March 13, 2005

Religion and capitalism.

Francis Fukuyama writes about Max Weber's "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," written 100 years ago:
Religion, according to Weber, was not an ideology produced by economic interests (the ''opiate of the masses,'' as Marx had put it); rather, it was what had made the modern capitalist world possible. In the present decade, when cultures seem to be clashing and religion is frequently blamed for the failures of modernization and democracy in the Muslim world, Weber's book and ideas deserve a fresh look....

Weber argues that in the modern world, the work ethic has become detached from the religious passions that gave birth to it, and that it now is part of rational, science-based capitalism. Values for Weber do not arise rationally, but out of the kind of human creativity that originally inspired the great world religions. Their ultimate source, he believed, lay in what he labeled ''charismatic authority'' -- in the original Greek meaning of ''touched by God.'' The modern world, he said, has seen this type of authority give way to a bureaucratic-rational form that deadens the human spirit (producing what he called an ''iron cage'') even as it has made the world peaceful and prosperous. Modernity is still haunted by ''the ghost of dead religious beliefs,'' but has largely been emptied of authentic spirituality. This was especially true, Weber believed, in the United States, where ''the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions.''

Sounds terrible, but what happened in the 100 years after Weber made the observation? Read the essay, which questions whether "living in the iron cage of modern rationalism is such a terrible thing after all."

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