Opinion: religious ideas in the workplace did not simply go away with advances in science and technology but changed into something different

Mentioning religion or spirituality in the context of work often raises strong feelings among people. At best, spirituality is seen as something that is deeply personal to an individual and, even if it gives one a sense a purpose and comfort, should be kept to oneself. At worst, it is seen as pernicious influence that causes people to judge and discriminate. Outside the context of clinical contests, religion is often seen as something that should be kept separate from our working lives.

Yet spirituality has long been tied up with the way that we think about work. Have you attended a training programme or read a text which promises to help you mine your true potential?  Ever watched a video that promised to help you "find your true path"? 

In the late 19th and early 20th century, leading early modern sociologist Max Weber demonstrated that religious ideas did not simply go away with the advances in science and rational thinking that led to the development of the industrialised workplace. Instead, they changed into something different. 

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For example, when we hear the word "charisma", we often think of leaders who energise and motivate us through the sheer force of their personality and enthusiasm. Weber pointed out that charisma is based on "chrism" or the idea that God has blessed and anointed a leader. Weber felt that in modern bureaucratic organisations, we tend to project our belief that God had blessed some people with superior abilities to do his will onto others in management positions. This was hugely beneficial to establishing management authority and chains of command in large industrial organisations.  

Perhaps the most well known of Weber’s ideas is how the link between our beliefs about salvation and work can lead to the development of advanced forms of capitalism. He demonstrated how the development of Protestantism created reduced the emphasis on ordained clergy and established ritual as a way of getting into heaven. 

The adaptation of New Age spirituality into organisational talk demonstrates how spirituality has found a way into our workplaces

In Calvinist denominations in particular, the idea that God had decided one’s fate in the afterlife before birth became a particularly strong influence on how people chose to live their lives. Without the knowledge of whether you were among the saved or the damned, individuals had to work hard to reassure themselves that they could avoid hell for all eternity. Hard work and frugal living were ideal ingredients in developing wealth; one’s profits were re-invested in business rather than squandered on more pleasurable pursuits. In short, the effect of the Protestant work ethic meant that one worked hard in this world to ensure salvation in the next.

Weber was somewhat ambivalent about the actual religious roots of these ideas. In his essay The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, he referred to the persistence of callings as the "ghost of dead religious beliefs". The work ethic concept demonstrates the importance of conscientiousness and the value of work which individuals place on their professional lives. 

New forms of spirituality

Many of the people who found themselves suddenly and unexpectedly unemployed during the global financial crisis mentioned that the loss of paid employment impacted on them in ways that went beyond the economic.  Although there have been studies which have conceptualised variations of the work ethic as based on different religions (such as the Islamic work ethic or the Mormon work ethic), changes in the nature of capitalism have been found to produce new forms of work ethic.

In the late 1990s, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello proposed that whenever capitalism experiences a shock, it absorbs and solves the crisis it has created and crates a new spirit of capitalism with new associated work ethics. For example, the lack of employment security experienced during the Great Depression resulted in the creation of large bureaucratic forms of organisation that guaranteed one job for an adult in each household. This lead to a deeply conservative and restrictive way of life, which in turn was challenged by the counter-culture in the 1960s. 

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Technological developments and flattened forms of organisation led to ways in which individuals could express themselves more openly within organisations (such as distributed leadership) as a response to this. We are just beginning to see the emergence of calls for more sustainable and smart ways of working in the aftermath of global financial crisis.

These new forms of spirituality might appear to be untethered to established religious traditions, but Weber demonstrated that these beliefs never go away, but simply change form. More recently, British academics Scott Taylor and Emma Bell identified the emergence of a form of New Age Work Ethic which manifested itself in management development and executive education training programmes.

While New Age spirituality has been ridiculed by many people, sociologist of religion Paul Heelas has provided a brilliant account of how it emerged as a response to the harshness of the industrial regime from the late 19th century and found it’s high-point in the counter-culture of the late 1960s . From there, it gradually began to make its way into training programmes for executives, management development initiatives, self-help programmes and even technological systems in contemporary workplaces.  The adaptation of New Age spirituality into organisational talk demonstrates how spirituality has found a way into our workplaces. 


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