The Secularization of the Protestant Work Ethic – an Excerpt from Leisure and Spirituality

The following is an excerpt from Leisure and Spirituality, by Paul Heintzman.


The secularization of the Protestant work ethic was influenced by the deistic rationalism of the Enlightenment, which placed humans at the center of life. God was no longer viewed as the living God who desired people to serve him and one another. Rather God was considered as a distant being who, following the creation of the world, had left the world to humans. Thus the world was compared to a clock that God had wound up and then left to operate on its own. In this world humans were guided by reason and not God’s revelation.

Cover ArtSince humans were guided by reason and not God’s revelation, humans were seen to be autonomous and at the center of life; God and his kingdom were demoted to a place of secondary importance. Work came to be motivated by a humanistic work ethic founded on the Renaissance faith that autonomous humans can conquer the world by means of one’s own intellect and effort.

Christian belief in the sinfulness of humans and the necessity of God’s grace for salvation was replaced by a humanistic belief in the eventual perfectability of humans and human society through devotion to work. For example, the Puritan virtues of hard work and frugality were useful to Benjamin Franklin, but he severed them from the Christian faith that had embodied them. Hard work and frugality became important in and of themselves, and they were viewed to bring rewards in this world. It was thought that humans were self-sufficient; through intellectual effort, moral striving, and hard work a person could obtain all that he or she wanted. The world was a good and fruitful place; humans had only to take initiative and make the most of it. Work became a means to elevate and glorify humans, instead of a way to glorify God.

The social evolutionary theories of Herbert Spencer provided additional support to the belief that humans prosper by their own efforts. Through a free and unhindered quest for wealth, the strong would succeed while the weak and lazy would fall by the wayside. The secular work ethic gained further support from the view that “the progress of a society or a culture is something like the natural progress of a man; as he grows older and works harder, he accumulates more wisdom and more material things. . . . [Therefore] the idea of social progress and the sanctity of work as a means to achieve it grew into a now virtually unexamined ethic.”

The religion of deistic rationalism provided the context necessary for the development of free enterprise and the idea of laissez-faire (the lack of government regulation and interference in the economy), which subsequently greatly influenced the purpose and conducting of work. While the medieval theologians and the Reformers believed that Christians should refrain from seeking their own end, Adam Smith raised the principle of self-interest to the dominant motivation in society.

It was no longer necessary to consciously serve God and one another. Instead of people attempting to do good, goodwill emerges as the by-product of self-interest. According to Smith, the supposed “invisible hand” of the market will guarantee that everyone receives his or her due. Thus the government should not interfere in the market. God was nearly pushed out of the realm of work to be replaced by the god of profit and gain. Vanderkloet wrote that this humanist work ethic “was based on the so-called iron laws of nature; not on God’s law of love.”

©2015 by Paul Heintzman. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.


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