Weber: religion as a force for change


Religion as a force for change

Weber (1905) 

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism 

The religious beliefs of Calvinism helped to bring about major social change, specifically the emergence of modern capitalism. 

In many past societies had capitalism in the sense greed for wealth, which is often spent on luxury consumption 

It's based on the systematic, efficient, rational pursuit of profit for its own sake, rather than consumption. 

This is the spirit of capitalism, which has an elective affinity to Calvinist beliefs and attitudes

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Calvinist beliefs

Predestination- God had predetermined which souls would be saved even before birth. Individuals could do nothing to change this. God's decision is already made and cannot be changed. 

Divine transendence- God was so far above and beyond the world and incomparably great to any human, no one could possibly claim to know his will (other than what he'd chosen to reveal in the Bible). Calvinists feel an unprecedented inner loneliness; when combined with the doctrine of predestination  created a salvation panic in the Calvinists. They couldn't know whether they'd been chosen to be saved,couldn't do anything for salvation

Asceticism- Abstinence, self-discipline and self-denial (e.g. Monks refrained from luxury to devote their life to God and prayer) 

Vocation/clearing- before Calvinism, religious vocation meant renouncing everyday life to join a convent/ monastary. Calvinism introduces the idea of this-worldy asceticism. The only thing they knew of God's plan was from the Bible. Humans put on earth to glorify God's name.

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Calvinist beliefs continued

..... So for Calvinists, the idea of a vocation/calling meant constant, methodical work in an occupation, but this didn't mean salvation. It was a religious duty. 

Calvinists led an ascetic life, worked long hours and practised self-discipline. Idleness= sin. 

Benjamin Franklin: 

  • 'Lose no time; be always employed in something useful'

Hard work and asceticism had two consequences. 

1) Wealth and success performed a psychological function that allowed them to cope with their salvation panic. As they gained more wealth, this was taken as a sign of God's favour and salvation. This was contrary to the original doctrine that God's will was unknowable. 

2) Thier work ethic meant they methodically accumulated wealth by the most efficient means possible. By not permitting luxuries, they reinvested in their businesses, which grew and prospered. Weber= spirit of modern capitalism (Object is to acquire more and more money) 

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Hinduism and Confucianism

The Protestant Ethic was not sufficient on its own to bring about modern capitalism, it was simply one of its causes. 

A number of material and economic factors were necessary 


  • some societies have had more economic development than others in Northern Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries 
  • but still failed to develop modern capitalism 
  • China and India were more materially advanced, but capitalism didn't take place
  • failure of Capitalism to develop was due to lack of religious belief system (such as Calvinism) 


  • in Ancient India Hinduism was ascetic religion, favouring renunciation of the material world
  • BUT its orientation was other-worldly (directed concerns away from material world to the spiritual world) 
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Hinduism and Confucianism continued


  • this worldly religion (directed followers towards the material word) 
  • it was not ascetic 

Both Hinduism and Confucianism lacked the drive to systematically accumulate wealth that is necessary to modern capitalism. 

Calvinism was unique in combining asceticism with this-worldly orientation to enable modern-day capitalism to develop. 

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Evaluation of Weber

  • Debate with Marx's ghost 
  • Marx saw economic/material factors as the drive or force for change 
  • Weber argues that material factors aren't enough to bring back capitalism 
  • needed specific cultural factors (the beliefs and values of Calvinism) 

Kautsky (1927):

  • argues that Weber overestimates the role of ideas and underestimated economic factors in bringing capitalism into being 
  • capitalism preceded rather than followed Calvinism

Tawney (1926):

  • the technological change caused the birth of capitalism, was only after capitalism that the bourgeoisie adopted Calvinist beliefs to legitimate pursuit of economic gain. 

Weber has also been criticised because capitalism didn't develop in every country with Calvinists, however, Marshall (1982) argues that in countries like Scotland that were slow to develop capitalism; this was due to lack of investment and skilled labour. 

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Evaluation of Weber continued

... Further supporting Weber's point that both material and cultural factors need to be present for capitalism. 

Others argue that Calvinists were among the first capitalists, this wasn't because of their beliefs, but because they had been excluded by law from political office, so turned to business as one of the few alternatives open to them. Weberian's argue that other religious minorities were also excluded, but didn't become capitalists.  

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