How Does Religion Affect Our Attitudes Towards “Work”?

Religion has been defined differently by different people at different points of time. Religion can be defined in the same period of time and within the context of the same culture differently by adopting different lenses. The academic fields of theology, sociology, history, philosophy and to a lesser extent psychology, anthropology and political science all probe the sphere of the sacred with different lenses of looking at the same subject of interest. Wherein a theological perspective will concern itself with studying religious prescriptive texts which dictate norms of specific religions, a sociological perspective will probe the question of how these normative prescription help society in its goal. This article concerns itself with a sociological breakdown of religion with respect to instilling one specific social attitude: the attitude towards “work”.

What is the goal of society and what are its functional necessities? Which attributes are worth aspiring for as a society and who decides the question of worth? What mechanisms should be used to create such a disposition in individuals, so that they remain organized within its social framework with some degree of solidarity? These questions have preoccupied the earliest Greek philosophers. These questions were attempted to be answered by classical sociologists of the 19th century using a method different from the philosophers before. Durkheim, Weber, Spencer and even Marx used the frameworks of a social structure and social system to attempt to explain the functionalities of this social organism which was society. The method most precisely to study each social institution (and this method still stands today) was one which aimed to decode the societal need that institution sought to fulfill.

Religion, apart from psychological needs cited by anthropologists Malinowski, Tyler and Frazer, fulfilled many social needs as well. Above all, religion provided an explanation which was backed by the authority of a divine being. Sacred explanations usually justified social norms which were essential for the smooth running of society. In my understanding, social organization and habitation in groups requires two prerequisites: solidarity and division of labour. Instilling solidarity and compliance with an existing system to decide who ends up in which occupation requires a instilling a rationale in the minds of people. In modern Europe, when institutionalized “work” came to be differentiated from unpaid “leisure”, it was sacred explanations which molded the “work ethic” of people at the time.

Following the linking thread between religion and work ethic, different religions instilled different attitudes towards work and consequently the pace of “development” in the empirical sense of the term varied across societies even in the same temporal context. This is a long and very vast story to be told which can technically be begun as far back as hunting gathering societies and their primitive religions.

Europe– Protestantism and Catholicism

I choose to begin telling the story at the turn of the industrial revolution in 18th century Europe. The spread of Protestantism was strongly tied to the fostering a work ethic which was conducive the capitalist economic system. The spread of Protestant ethic raised a consciousness within people that their fates were not pre-ordained. It instilled “work” as a way of worship and means to salvation in the psyche of the people. Max Weber wrote the most extensively on this topic- the non-economic motivations which led to economic growth. In fact, he himself said, “If I don’t stay up till 2 am every night then I will not be a professor.” Protestantism had a peculiar worldview vis-a-vis Catholicism. The Protestant ethic deplored leisure, recreation and indulgence. Max Weber wrote his most acclaimed scholarly work “The Protest Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism” exploring this link between Calvinist work ethic and development of capitalistic machinery in Europe.

What was the reason that Eastern countries like China or India where civilization had existed for centuries before had not developed solid Capitalistic Enterprise even till the early 20th century? According to the rationale of the Protestant ethic, all profit created was to be reinvested back in the business and this was a way of ensuring salvation. Protestantism, within the purview of the existence of a divine being, gave space for individual “callings”. The high vocational productivity of Protestant was intimately tied to a sacred ideology that validated and rationalized “this-worldly” achievements. Such a “this-worldly” orientation was in stark contrast to Catholic sacred ideology which believed in a set of tenets dictated by God and salvation and damnation being pre-ordained as per a clergy’s interpretation of those principles. If Catholicism was rigid and opposed to social change, Protestantism provided the spark in fields such as academia and politics for people to probe deep (unafraid of creating social change) in pursuit of their calling.

The point of such an example is to elucidate that religion was created to provide a justification for safeguarding the status quo social order. Those social orders were maintained by different social processes. Therefore a society in which the dominant social process deciding the division of labour is competition, would require a very different ideological justification from a society where dominant social process is cooperation. Hindu Varna society is an example of division of labour hinging on cooperation while Modern Industrial society with full-fledged capitalism is driven by competition.

India– Hinduism and Sikhism

Closer to home I will illustrate the Catholic versus Protestant ethic contrast in a different way comparing Hinduism and Sikhism. Hinduism is an “other-worldly” religion. I say this because the highest ideal to aspire for in Hindu ideology is “moksha”. The person holding highest respect within Hindu worldview is the “sanyasi” who renounces the world. Even the occupational callings are thought to be ordained by divine doing by birth in a particular family. As a religion, Hinduism does not reward individual daily work in a way that a “this-worldly” religion does. Although there is a concept of Karma, the caste-specific “dharmas” or duties and caste-statuses hold such a stronghold which interpret that different varnas have different duties and following those specific duties would lead to being rewarded by Karma and a good rebirth. By this logic, a Shudra’s “calling” seems to logically be deduced as suffering and cleaning for other people in Hindu religion. Such a worldview of Hinduism not only curtails individual volition and motivation to find and pursue a calling, but also limits potential for social change. Development and progress require social change. This can be a probable reason why despite being exposed to new systems of ideas, Hindu society has been limited in its receptivity to organically absorb and actualize them in a way that Protestantism accompanied a receptivity to new systems of thinking as long as they increased productivity in one’s calling.

Sikhism has been a world-affirming religion at its core. Its five symbols, of “kesh” (hair), “kada” (bangle), “kirpan” (sword), “kachha” (loincloth) and “kanga”(comb) imply the exercise of this-worldly control and discretion. The unshorn hair imply a natural impulse which are sought to be tamed by a kanga. The sword implies will to fight but it is controlled by the kada which implies resorting to violence only with discretion when it is for a greater cause. And the loincloth implies exercising a control on one’s sexuality and to use it within the institution of marriage. These tropes have been described by me merely to explain that the core principle of Sikhism puts emphasis on this-worldly duties and the unshorn tamed hair of the Sikh is very much in antithesis to the “jatayein” of the “jogi” of Hinduism who renounces the world. In Gurudwaras, there is a sense of brotherhood while in temples there is a sense of hierarchy between priests and worshippers which also varies between castes.

An institution like religion which by common sense is thought to irrational can and does achieve rational ends. The sacred has functions that go beyond the divine. As Emile Durkheim said “at its most profound level, Religion is society’s worship of itself”. Religions are meant to safeguard society and social organisation. “Work” at it most profound level is the generation of livelihood which is a basic need of societal sustenance. Therefore different religions foster (implicitly or explicitly) different work ethics conducive to their social organization and desired goal.

Picture Courtesy- Huffington Post

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