Sunday, April 12, 2009

Protestantism, Capitalism, and Discontent

I want to identify three forces that I find interesting and perhaps related: 1) American society is guided by the self-regulating market and a culture of individualism; 2) We are the most Christian and religiously devout nation in the west; and 3) Americans, both men and women, have gotten steadily less happy over the past 100 years despite living in one of the most opulent nations in modern history.

I recently picked up the Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell in which he writes:
I was not born happy. As a child, my favorite hymn was: “Weary of earth and laden with my sin.” In adolescence, I hated life and was continually on the verge of suicide, however, I was restrained by the desire to know more mathematics. Now, on the contrary, I enjoy life; I might almost say that with every year that passes I enjoy it more.

This is due in large part to a diminishing preoccupation with myself. Like others who had a Puritan education, I had the habit of meditating on my sins, follies, and shortcomings. I seemed to myself – no doubt justly – a miserable specimen. Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection. External interests, it is true, bring each its own possibility of pain: the world may be plunged in war, knowledge in some direction may be hard to achieve, friends may die. But pains of these kinds do not destroy the essential quality of life, as do those that spring from disgust with self.
This speaks strongly to both my life experience and frustration with the church, but also hints at a potentially inherent antagonism between capitalism and Christianity.

The primary religion of our culture emphasizes the depravity of the human nature. The institution that has largely guided American social transformation for the past two-hundred years, market capitalism, is centered in the primacy of self-interest. With our economics leading us to focus on ourselves, and our religion on how fallen and broken we are, is it surprising that we aren’t getting any happier?

Despite my frustrations, I am a Christian and believer in the usefulness of markets – seeking an alternative way to understand faith and society through a lens of human flourishing, not depravity and selfishness.


Dan said...

Have you read Uncharitable by Dan Pallotta? You probably won't agree with all his arguments about ways the nonprofit sector needs to be reformed, but one of the central themes is how the United States' Puritan heritage still drives our conceptions of charity and creates unhealthy and unrealistic expectations that prevent real change from being achieved. I think you'd really appreciate it.

Dave said...


Yeah that guy is the man. I think his book is really important and, if widely read, could move the nonprofit sector away from some old models of doing charity work.

Thanks for reading, you're the man, I miss you and CWV! Keep me posted on any other good stuff you're reading-

Dan said...

Yeah, great book. Glad you're already up on it! Another great piece I enjoyed recently is Jim Collins' Good to Great for the Social Sectors. Not as revolutionary, but it has some good insight and a very tight framework. It was referenced as a top resource by a couple of the nonprofit strategic planners I interviewed a while back.

CWV and I miss you too! We've started interviewing potential summer interns and I'm a little worried about having Christina and Meghan conduct any interviews; all they seem to care about is finding another intern "with a sense of humor like Dave's."

Justin Edward Ellis said...

Good post Dave, it really does feel like we get sucked into a very self centered and unhappy way of thinking in our culture. Becoming aware of that and embracing happiness feels like waking up after being in some sort of trance. I'll have to check out the book you mentioned, sounds like the author has some good ideas.

AC said...

Oh Dave, glad to read you again, and it seems like every problem comes back to economics or religion or a mix of both these days, no?

Here's a funky twist, and it might not apply to you at all, but alas -- what if we stopped centering our lives on economy and/or religion, and instead left them in the periphery, where they still affected our lives, but didn't dominate them. Then, we could find something ELSE on which we might focus ourselves. Something that made us feel less pulled toward opposing life purposes and instead more centered on general well-being.

I think the trouble is, people don't know/can't fathom what that ELSE might be, so they just turn back to some manifestation of economy or religion, because, well, these things can be comforting and easy. But then they're NOT comforting or easy, and widespread existential crises ensue. Sigh, if only we could look beyond!

PS: Bertrand Russell is ah-mazing, though admittedly I never know if it's appropriate to bring him up in conversation; will never forget the looks I received while reading "Why I Am Not a Christian" during a trip a few years ago.