all wisdom lies in the past.
  4. Family and kin ties and obligations were never to be neglected.

b) Judaism: 

  • Judaism is one of the oldest monotheistic religions and was founded over 3500 years ago in the Middle East.
  • Jews believe that God appointed the Jews to be his chosen people in order to set an example of holiness and ethical behavior to the world.

Weber identified the following values which were in harmony with the spirit of capitalism;

1. A Shift from the Ritualistic Orientation to Pragmatism:

  • The finite mind of man cannot understand the mind of God. 
  • Therefore man should not indulge in mysticism instead try to understand the natural order. 
  • So this favored development of of science and rationality.

2. Changed Attitude Towards Work:

  • The Catholics considered work as a punishment since Adam and Eve were banished from the Eden Garden with the curse that they have to earn their livelihood with the sweat of their brows. 
  • Among the protestant work is virtue since it contributes to the Glory of God.

3. The Concept of Calling:

  • According to Calvinist doctrine of predestination every individual is predestined at birth to go to hell or heaven. 
  • In order to achieve salvation every individual must pursue a calling (a job or vocation) and must engage himself in hard-work and become successful. Those who become successful in their enterprises are marked for salvation. 

4. Collection of Interest on Loan:

  • Though Catholicism was against on collection of interest on loans, Calvinism advocated collection on interest on loans which promotes economic activity such as lending houses and new capital etc.

5. Rejection of Holidays:

  • Since Catholics have many holidays, they turn out to be holidays. 
  • Among Protestants, since work is virtue there are few holidays, which results in more work and thus more capital.

6. Encouragement of Literacy and Learning:

  • Catholics were satisfied with attending mass and listening to sermons.
  • Protestants had the conviction that every man should read Bible. This prompted literacy, learning and specialized skills, or mass education among the protestants. 

7. Strictures on Alcoholism:

  • Protestants ethics prohibits the consumption of alcohol which prevented money being wasted instead investment and saving were encouraged.

8. Protestant Asceticism:

  • Protestant ethics rejects the pleasure of this world, which prompts people to be ascetic. 
  • This in turn led to accumulation of wealth.


Protestant ethics provided convenient dogmas for the development of economic activity. Catholics remained backward in economic enterprise because of their religious strictures, which denounce the accumulation of wealth. India and China for example; 
  • Capitalism could not flourish in India because Hindu morality has a disregard for the worldly pleasure and casteism. 
  • Chinese religious dogmas were not conducive to its development because it emphasize quite life and did not encourage material prosperity.

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