Operating modes of religion and economy

by Martin Zenker


The question of social inequality is more closely linked to sociology and the history of this discipline than any other. It is about presenting this social condition as a product of human action and the resulting power constellations. It is therefore not surprising that sociology is critical of religion with regards to the legitimation of social inequalities caused by an imbalance in the distribution of resources in the economic system. The sociologist Bourdieu attributes a legitimating function to religion in the state of society today.

“More specifically, religion contributes to the (veiled) enforcement of the principles of structuring the perception and the thinking of the world, especially the social world, as it impels a system of practices and ideas based objectively on a principle of political divisional structure as a natural-supernatural structure of the cosmos.” (Bourdieu 2000, 49)

But undeniably, a great deal of the work of the churches and church organizations is to support less privileged members of society globally, thereby reducing social inequalities and imbalances. Religion can, therefore, counteract economic inequality and current social states.

In line with this ambivalence, this text is intended to provide a sociological view of the fields of religion and economics, looking at connections and commonalities.


In ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’, Max Weber, one of the founding fathers of sociology, investigates the basis upon which modern capitalism and the economic system has developed since the industrial revolution. In particular, it was noticeable that modern capitalism in the form of trade and production developed particularly rapidly in countries and areas that were predominantly Protestant. Weber attributed this high productivity in production and trade to the Protestant work ethic. In the Protestant doctrine, in contrast to other Christian doctrines, the notion of a calling or profession (German: Beruf) can be traced far back, and with it, earthly work gained a new significance. “…the valuation of the fulfilment of duty in worldly affairs as the highest form which the moral activity of the individual could assume. This is what inevitably gave every-day worldly activity a religious significance, and which first created the conception of a calling in this sense.” (Weber, 1920)

Here, professional work becomes an expression of loving one’s neighbour and the division of labour an expression of the commandment of ‘working for the other’. But Luther’s concept of a calling is, according to Weber, a traditional one, which cannot be equated with the concept of a profession in modern capitalism. Weber finds the origins of the reorientation from a traditionalist economy to a capitalist one in the teachings of Calvinism, the most radical form of Protestantism. The early advent of individualism and the rationalized mode of life leads him back to the forms of the inner-worldly asceticism of Calvin. Thus the great businessmen of early modern times were influenced by Calvin. Constant themes of trade were stamped against affects, which had an affect on the rationalization of trade. With Calvin, an earthly calling is of the utmost importance when Weber writes: “… to serve the ‘benefit’ of the human race, makes the work in the service of this social benefit as a glory of God and recognised as God-willed” (ibid. 66)

Trade following the standards of modern capitalism is not primarily concerned with capital, according to Weber, but with the ‘spirit’ through which it is conditioned. He has attempted to describe in his work facets of this ‘spirit’ and to show that this ‘spirit’ was shaped by Protestant teachings that were able to advance the development of capitalism. But it is far from him to assert that this form of trade was invented or led by the Protestant teachings. In fact there were already forms of capitalist trade and prosperity before the Reformation. He defines the scope and scale of his statements as follows:

“…we only wish to ascertain whether and to what extent religious forces have taken part in the qualitative formation and the quantitative expansion of that spirit over the world, and what concrete aspects of our capitalistic culture can be traced back to them.” (ibid, 51)


According to Bourdieu, religion has a certain function in the social field:

“If there is such a thing as a social function of religion, and religion is thus accessible to sociological analysis, the laity expect it not only to justify their existence, which they attribute to the existential fear of being surrendered to chance of abandonment or even to biological hardship, illness, suffering and death, but also social justifications for taking a particular position within the social structure.” (Bourdieu 2000, 20)

Here Bourdieu concurs with Max Weber’s investigation of religious sociology. Religion takes a legitimating function, a symbolic way of being, in that social conditions are transformed into a supposed-to-be. This also implies that the nature and content of widespread religious messages and teachings orient themselves based on the need to justify the existence of the respective social groupings and classes concerned, and thus vary. In short, the religious interests vary according to the negatively or positively privileged class. In the first, promises of salvation from suffering gain importance; in the second, awareness of the ‘perfection’ of life.

When Bourdieu describes the religious field, the central component is communication. In society the priesthood has a near monopoly on the administration of sanctuary and the form this administration takes is through communication. The crucial point is that the statements of the original prophecy, to which it relates, contain a non-specific ambiguity. The priesthood interprets these in relation to each laity.

