Study: Protestant work ethic isn’t just Protestant anymore

Work ethic graphic

(RNS) America’s vaunted Protestant work ethic is getting a makeover: Now it might be more of an atheist work ethic.

Work ethic graphic

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Work ethic graphic

A new study has found an inverse relationship between the religiosity of a state’s population and its “productive entrepreneurship.” That’s professor-speak for “entrepreneurial investment responsible for real economic growth.”

In other words, the less religious a state’s population, the more likely it is to have a healthy economy.

The study, titled “Religion: Productive or Unproductive?” by economists Travis Wiseman of Mississippi State University and Andrew Young of West Virginia University, was published in the March edition of the Journal of Institutional Economics.

In the study, Wiseman and Young find that the “measure of total Christian adherents is robustly and positively correlated with states’ unproductive entrepreneurship scores” in a given state.

“This could be because religion imposes opportunity costs in terms of time and resources that may otherwise have been devoted toward productive entrepreneurship,” they write. “For example, time spent in church reduces time available for engaging in business activity. More subjectively, religion may create psychic costs to pursuing worldly gains rather than salvation in the beyond.”

On the flip side, they find that the percentage of a state’s atheists or agnostics is “positively and significantly related to productive entrepreneurship” within that state.

“One possibility is that productive entrepreneurial activities are largely substitutes for religious ones,” Wiseman and Young suggest.

The study, which stemmed from Wiseman’s doctoral dissertation and is part of a larger work on entrepreneurial practices, relied on data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s Religious Landscape Survey of 2007, Gallup’s State of the States surveys of 2004 and 2008 and the U.S. Census Bureau’s Religious Congregations and Membership studies of 2000 and 2010.

The authors do not, however, rank individual states according to their score. In separate studies, Gallup has ranked Mississippi, Utah, Alabama, Louisiana and South Carolina as the five most religious states; Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and Oregon were the five least religious states.

The authors examined the religious affiliation of each state’s population, as well as their level of religiosity based on four factors — attendance at religious services, belief in God, prayer, and the level of importance placed on religion.


About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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  • According to your definition, “entrepreneurial investment responsible for real economic growth,” it is much more likely a correlation of financial means with which to invest. The more materialistic a person is, the more they tend to have money. They major on wealth due to a lack of peace within. That is my opinion of the data.

  • IF religious folk showed more “peace within” Terry Gold’s comment might make sense. BUT I don’t think there has been a study to demonstrate that assertion! Quite honestly from what I see there sure is a great deal of fear and hate and distrust and uneasiness on the part of many religious people that I don’t see with Atheists. But then I don’t have any proof of this statement either, just my personal opinion!

  • This is not news: most economic development occurs in large cities. Most metropolitan populations are less religious.

  • All this study shows is that those who commit most of their hours per day to a building a new business rather than a family are more entrepreneurial — sort of circular reasoning. I bet atheists have MUCH fewer children and are dedicated to their occupation or starting a business than those with families with 2 children. So what does this study measure? Not religion.

  • The whole idea of a ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ is misguided at best. Some of the most productive, creative and prosperous regions of Europe – Bavaria, Switzerland, Northern Italy – are Catholic. Catholic Bavaria has been the economic motor for Germany for decades and Germany has been the dominant economy in Europe since reunification.

    I often wonder how recent European history would have worked out if Bavaria/Austria/Northern Italy had formed a unified state after WW II. There’s historical precedent for such an entity.

  • That’s an interesting take on the data. I would have to caveat that though, by pointing out that Europe, as a whole, is significantly more secular then the United States. Consequently, even though there is cursory correlation to the Bavaria/Austria/Northern Italy economic engine being tied to a predominately Catholic tradition, comparatively it’s still insignificant to any state in the U.S. including Vermont. Additionally, there are several regions of Europe that are significantly more religious then greater Bavaria, such as Northern Spain or Sicily, yet there is no evidence of those regions being economic motors of Europe.

  • Which is an interesting point. There was a recent graphic that demonstrated that 50% of US GDP was generated in the 10-12 large cities in the country. That metropolitan areas are significantly more secular than urban areas is a long understood truism dating back to at least the Roman period. Perhaps the more interesting question would be why? Is it a function of population density, e.g., the closer together people live the more tolerant they have to be of each other, or is it a function of knowledge, e.g., most centers of learning and research are concentrated in large cities?

  • Isn’t that effectively the definition of “work ethic” to begin with, though?

  • GDP measures the value of final goods and service produced and traded among mostly non-related people. So naturally it is higher in urban areas where there is a great deal of “division of labor” or specialization. In more rural areas people tend to be more self-reliant so their GDP per capita is smaller. This doesn’t mean necessarily they are better or worse off, or that their productivity is greater or less than urban populations.

    I suspect that this religious — non-religious data is similarly skewed although one would think any rigorous PhD program would require corrections for that.

