How Work and Religion Are Connected: Changing Landscapes of the Western Workforce

The Christian Worldview

...Western society is so oriented toward the Christian worldview that its influence on our personal beliefs, values, and behaviors can often be invisible to us.

It is hard to overstate just how influential the Christian worldview has been in the Western world. Over two millennia since the real or imagined life of Jesus Christ, teachings of both the Old and New Testament influence Western ethics, morals, laws, gender expectations and status, relationships, civil behavior, participation in family and community life, and the understanding one has of his/her place in the universe. Even for those who eschew Christianity and the teachings of Christian scripture, Western society is so oriented toward the Christian worldview that its influence on our personal beliefs, values, and behaviors can often be invisible to us. And even when we are acutely aware of the influence the Christian worldview is having on us, its gravitational pull can be difficult to escape. 

I was reminded of one of the profound effects biblical teachings have had on the worldview of Westerners when I was at a get-together with an acquaintance recently. A group of us were discussing the role of work in life. My colleague remarked how her mother told her that “Work isn’t supposed to be enjoyable. It’s called work for a reason.” When my acquaintance mentioned this, it struck a chord deep within me, bringing up feelings about how work is a sacrament to God for eating of the fruit of the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden. 

Origins: Genesis 3:19

Whether you believe in this biblical account or not, the premise of work as penance is a belief that is deeply woven into the Western worldview.

According to the Bible, while in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve lived lives free of distress. Adam and Eve ate from trees that produced food: “And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food.” Furthermore, the couple lived in harmony with the “beasts of the field.” However, when Eve and then Adam ate of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Adam was rebuked and punished as recorded in Genesis 3:19: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” 

Whether you believe in this biblical account or not, the premise of work as penance is a belief that is deeply woven into the Western worldview. Genesis 3:19 establishes a paradigm in which men toil in life so that they can appease God for Adam’s sin and then return to the humble ashes from whence they came. While it may not always cause sweat as the scripture suggests, the notion that work is a penance for disobedience can be a powerful motivator for the devout who seek to gain God’s acceptance. As a punishment for Adam’s original sin passed from one generation to the next, it gave people a sense of purpose in their work, framed by a belief that work is payment for sin and not an activity from which one should glean pleasure, purpose, or meaning beyond satisfying God’s will. From a biblical point of view, purpose and meaning are about returning to God, not enjoying work on earth. But certainly countless people during the past millennia have found both enjoyment in their work while also fulfilling God’s penalty to work as a penance for eating of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, so I am not suggesting the two are mutually exclusive–I am suggesting that the origin of work laid out in Genesis 3:19 is a powerful cultural current in Western societies that has framed work as a toil. 

The Protestant Reformation

Whether it be penance for original sin, a sign of predestination, or both, the relationship between work and salvation has profoundly shaped how the West has viewed work.
"Martin Luther" by Lucas Cranach the Elder

"Martin Luther" by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Enter Martin Luther and his Ninety-five Theses in 1517. Martin Luther’s opposition to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church gave rise to Protestantism and shortly after that, Calvinism—a then-major branch of Protestantism. Calvinism taught predestination—a belief that God predetermined a person’s salvation. However, Calvinism also holds that it is not possible to know who is predestined to be saved and who is not. In its early days, practitioners of Calvinism saw a person's work ethic—how much he worked, how well he worked, and how dedicated he was to his work—as a manifestation that he was predestined for salvation. Work thus became not only a form of penance as a result of Adam's original sin but also a sign that God chose a person to be saved. This attitude toward work is broadly referred to as the Protestant or Christian work ethic. While The effects of the Protestant work ethic were predominant in Germanic-speaking countries (including the United States and the British Isles) from the 16th century on, the term Christian work ethic is more inclusive, as the reflects that the movement had effects on most of Christian Europe from the 16th century to the present day.

