Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism

Once upon a time in a far away, magical land I like to call "Germany," there was a Sociologist by the name of Max Weber.

That's pronounced, "Vay-ber," for those who curious, not "weh-ber."

Anyway, Weber was a very smart, if often melancholy, man who wrote extensively on topics ranging from methodology, to religion, to bureaucracy. His work ultimately earned him a place as one of the classical Sociological theorists, alongside Karl Marx (Who has the distinction of strangely resembling both Frederick Douglas and George Clinton), Emile Durkheim (Who oddly resembles Vladimir Lenin) and Georg Simmel (Who resembles Richard Simmons. Okay, not really, but wouldn't that be hysterical?).

One of Weber's most famous works is a little book by the name of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In this book, Weber made a very simple, but very interesting argument: that the emergence of capitalism as an economic system relied upon philosophical ideas contained within Protestant variants of the Christian Religion.

It would take too long to reproduce Weber's full argument, but in short he argued that a morality based on worldy-asceticism, or a form of self-denial that is rooted in the world of the flesh, rather than the world of the spirit, allowed for the beginning of the modern process of capital accumulation. So, while Catholic monks denied themselves material riches and turned their energies to honoring God, Protestants were supposed to have denied themselves material riches and turned to honoring God through hard labor in worldly pursuits- like making money. This created a class of individuals who accumulated more and more wealth which was then reinvested in the production process, rather than spent on pleasures of the flesh.

Over time, this process fed on itself, leading to larger and larger returns, and in the process fueling an entire economy. Moreover, such an approach to business granted protestants a competetive advantage, as their factories grew ever more productive, and their products ever cheaper. As a result of such an advantage, Weber claimed that we would find ourselves locked within an "iron cage" such that, regardless of one's own religious views, failure to adopt protestant ethics in business would result in eventual economic failure. In other words, all capitalists must become worldly ascetics to some extent in order to prosper. Similarly, non-capitalists must abandon asceticism in order to provide markets for the rising flood of products that capitalism belches forth with such ease.

And yes, I am aware that this is a drastic simplification of Weber's argument. Cut me some slack, will ya?

I bring all this up today not because I'm practicing for an intro lecture, but as proper background for my real subject: a recent newspaper article. This article, which comes courtesy of the New York Times, tells of a small but very real movement among Imax theatres at science centers to refuse to show films that mention the Big Bang or Charles Darwin's theory of Evolution. (For those who are curious, Charles Darwin oddly resembles a certain animated character you may be familiar with.) That's right: a movement among theatres at science centers to refuse to to show films that make reference to two of the most dominant and widely-accepted scientific theories of all time. And why is this occurring? Simple, the theatres fear, "...protests from people who object to films that contradict biblical descriptions of the origin of Earth and its creatures."

Indeed, we appear to have reached an interesting point in our development as a society. Out of fear of protests, fear of conflict, fear of controversy, institutions of science education are side-stepping their duty to- wait for it- educate the public about science. Instead, they choose to restrict themselves to teaching things that do not challenge the pre-conceived notions of their viewers. I don't know about you, dear readers, but such a strategy does not fit will with my definition of "education." Education is, and should be, a difficult, traumatic process. This is not to say that it should involve horrendous tests or constant pop-quizzes, or devilish instructors, but rather that learning should challenge the student. To absorb new information is to be forced to alter one's existing notions, and while such a project is valuable, it is never easy, and seldom comfortable.

Yet, here we are, tailoring our eduction to coddle the students- to avoid stretching them, or challenging them- so that they can absorb knowledge as though it were a trivial frosting, instead of the juicy meat of human experience. (As a side note: Woo-hoo! Crappy metaphor HO!) My frustration at this situation is only magnified by my belief that people are never hurt by exposure to ideas. We should be exposed to rival ways of thinking and viewing the world- we do not, after all, grow if we are not challenged. Moreover, my adherence to this view leads me to positions that I am not always terribly fond of myself- such as my previously-stated willingness to see creationism taught in public school. Granted, I demand that it not be taught as a science, since creationism approximates science about as well as I approximate a supernova, but that isn't the point. The point is that I am deeply annoyed by this situation.

Certainly some people, as reported in the article, might assert:

In their written comments, she [Carol Murray of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History] explained, they [test audiences] made statements like "I really hate it when the theory of evolution is presented as fact," or "I don't agree with their presentation of human existence."

But here's the thing: they're seeing a movie at a science center. If I go to a Christian church, it's ludicrous for me to object to hearing about Jesus. If I go to a Mosque, I should probably be prepared for a little Allah-praising and some references to Mohammed. So why is it so bizarre that in a Museum of Science, they teach science?

It does not, of course, help that even the allies of science seem to have serious flaws in their thinking. When asked about this trend filmmaker James Cameron remarked:

"It seems to be a new phenomenon obviously symptomatic of our shift away from empiricism in science to faith-based science."

Faith-based science? There is no such thing. While science is certainly based on certain premises that must be accepted on faith, this is the case with any system of knowledge, as so ably-argued by Rene Descartes and his famous, "cogito ergo sum." Science, at least, has the virtue of minimizing its assumptions and maximizing its exposure to growth through clashing with evidence. While systems of thought that are unempirical certainly exist, and have valid places in society, they are unavoidably non-scientific.

At the same time as I am deeply worried, however, I can't help but be reminded of our old friend Max. He wrote that Protestantism and its peculiar ethic provided the foundation out of which capitalism was born. Perhaps he was right, perhaps not; I am skeptical, as befits a materialist, but the possibility exists. Yet, Weber theorized that the demands of capitalism would drive a shift away from these protestant ethics. The portions of them that supported capitalism would remain, while those that did not would be driven into disuse. I find myself wondering about this last conclusion.

In this most recent iteration religion appears to be using the proft motives of capitalism to shore itself up. Unable to defeat science as a way to describe the physical world, religion has turned to skulking about in the shadows, and ushering the money changers back into the temple. It may be that Weber spoke too soon when he argued that capitalism would throttle religion. Perhaps it is only that capitalism and religion have a much more complicated, and symbiotic, relationship than Weber conceived of.

Regardless of the ultimate answer, one thing is clear: we cannot assume that capitalism and religion are, in the modern day, antithetical. To do so is to blind ourselves to the real world, and make ourselves vulnerable to those who would choose faith over facts.

For those who are curious, you can find another recent mention of Max Weber here over on Pub Sociology.


Blogger Erin said...

This is an interesting post. I'm responding on Prairie, because this turned out to be pretty long.

Friday, March 25, 2005 10:43:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

For the curious, Erin's response can be found here.

I won't claim to understand exactly in what way she disagrees with me, but she says she does, so I'll take her at her word.

Check it out, if you dare.

Friday, March 25, 2005 1:33:00 PM  
Blogger Hazel said...

Good post, Drek. My mom, a science teacher in Texas, and I have been following this story too. She participated in the survey mentioned in this USA Today article . She is sure that next week, a contingent from the National Science Teachers Association, which is meeting in Dallas, will "have words with" the Ft Worth Museam of Science people. Still, this is yet another blow to those of us living in the "reality-based world".

Sunday, March 27, 2005 12:39:00 PM  

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