Essay in the New York Times Book Review:
This year is the 100th anniversary of the most famous sociological tract ever written, ”The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” by Max Weber. It was a book that stood Karl Marx on his head. Religion, according to Weber, was not an ideology produced by economic interests (the ”opiate of the masses,” as Marx had put it); rather, it was what had made the modern capitalist world possible. In the present decade, when cultures seem to be clashing and religion is frequently blamed for the failures of modernization and democracy in the Muslim world, Weber’s book and ideas deserve a fresh look.
Weber’s argument centered on ascetic Protestantism. He said that the Calvinist doctrine of predestination led believers to seek to demonstrate their elect status, which they did by engaging in commerce and worldly accumulation. In this way, Protestantism created a work ethic — that is, the valuing of work for its own sake rather than for its results — and demolished the older Aristotelian-Roman Catholic doctrine that one should acquire only as much wealth as one needed to live well.