  • Isn’t Switzerland and neighboring parts of Germany the original locus of the protestants? Today its per-capita income is about the highest in the world. I suspect this is the result of a legacy and reputation of the work ethic, and high levels of trust, rather than it is their current level of productivity or investment. In other words they are drawing on, and probably not replacing, a rich legacy. Certainly it is not due to a current religious work ethic since it appears that these people now are about the least religious in the world. Entrepreneurial activity is risky by definition and its easy for rich people to avoid such risks.

  • You both make good points. There might be a critical threshold point, urban density and diversity leads to more tolerance until over crowding is reached and we see we get a breakdown in community feeling, innercity violence against innercity residents. Sociologists have long studied feelings of anomie (feeling left out and excluded from society) and the greater prevalence of this in inner cities.

  • Is it really accurate to tie the Protestant work ethic to either productive entrepeneurship? The Protestant work ethic valued hard work and thrift, which does not necessarily mean becoming entrepreneurs. After all, one can be hard working and thrifty without engaging in entrepreneurship. It appears to me that entrepreneurship requires going beyond traditional economic endeavors, which is abetted by going beyond tradition in other ways.

    The Protestant work ethic belonged to the New England Puritans, who broke from the Catholic and Anglican traditions. This break from tradition may explain greater entrepreneurship than religiosity. It also made it easier to continue breaking from tradition as the rise of new religious directions such as Unitarianism in New England shows.

    Unlike the original New England variety, the Protestantism in the deep South is a very tradition bound religion. Perhaps that creates a hurdle for successful entrepreneurship. While the heirs of the original Puritans continue breaking tradition through pioneering entrepreneurship and increasing secularism, agnosticism, and atheism, contemporary fundamentalist Protestants remain economically and religiously static.

  • There are also studies showing that the higher a person’s educational level, the more likely that person is to be an atheist. While it is true that atheists do not go to church on Sunday, nor do they attend other religious activities, church attendance is down among people self identifying as Christians. So, I would argue that time spent at religious activities does not have much influence on business success.

  • I think we should re-evaluate the entire idea of the Protestant Work Ethic. Anyone who’s read Max Weber’s thoughts on religion, culture, and economics can at least question some of Weber’s ideas. For if he is correct, than the entire Capitalistic philosophy that was carved out of Enlightenment. What was once considered classical liberal philosophy (the use of Reason to form and sustain society) has been under fire for over 100 years. And Weber’s philosophy (which was in many ways inspired by Nietzsche) runs counter to not only Enlightenment, but the “well ordered” society of the US. If Weber is correct, it is not Reason but ultimately religious faith that drives economics.

  • I am not that familiar with Weber. I wonder is it faith in God/s that he is talking about or faith in the system/capitalism? Religious faith can refer to a profoundly held belief in something, not just God/s/ess.

  • Without having access to the full paper, my hypothesis would be that education level is the common denominator here – higher levels of education in the population is a driver for lower religiosity, increased atheism and increased levels of entrepreneurship.

  • The article did not mention any correlation to families. Where did you get that data? Or is it data? The only family size correlation I know of is to first world, third world issues and general economic development on a global level.

  • There are several studying showing positive correlations between mental wellbeing/happiness and church attendance. With Christ’s focus on people verses money, I would expect the correlation mentioned above. The mistake is associating a work ethic with material gain. I know a gentleman that been the “construction” manager for 238 Habitat for Humanity houses. I would submit his work ethic, as well as other ethics, is higher than the ethics of an atheistic banker, stockbroker or businessman.

  • Once you get past the inherent bias against religion as is present in this overly brief article and its title, then you can ask some serious questions about the findings. It is interesting to note that the “unproductive” side of the equation was evaluated against ALL civic organizations and not a church breakout only – humanitarian groups, sports clubs, political action groups, elderly support groups, animal rights groups, travel organizations, wildlife organizations, business trade associations, farming advocacy groups…you get the picture. This begs the question of whether affiliation with ANY non-entrepreneurial activity will be a drain on productivity. Yes, religious questions were asked by the researcher, but those answers were weighed against all social groups and not just religious ones. There are other issues to raise about the study, but go read it for yourself. Some of the issues are quite glaring.

  • According to Max Weber (who really popularized this theory) the Protestant Work Ethic is distinctly Calvinist, related to its doctrine of predestination. Something about economic success being an indicator of election.

    I’ve read his book and while some of it is worthwhile, much of it is a bit tendentious.

  • Bavaria and Austria were both ruled by Catholic monarchs (House of Wittlesbach and House of Hapsburg). Switzerland has a more varied history but some of the Italian speaking Cantons remained faithful – it’s why they were chosen to form the Swiss Guards at the Vatican.

  • Looking at the study, I don’t really see a compelling correlation. They find no significant correlation involving productive entrepreneurship (only unproductive), and two out of three of the “significant” correlations are at the 8 percent and 4 percent levels. The p-value of 8 should be discounted entirely, and the value of 4 is just barely significant at the 5% level. The other correlation — unproductive entrepreneurship vs belief in God (hardly indicative of a “robust” faith) is significant at the 0.3% level. But even this wouldn’t survive any serious statistical resampling test — throw out a couple of outliers and you have no correlation.