“Professional interpreters such as the priests contribute to a great extent to this permanent adaptation and harmonization work, which enables the communication between the religious message and the ever-changing recipients, which are fundamentally different from the original addressees in their religious interests and their visibility.” (ibid. 35)

These communication processes can be seen as rationally systematized. The religious habitus is generated by this systematization of communication, by making the execution of priestly activity something routine. They are communicated through ‘interchangeable’ cultural officials who are provided with uniform professional qualifications and instruments through a certain education. Religion and religious messages are therefore not a special ‘spirit’ from ‘nature’ for Bourdieu, but rather shaped and adapted by societal circumstances of power and the interests of the actors.


From the sociological studies on religion by Weber and Bourdieu outlined here, it is evident in the context of economics that the two fields are not independent of each other. With Bourdieu, many similarities between religious and economic fields can be identified, such as the institutionalization of communication for example. This, too, can be regarded as rationally systematized in economics. For instance, the paradigm of business studies is (with a danger of oversimplifying) a theory of the modern capitalist spirit and is brought to the laity by means of targeted interpretations of writings by specially trained ‘cultural officials’.

Weber has shown that Protestant teachings have already created, to an extent, the spiritual foundations and connections for capitalist modes of production, relations, and trade. Both texts agree that religion can legitimize current states in society. However, the two views differ in that Weber focuses on the ‘spirit’ that seems to be inherent in the doctrine of religion, while Bourdieu criticizes that Weber neglects that this ‘spirit’ is primarily shaped by social actors such as cultural officials. The ‘spirit’ is to be seen as a product or result of societal relations and not as an immanent good in the religious writings. Bourdieu argues that an interaction between social realities and religious doctrines can be described. In other words, concrete preaching is a matter of interpretation and the ‘spirit’ can take very different forms.

It is also appropriate to return to the previously mentioned church-based commitment in social areas. At first glance, it may be difficult to trace these points to the legitimacy of the current state of affairs here; Church organizations often focus on charitable purposes and global support for the under-privileged. In addition, the Protestant Church has repeatedly expressed criticism towards the usury of finance capitalism, and Luther’s notion of ​​reformation was already directed against mammon. It is not surprising, therefore, that the 500 year reformation jubilee, the 96th thesis of the lateral thinking is posted. It remains, however, to question whether the Church in the function of alleviating inequalities, does not first legitimize the economic framework which causes them.


On the basis of these sociological insights, I would like to finally encourage you to reflect on what functions the Church is fulfilling today? What expectations did you bring to the World Reformation Exhibition? What is the significance of the 96th thesis of the lateral thinker?


Max Weber – Die protestantische Ethik und der „Geist“ des Kapitalismus. 1920Hansjörg Lein – „Ihr könnt nicht Gott dienen und dem Mammon!“ Protestantische Gedanken zu Theologie und Ökonomie. 2005

Pierre Bourdieu – Das religiöse Feld. Texte zur Ökonomie des Heilsgeschehens. 2000

Michaela Rotsch

Bildende Künstlerin, transdisziplinäre und -kulturelle Forschung mit arabesken Organisationsstrukturen und syntopischen Werkstrukturen.


* Der Prototyp der Glaskuben stammt aus der künstlerischen Werkstruktur SYNTOPIAN VAGABOND, die hier mit dem transkulturellen Projektansatz von GLASPALÄSTE durch die gemeinsame Rahmenstruktur der Glaskuben verbunden wird. Dadurch wird die Grenze zwischen Bildender Kunst und anderen kulturellen Bereichen ausgelotet.


Michaela Rotsch

Fine artist, transdisciplinary and transcultural research with arabesque organisational structures and syntopic work structures.


* The prototype of the glass cubes comes from the artistic work structure SYNTOPIAN VAGABOND, which is linked here to the transcultural approach of GLASPALÄSTE through the common structure of the glass cubes. Thus the boundary between contemporary art and other cultural areas is explored.


Irmtraud Voglmayr

Soziologin und Medienwissenschaftlerin, Schwerpunkte in Forschung und Lehre: Stadt- und Raumforschung, Medien, Gender und Klasse.

Irmtraud Voglmayr

Sociologist and media theorist, focussing on research and teaching: city and urban planning, media, gender and class.

Juliane Zellner

Juliane Zellner studierte Theaterwissenschaft (M.A.) in München, Urban Studies (MSc.) in London und promoviert derzeit an der Hafencity Universität im Fachbereich Kultur der Metropolen.

Juliane Zellner

Juliane Zellner holds a degree in Theatre Studies (M.A.) from LMU Munich and a degree in Urban Studies (MSc) from UCL London.

Currently she is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Metropolitan Culture at the HCU Hamburg.