Whether it be penance for original sin, a sign of predestination, or both, the relationship between it and salvation has profoundly shaped how the West has viewed work. And even for those who are areligious, agnostic, or atheist, Western culture is so rooted in the relationship between Christian beliefs and work as to be inescapable. The Christian work ethic has been a pillar of American and much of European culture for 500 years and has been a driving force behind the wealth that capitalism has generated. I do not claim that capitalism is virtuous or wicked, or that the Christian work ethic has been a force for good or evil. But, in my opinion, there is no denying that both capitalism and the Christian work ethic have been and remain the most powerful, if sometimes invisible, force behind the paradigm that defines people’s relationship to work in Western societies, and has likely bled over to non-Christian cultures as well. 

"Peasants Harvesting Crops" by Pieter Brueghel

"Peasants Harvesting Crops" by Pieter Brueghel

As we mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, I believe we are in the midst of a significant paradigm shift in the relationship between people and work. This change will revolutionize how people relate to work forever. While the kinetic energy of the Calvinist and Adamic paradigm of work will stay in motion for some time, a cultural schism is occurring as fewer people identify with and believe in the underlying premise behind the Calvinist and Adamic paradigms of work—namely Christianity and the Bible as a literal account. 

A Tear in the Religious Fabric

While the 2014 Pew survey indicates a high rate of Americans who still identify with a faith group, this data point alone does not indicate devotion or religiosity.

According to a Gallup poll from May 2017, a record few Americans—24 percent—believe that the Bible is the literal word of God. Gallup’s poll reveals that the number of people who do not believe the Bible to be the literal word of God has doubled since 1984, from 12 to 24 percent. While this is just one data point, it suggests a moderate to rapid drop in religiosity—i.e. a strong belief in a system of faith or worship

In 2014, the Pew Research Center conducted a landmark study of religion in America. The foundational question on the survey has to do with belief in God. From 2007 to 2014, the number of people who were absolutely certain in their belief in God dropped eight points from 71 to 63 percent (see Figure 1). At the same time, the number of people who do not believe in God increased by four points from 5 to 9 percent. The survey results related to belief in God are cross-faith and not exclusive to Christianity. While there are disagreements within the religious community about what faith groups fall under the term “Christianity,” Pew included all Protestant denominations, Evangelicals, Catholics, Latter-day Saints, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Orthodox Christians. Just over 70 percent of Americans identified with one of those faiths. 

While the 2014 Pew survey indicates that a high percentage of Americans still identify with a faith group, this data point alone does not indicate devotion or religiosity. The Pew study, however, provides additional data points that indicate the direction the U.S. is going regarding its religiosity. For example, one key indicator of religiosity is the frequency with which individuals read scriptures. The baby boomer and Generation X cohorts in Pew’s study read scriptures at rates two to three times greater than Millennials (see Figure 2). Another indicator of a downward trend in religiosity is a decreasing belief in heaven. Seventeen percent of younger Millennials believe in heaven compared to Generation X and baby boomers who believe in heaven at rates of 28 and 32 percent respectively (see Figure 3). Pew also measured one of the most important indicators of religiosity—attendance at church services. Generation X and baby boomer cohorts attend church services at rates two to three times higher than Millennials (see Figure 4). Lastly, when asked about the importance of religion, the baby boomers and Generation X cohorts rated the importance of religion two to three times higher than Millennials (see Figure 5). Pew had similar findings regarding attendance at prayer services, the frequency of prayer, and a belief in hell. 

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 4

Figure 5

Figure 5

In sum, there is a significant difference in Millennials’ relationship to the Bible and the practice of religion than there is among Generation X and baby boomers. As a country founded by devout Christians—among whom were many Calvinists and Puritans—I maintain that the American cultural attitude toward work has been oriented around notions of predestination and penance for Adam's original sin. While these attitudes about work are not top of mind for people these days—as is the case with most cultural currents that guide our attitudes and behaviors—they have created a subconscious rationale for work being unpleasant, laborious, unenjoyable, and, perhaps most importantly, not a means of self-actualizing.

Millennials: The New Paradigm

...anecdotal observations and the data from Pew lead me to conclude that there is a stark divide between those who are less influenced by the connection between work and religion and those whose subconscious worldview has been influenced by attitudes about work that is founded in notions of predestination and penance.

