Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version


The location of a person in the social structure of a society affects the person's religious orientations. In industrial societies, occupation is an important social location variable.

The fundamental insights about the effect of occupation on religion were stated by Max Weber (1978 [1920]: 468 ff.). He argues that religion is affected by the conditions of a person's life. Occupation can affect an individual's religious orientations, religious interests, beliefs, and practices.

Weber offers several examples to show how this works. Warrior nobles face death and the irrationalities of human destiny. They want a religion to help them cope with their life situation by assigning preeminent value to courage, self-sacrifice, and a sense of honor. Warriors do not need a rational religious ethic. On the other hand, merchants whose lives are devoted to the use of capital that is continuously and rationally used in productive enterprise for profit will seek out ethical and rational religions.

The religion of peasants will glorify agriculture. Only a life devoted to agriculture is pleasing to God. Artisans, by contrast, are less connected to nature than peasants. They are less exposed than peasants to the irrational forces of nature and therefore do not need to use magic to control irrational forces. These artisans cope with calculable risks and must develop a capacity for purposive manipulation of their world. So artisans will seek out rational ethical religions. Such religions teach that honesty is the best policy and that faithful work will be rewarded.

Occupation affects religious choices for four different units of analysis: individual people, local churches, religious movements, and subcategories of occupations.

Much research is available to show how individuals seek religious ideas and groups that speak to the situation of their lives. Steven Tipton (1982) describes Erhard Seminars Training (est) as an orientation to life that is useful to lower-middle-class office workers whose jobs require that they develop skills in dealing with people. Erhard teaches that each person creates his world. The mind is the real shaper of reality. The world just is; right and wrong are meaningless concepts. This is excellent training for middle-level white-collar workers whose work involves manipulation of people. Similarly, Max Stackhouse (1983) observed that conversion to Christianity in Southeast Asia has an occupational aspect. Christianity is linked to technology and pietism. Such a religion appeals to engineers and entrepreneurs.

Occupation also affects local churches . Douglass and Brunner (1935) showed that the occupational background and other social characteristics of modal church members has a powerful effect on church programs. Churches where the modal member is a white-collar worker provide worship, educational programs, evangelism, social action, and other programs that fit this way of life. Churches where the modal member is a factory worker offer programs that meet the needs of their congregants. A recent study of Connecticut churches shows the same patterns (Roozen et al. 1984).

Large religious movements also have been influenced by occupation. Darian (1977) argues that one reason for the growth of Buddhism was that it satisfied the economic and status needs of merchants, who in turn benefitted from imperial expansion in India.

Particular occupations that are not homogeneous have members with different involvements with religion. The professorate is an occupation that has been extensively studied (Anderson 1968, Lehman and Shriver 1968). Professors are less involved with religion than comparable middle-class Americans. The usual explanation for this is that an academic discipline and life on campus can provide a way of life that substitutes for organized religion. Professors in different fields differ systematically in their involvement with religion. Professors in engineering, science, and professional schools are more involved with religion than professors in the core liberal arts fields. Here again, professors in the core liberal arts fields find it easier than colleagues in professional schools and in the "hands-on" disciplines to avoid ordinary middle-class lifestyles.

See also Stratification

William Silverman


C. Anderson, "The Intellectual Subsociety Hypothesis," Sociological Quarterly 9(1968):210-227

J. C. Darian, "Social and Economic Factors in the Rise of Buddhism," Sociological Analysis 38(1977):226-238

H. P. Douglass and E. deS. Brunner, The Protestant Church as a Social Institution (New York: Harper, 1935)

E. C. Lehman, Jr., and D. W. Shriver, Jr., "Academic Discipline as Predictive of Family Religiosity," Social Forces 47(1968):171-182

D. A. Roozen et al., Varieties of Religious Presence (New York: Pilgrim, 1984)

M. L. Stackhouse, "Faiths and Politics in South East Asia," This World 4(1983):20-48

S. M. Tipton, Getting Saved from the Sixties (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982)

M. Weber, Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978 [1920]).

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