Prosperity need not kill religion

April 25, 2012

Thomas Carlyle’s fulminations against the spiritual damage wrought by factories are almost two centuries old, but the sentiment is current wherever industrialisation is rampant. “The huge demon of Mechanism,” he wrote, “smokes and thunders, panting at his great task, oversetting whole multitudes of workmen … so that the wisest no longer knows his whereabout.”

In China, today, government leaders and dissidents alike worry that, as one commentator put it, “frenzied competition for a better life [has] lobotomized the people of inherent values like common decency, compassion and feelings of fellowship”.

A century ago, Max Weber described the process as “disenchantment”. The German sociologist thought the transition from a culture of faith and farming to the narrow-minded and bureaucratic “iron cage” of modern civilisation required the destruction of a spiritual worldview. He saw a modern society made up of “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart”.

Weber was certainly on to something: industrialisation does break down old religious ways. In pre-industrial societies, the transcendental and the everyday were closely woven together. Social rituals couldn’t be separated from ethical expectations. Such unity is impossible in a world of material plenty, big cities, and high technology.

Vast increases in wealth, consumption and education create opportunities for personal expression and eliminate the economic rationale for many socio-religious restrictions. Urbanisation brings people physically closer, but often as anonymous neighbours rather than in communities with shared values. Omnipresent media, telecommunications and transport erode the borders between the ‘us’ of family or village and the ‘them’ of the outside world. The old religious and spiritual ways cannot survive this transition.

But Carlyle, Weber and many modern social observers make bolder claims: common religious belief and shared moral values are gone forever; modern society has no room for old-fashioned certainties; there is no exit from what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls “A Secular Age”.

Are they right? In a rich economy, the grim fight for survival is eased and there is more time for emotional and religious exploration. Modern scientific knowledge invites speculation and wonder. As Weber noted, spiritual discipline is required for the “worldly asceticism” which makes modern economies so productive. Prosperity and urbanisation might engender greater spirituality.

Karl Marx condemned religion and shared morality as “illusory happiness of the people”. His case is weakened by the failure of his alternative. Marxists in opposition were often idealistic, but in power their rule was both inefficient and cruel. Their promise of an economic justice which would make life satisfying now sounds like a bad joke.

While Marxism has been an outstanding failure, its more successful modern counterparts have failed to convert everyone to secularism. Democracy is desired, but is hardly inspirational, and there’s no need to travel to China to hear complaints about excessive materialism, selfishness and shallowness. In less restrictive nations, praise for freedom is often matched with complaints about the tyranny of the media, the government and society in general.

Relatively few people seem to make prosperity serve spiritual ends. Industrialisation and secularisation have come together, mostly, as inseparable elements of the turn from the transcendental to the worldly. The modern package of high consumption and individual freedom appears irresistible, even if the loss of old ways is sometimes regretted.

But the facts do not support the case for permanent radical secularity. While religion is down in many parts of the world, it is hardly out. In many countries, industrialisation and prosperity seem to nourish Islam. Even Christianity, the religion first threatened by industrialisation and urbanisation, is not doing badly outside of increasingly atheistic Europe. In China, the lamentations over the loss of a moral compass should be set against the rapid growth of indigenous and imported spiritual teachings. The new middle class there seems to be particularly enthusiastic.

More fundamentally, questions of religion and morality are questions of human nature. How strong and how universal is the desire to find something that is higher and more certain than anything offered by the physical world?

The answers are not changed by the onset of industrialisation. Religious practices organised around old economic patterns, social relations and folk beliefs will wither away, but that decline could be followed by the growth of spiritual organisations and the development of moral standards which fit with urbanised, industrialised, societies. In the words of a Chinese investment banker, “The desire to make sense of life doesn’t go away just because I’m rich”. He has been spending more time at a Buddhist temple.


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Interesting! The growth of the LDS Church worldwide proves the same point. Truly, the same question remains for all. Why are we here?