Since Millennials began to enter the workforce in the early 2000s, members of Generation X and baby boomers have been their overseers. My anecdotal observations and the data from Pew lead me to conclude that there is a stark divide between those who are less influenced by the connection between work and religion and those whose subconscious worldview has been influenced by attitudes about work that is founded in notions of predestination and penance. I realize that these are broad and sweeping generalizations, but I’m talking about something that is broad and sweeping—Americans’ attitudes about work. Of course, there will be exceptions to these generalizations, but the anecdotal and empirical evidence data point to a paradigm shift occurring in attitudes about work among those who have entered the workforce since 2000, and perhaps even among those who’ve been in the workforce longer, as a younger generation influences their attitudes. 

If it is indeed true that there is a significant shift occurring in attitudes about work as religiosity in the West wanes, how will this manifest in the behaviors and expectations of employees? My observations point to three significant changes:

Self-actualization

People whose worldview is oriented around this new work paradigm will have little tolerance for work that doesn’t feed their need to make a difference and leave a legacy.

Whereas a person’s religion may have served as an outlet for self-actualization in the past, people will more and more see work as their medium for self-actualization. In other words, people will view work as a place where they can use their unique skills and gifts to make a difference in the world and leave a meaningful legacy. 

While work may not be the exclusive means of self-actualization for everyone, it will become a more significant means for most. What this means for employers is not so much that they need to create fun places to work (e.g. ping-pong tables, free snack bars, hammocks, etc.) but workplaces that are intellectually and emotionally stimulating. And perhaps even places that are spiritually inspiring (just because people are becoming less religious does not mean they are becoming less spiritual). Organizations also need to articulate and believe in a clear purpose beyond profit that allows people to see how they are contributing to the greater good of humanity. 

People whose worldview is oriented around this new work paradigm will have little tolerance for work that doesn't feed their need to make a difference and leave a legacy. This point of view is of particular importance when it comes to job assignments. The "you-jump-I-say-how-high" relationship between those giving orders and those receiving them is losing its relevance. First, people don’t want to feel like an appendage of their superiors’ means to satisfy personal agendas. Second, people want to know why they are doing what they’re being asked to do; they are not content simply being cogs in a mindless machine operated by a faceless bureaucracy. 

Skill Mastery

It is far more accurate to say that eventually everyone will have to be replaced and the organization will have to carry on than it is to say that everyone is replaceable.

Besides contributing to a greater good, perhaps one of the most satisfying things in a person's life is a feeling that he/she is a master of a skill or skills. Skill mastery is mutually-beneficial for organizations and individuals. For organizations, people who are skill-masters are an organization’s competitive advantage. The saying goes that everyone is replaceable. Where did this inane idea come from? Sometimes people need to be replaced for any number of reasons. But someone who is a master of his/her skills is truly irreplaceable. If it is indeed a fact that each person has a unique combination of gifts and skills (and I believe this is true), then this unique combination by definition cannot be replaced. It is far more accurate to say that eventually everyone will have to be replaced and the organization will have to carry on than it is to say that everyone is replaceable. For the organization, this means developing an attitude of appreciation and gratitude for the unique gifts and skills people bring to work. If an organization’s underlying belief is that everyone is replaceable with little or no loss to the organization, this will manifest in behaviors toward employees that reinforce the notion that they are cogs in a machine and not that they are individuals with a unique set of skills and gifts that they are voluntarily sharing with the organization.  

When an organization is oriented around developing and appreciating the mastery of unique skills and gifts people bring into the workplace, this should manifest as a complete rethinking of the superior-subordinate paradigm that exists in the vast majority of organizational structures. Rather than people having bosses, managers, superiors, supervisors, etc., they need coaches and mentors. The objective of coaches and mentors is to see and bring out the best in people and to help them become skill-masters. Even if someone enters an organization with a high degree of skill, having a coach or mentor is necessary to help the newcomer become oriented to the organizational culture and understand how to apply his/her skills with the greatest effect

The superior-subordinate construct is a hold-over paradigm from a time when labor required a more command-and-control structure in hierarchical organizations as a means to maintain order and efficiency. As we march forward into the 21st century, creativity, innovation, productivity, and collaboration take precedence over order and efficiency and those organizations that resist this change will lose their competitive edge. People are going to enter the workforce and push back against systems, structures, policies, and procedures that are designed to maintain order and efficiency, which are baser constructs than creativity, innovation, productivity, and collaboration. Simply put, we have intellectually evolved beyond the constructs of order and efficiency. 

