The Societal Benefits of the Anglo-American Protestant Work Ethic
Mead’s discussion of the Anglo-American Protestant work ethic ventures into the fascinating subject of the sociology of religion. I am by no means an expert in this area, but I once was a student of the subject and I do have some reflections on his discussion of the societal benefits of the Anglo-American Protestant work ethic.
His thesis that Anglo-American Protestants are working out their religious calling in a way that inures to the benefit of the broader society is a familiar and fairly convincing interpretation of the American experience. There is a common Protestant acceptance of the doctrine of vocation, in which each individual has a particular calling and obligation to fulfill that calling. (Of course there is the other well-known Christian doctrine of salvation by grace, which embraces the notion that nothing we can do will ever merit God’s favor. One would think that such a doctrine would not offer the societal spillover benefits that a doctrine of salvation by works would).
Accepting the benefits that flow from a Protestant fixation on calling, I’m not sure that this story of the sociological impact of the Anglo-American Protestant work ethic should apply in an increasingly secular culture. If Mead is correct, one would think that Protestant cultures that remain deeply religious would continue to reap the benefits of the Protestant work ethic, while cultures that stray from that path would increasingly cease to benefit from a culture permeated with a sense of divine calling. That, of course, is not what we see. To be sure, American society is deeply religious and also remarkably productive. But the rest of the Anglophone world is increasingly secular, and yet remains astonishingly productive. The correlation one would expect to associate with the Protestant work ethic would be diminished as more and more secular citizens reject any notion of a personal destiny or calling.
One could also use inductive reasoning from the world we all experience to reject Mead’s conclusions of the Anglo-American Protestant work ethic. We all know examples too numerous to mention of highly religious individuals who are remarkably unproductive (at least in terms of benefitting broader society). Conversely, the examples are legion of individuals who have no faith commitment—much less a sense of divine calling—and yet they are among the most prolific and productive members of society. One could even argue that it should be the irreligious members of society who are the most productive, for their only hope of immortality is whatever legacy they have been able to leave from their labors here on earth. They may well believe that their only salvation is their works.
Mead briefly suggests that the secular culture is subconsciously part of the Abrahamic tradition, but he never really discusses why there is no obvious differences in productivity along the secular and religious divide. Perhaps Mead is suggesting that the secularization that is sweeping the rest of the Anglophone world is nonetheless subconsciously imbued with a modern variation of calling and vocation. These modern-day Anglo-Americans are not seeking a religious calling, but they nonetheless are pursuing a purpose-driven life.