Posted by EW88 | Report as abusive

“How strong and how universal is the desire to find something that is higher and more certain than anything offered by the physical world?”

You seem to refer to the persistent gullibility of those who dare not think things through for themselves and take appropriate action. They prefer anyone else bear the blame for personal failures but themselves.

So tribes and clans have “Chiefs” to do the thinking of most and make their decisions for them. And close behind are the Popes, clergy and cult leaders (you pick where those lines of separation fall) who will gladly tell anyone who will listen how to live their lives for a price.

For well over two thousand years various religions have subverted an incredible part of man’s intellectual and financial potential without improving man’s ability to get along with each other. We still have starvation, “superbugs” are the new plagues, and people will kill each other because they have different beliefs and expectations.

At seven BILLION humans (and accelerating) this planet is rushing directly towards a Soylent Green society”. We still live in a world where kittens, puppies and people reproduce in great excess, the surplus of which tend to live a short and disagreeable existence absolutely without meaning.

That isn’t my idea of “prosperity”!

Why do we continue to do the same things year after year and expect different results? Because so long as our “reality” can be excused and accepted as some omnipotent “creator’s plan” WE are individually absolved of personal responsibility for how bad things are OR for coming up with and implementing solutions to make things improve over time.

While change for the better over time is obviously possible, that’s not seen as being in Man’s “job description” or responsibility.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

I don’t buy that there is an unchanging creator’s plan. Man is evolving. We now live in the age when as part of this evolution the ‘moral compass’ needs to pass from being enforced from above (church, school, government, parents etc) to being brought up volentariliy from within by each individual person. Unfortunatly, right now, we are living in the time when the old way has all but died, but the new way is still an infant. Brace yourself for interesting times.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

Hey @OneOfTheSheep, glad to see you back.
The long count has ended, a new age is beginning.
Old social ways are failing us. Including religion.
I believe there are higher powers and far greater understandings than we have now.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Oneofthesheep has misrepresented religion.
I can only speak of Judaism as that’s what I know. There are lots of detailed laws. Whilst they are supposed to be obeyed (we don’t all manage it) they are there to provide a framework not an instructions manual.

It’s up to individuals to decide what they think G-d wants them to do. For example it doesn’t command us to stand for a pregnant woman on the tube. It doesn’t tell us to be accountants, teachers or plumbers.

Some people insist on asking a rabbi, priest etc for guidance on everything, but that is the nature of some people. If they were not religious they would look to other mentors.

Religion tells us to feed the hungry. Can you blame religion for the fact that people disregard its teachings? There are many who preach religious values whilst simultaneously ignoring them. That’s not the fault of the religion. G-d gives us free will. We can’t blame Him if people misuse it.

Our free will also allows us to question G-d’s existence. Is it more plausible to believe in G-d or the alternative. To me the theory of evolution and natural selection would be a stunning example of G-d’s existence and control over the world.

Posted by Alistair2 | Report as abusive

I think the enemy of relgion is not technology itself, but the fact that we have less time to think. It’s the same idea as people only getting 30 seconds to express their views when they used to have 5 minutes. We’re assumed (rightly or wrongly) to have very short attention spans. Religion required deep thought.

Posted by Alistair2 | Report as abusive

Religion kills prosperity.

Posted by moxsee | Report as abusive

[…] Prosperity Need Not Kill Religion Edward Hadas, Reuters […]

Posted by First Links — 4.26.12 » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog | Report as abusive

Alistair2, well said!! I never understand the Dawkins perspective that because we can understand some of Gods work ie evolution, physics etc that we don’t need God anymore and that God is a quaint anachronism valuable to luddites and others who reject the modern world. As a Genetics/computational biologist; I see all the new information about our world as conformation of Gods reality. From such simplicity amazing beauty and complexity!!! Sadly many fundamental religions buy into the opposite view expressed by oneofthesheep and have decided that science and its answers are wrong and to be avoided hence the nonsense around creationism etc…

Posted by thebeorn | Report as abusive

Greed and selfishness kill prosperity.