There are two additional benefits of changing the superior-subordinate relationship. First, relieving people of the time-consuming burden of managing people allows them to use and develop their unique skills and gifts instead of those gifts and skills atrophying as they write employee reviews, attend management meetings, and attempt to maintain order and execute top-down directives in their positions as superiors. The other benefit of developing skill-masters and doing away with an overabundance of middle-managers is that it reduces and can even eliminate the toxic culture of competing agendas and politics in an organization. There is almost nothing that tastes better to the human brain than power. As individuals are placed into positions of authority, it can become intoxicating, and the power they wield becomes their means of self-actualization. People who are self-actualizing by exercising authority over others are going to have personal agendas that will inevitably conflict with peers’ and superiors’ agendas, causing them to maneuver and politic, which will create points of friction that prevent innovation, productivity, and collaboration from taking place in the organization. Therefore, keeping the number low of individuals whose sole job is to exercise authority over others is key to developing a culture where people obtain satisfaction from bringing the best out in each other through mentoring and coaching. 

Autonomy

Autonomy does not mean people don’t work with others or aren’t incorporated into the organization; it means that they are given space to execute their work by the dictates of their own conscience and not the arbitrary agendas of myriad overseers.

One thing people are craving more and more in the workplace is autonomy. Having autonomy may seem to conflict with a coaching-and-mentoring culture, but the two are not mutually exclusive. First, autonomy is not isolation. Individuals working in isolation is unhealthy for the organization and the individuals. It prevents collegiality, collaboration, and cooperation. Those who seek isolation are likely doing so either because they feel sidelined by the organization or because they are suffering from social anxiety. Either way, people seek isolation as a means of self-protection, and it is important to understand what they are trying to protect themselves from so it can be resolved.

Autonomy does not mean people don’t work with others or aren’t incorporated into the organization; it means that they are given space to execute their work by the dictates of their own conscience and not the arbitrary agendas of myriad overseers. As people are developed and coached so that their skills are honed and they integrate into an organization’s culture, coaches and mentors can remain present but step back to give people space to fail, succeed, and learn on their own. The more that people are given the freedom to work by the dictates of their own conscience, the more intrinsically motivated they will be as they are answering first and foremost to themselves (intrinsic) and not others (extrinsic). Of course, if someone abuses his/her autonomy, he/she first needs more coaching and mentoring. And if the problem persists, he/she may need to be let go.

Summary: The New Dawn 

...it may not be so much that we are genetically predisposed as Homo sapiens to the worship of deity, but that we are predisposed to seek meaning in life.

I am not arguing that religion is going away, and I do not mean to cast aspersions on the religious. I am only looking at the data and the anecdotal evidence before me. Religion usually has taken the form of worshiping and honoring invisible deities through beliefs, rituals, and practices as a means to connect with something bigger than ourselves. We may be genetically predisposed to this as Homo sapiens. What I am suggesting is that as the human race evolves intellectually, people will increasingly seek to find meaning outside of religion, especially in Western societies that are predominantly Christian where belief in God, the Bible as a literal account, the reading of scripture, prayer, and the attendance at church services are all declining among younger generations. In fact, it may not be so much that we are genetically predisposed as Homo sapiens to the worship of deity, but that we are predisposed to seek meaning in life. And I submit that people will use their work more and more as a way to find that meaning and connect with something bigger than themselves, rather than as penance for the original sin or a sign of Calvinist predestination. On the one hand, this will require a complete paradigm shift in the employer-employee relationship. On the other hand, it has the potential to result in work being an exalted part of life where people do not miserably clock in and out but achieve self-actualization by bringing their whole selves to work to create the greatest advancements in humankind that will radically transform how we live our lives for the better.