At Work & Public Square & Theology 101

How the Protestant Work Ethic Became the Atheist Work Ethic

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America’s vaunted Protestant work ethic is getting a makeover: Now it might be more of an atheist work ethic.

So begins a recent article by Kimberly Winston posted at the Religion News Service website.

She goes on to write about a new study published in the Journal of Institutional Economics, which shows an inverse relationship between the religiosity of a state’s population and its “productive entrepreneurship.”

In other words, the less religious a state’s population, the more likely it is to have a healthy economy.

Travis Wiseman and Andrew Young, the two economists who wrote this study, found that the more Christians there are in a state, the lower the level of entrepreneurship for that state.

For some, this may come as a surprise. Yet many of us have come to the realization that the Protestant work ethic has all but disappeared.

Harvard historian Niall Ferguson writes in his recent book, Civilization: The West and the Rest:

Through a mixture of hard work and thrift the Protestant societies of the North and West Atlantic achieved the most rapid economic growth in history.

Ferguson goes on to define the Protestant work ethic as a moral framework providing activity derived primarily from the teaching of Protestant reformers.

He then argues that the Protestant work ethic provided a measure of stability and duty to balance the dynamic and potentially unstable values created by competition in a consumer society.

Ferguson also suggests that the Protestant work ethic has long since abandoned its birthplace in Western Europe. Today it cannot even be found in the United States – the country where it arguably had the largest impact.

Although Wiseman and Young don’t say much about the history of the Protestant work ethic, they suggest some interesting reasons for the findings in their study:

This could be because religion imposes opportunity costs in terms of time and resources that may otherwise have been devoted toward productive entrepreneurship…For example, time spent in church reduces time available for engaging in business activity. More subjectively, religion may create psychic costs to pursuing worldly gains rather than salvation in the beyond.

Their second reason is the one that struck me the most. Are Christians so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good?

I have long argued that in the early twentieth century, as Christians began to emphasize the two-chapter gospel and withdraw from culture, they also withdrew from the biblical, moral framework whose influence had been so important in the formation and success of our country.

Almost one hundred years later, the results are clear:

  • Widespread greed and corruption in the business world.
  • The deterioration of marriage and the family.
  • Increased violence.
  • Increased government abuse and corruption.

We have greatly underestimated the powerful influence that Christians can have within a culture even when we are a minority.

As we become serious about being “salt and light” in our communities, we can have the same effect as yeast in a loaf of bread, providing a significant moral framework that positively influences all those around us.

One of the ways we can do this is by reestablishing the Protestant work ethic in our own lives by:

  • Working hard with excellence – “Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men” (Ephesians 6:6-7).
  • Working ethically – “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28).
  • Working urgently – “Our people must learn to devote themselves to doing what is good, in order to provide for urgent needs and not live unproductive lives” (Titus 3:14).
  • Working with purpose – “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

In the Old Testament, Abraham was obedient to God, and God not only blessed him but used him to be a blessing to the nations. Let it be our prayer that God would do the same with us.

How can we revive the Protestant work ethic?

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  • Dave Reed

    As a Christian blue collar worker I believe that work is a means to an end, the ability to glorify God, while many of my fellow agnostic workers believe that work and the pursuit of wealth is an end in itself, the one with the most toys wins.

  • Jeffrey Wagler

    Rather alarming, but what about North versus South work ethic differences? Is there something to the idea that people that must make some preparation for a severe winter tend to prosper more? Just curious….

  • TJ

    I started fulltime work at 15 became a Christian at 17 I had great enthusiam & motivation to glorify God in my work as a house painter, now I am 49, tired & lost in the middle. Depression & discouragement have sapped my direction & focus, every morning I wake the wave of it washes over me again as the reality that Jesus didn’t return while I was sleeping and I have to live in this world another day. Nothing seems to change therefore the promised future gets lost in the fog. I just want to be victorious again like when i was a new believer. Sorry for commenting like this I know it is not very encouraging.

    • Hugh Whelchel


      Everyone gets discouraged – you are not alone. Work is hard and it is sometimes difficult to see how you fit into the big picture. We look forward to the coming of the kingdom of God and it is difficult when nothing seems to be changing.

      Through our jobs, however, God tasked us with restoring the fallen world and preparing it through his coming kingdom. Through your work as a house painter, you are protecting people’s homes and creating beauty in this earth. In that way you are bringing glory to God. It is a high calling, and it is one way in which you are preparing the world in the here and now for the coming kingdom.

  • Texas

    Disagree… states like Texas and Oklahoma are killing it economically and are in the heart of the Bible belt.

  • TL

    Two corrections: violence has fallen in most of the world. The incidence of war has declined dramatically throughout the world, while the incidence of interpersonal violence has declined in nearly all “first world” countries. This is true of both more religious societies and more secular ones. There is a long shelf of research supporting this contention, summed up by Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. And, as a cursory examination of 19th c. European and US governments demonstrates, corruption has actually declined over the past 150 years. I’m not suggesting that 19th c. faith led to violence and corruption or that secularism has improved the world. But to argue that secularism has led to corruption and violence is mistaken.

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