Posted by Alistair2 | Report as abusive

Though I am not a follower of any mainstream religion, I encourage most others to follow one. It provides morality to the masses. I think if I were to follow a book, it would be the Jeffersonian bible. So I guess I agree with the author in some way.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Not even a ghost of a point towards why religion should indeed remain in a world that is clearly progressing in elevating the living standards of our 7 billion inhabitants – apart from your morose doubts of mankind’s ability to prolong our cordial solidarity in the absence of religion. The atheists of the world shall surely enjoy this moment of obvious insecurity and irony, where the historically inflexible theists, would like everyone to know ‘we still have something to offer!’. I for one appreciate the tone of surrender, and am happy to restate your own fact that prosperity has indeed occurred simultaneously with the decline of religion and ascent of secularism. Let’s continue to put the antiquated incompatibilities of religion behind us, and let societies evolve new, modern means to bolster our solidarity – which might even draw on the fruits of religions, but not religious dogma. I for one have faith in mankind to do so in the absence of classical religion.

Posted by FrontalLobe | Report as abusive

All value comes from God. There is no prosperity without Him.

Posted by buffowens | Report as abusive

In the past religion worked hand-in-hand with tribalism (or racism, in the more recent form) to unite the community and consolidate it in opposition to enemy communities. And yes, those forces can still be used for individual benefit in the modern world. The question is – is that the world we want to sustain? Or do we wish to move in the direction of a more egalitarian world – sans religion?

Posted by tcolgan001 | Report as abusive

Won’t religion evolve as it has in the past to accomodate the new realities of everyday life or rebel against them with fundamentalism? We have seen the rise of the Prosperity Gospel tying piety to wealth. As an athiest how do I fulfill a need for purpose and community? It seems that humans have a need for this spiritual placement. Shouldn’t we find out why and how it can be served outside the confines of religious dogma?

Posted by notnews | Report as abusive


You refer to “…G-d’s existence and control over the world.”

There is no proper authority without equal and concurrent responsibility. If man’s “design and construction” be such that over thousands of years his “free will” is predominately and persistently used in a manner contrary to right and justice, is this not indisputable evidence of a rather fundamental and undesirable flaw?

Even us knuckle-dragging humans are smart enough to correct mistakes only evident in hindsight sooner or later. If HE get credit for all that is good in the world, HE must also accept responsibility for all that is bad and improvement of any lack of “balance” logically his to fix.

Man cannot properly be blamed for the “status quo” until such time as he understands he, and he alone, must step up to the plate and change his own destiny for the better. Unfortunately man seems no more willing to accept responsibility for his own destiny, individually or collectively, than his legendary creator.

Somehow that is perversely almost logical.

At best we might be a living soap opera for G-d’s entertainment. The bible shows he gets pissed when his ego isn’t stroked often and just so, and sometimes just because Satan pulls his chain.

Such power combined with such pettiness is so unpredictable as to be genuinely dangerous to any and all in close proximity (anywhere, any place). Sleep tight!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive


G-d created us with free will and gave us a mission. His apparent anger is to encourage us to fulfil that mission. He kills people all the time eg. old age. The Bible also mentions he kills people who He sees as detrimental to his masterplan.

We have missions as individuals and as part of the wider world. Our free will has led to enormous amounts of pain and suffering. The alternative is to remove or alter our free will, so we are no longer human in the sense we are now.

I’m trying to show that it’s possible to believe in a merciful G-d with all the pain and suffering that exist in the world today. The best I can do is to cite examples of those who have suffered and retained their faith. See -Home-Forum/2008/1201/p17s01-hfgn.html  /2012-01-26/Israel-Holocaust-survivors/ 52806148/1

Posted by Alistair2 | Report as abusive