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July 9, 2020

We Need Something to Believe In

Image: Koshu Kunii, via Unsplash

Jiang Zemin, the ex-president of the People’s Republic of China, once told a gathering of high ranking officials that if he could make one decree that would definitely be obeyed in China, it would be to “make Christianity the official religion of China.”

It’s not that he was a fan of Jesus — that’s for sure — his administration raided churches and confiscated bibles. And Chinese presidents aren’t known for their sarcasm. So what gives?

The answer lies with Protestants.

In his book Civilisation: The West and the Rest, Niall Ferguson covers the “Protestant Ethic.” It’s a term that was coined by the father of modern sociology, Max Weber, and boiled down to two elements: thrift and work ethic. They were very good at working hard and accumulating — rather than spending — capital. In fact, most wealthy industrialists working in Europe during the late nineteenth century were Protestant.

Whereas most Christian sects believed that the rich were less likely to get into heaven than a modern-day lawyer — the kind that is not my wife, of course — and tended to denounce material possessions altogether, Protestants believed that working to the bone was not only accepted by God, it’s what He expected. Many historians believe that Protestants gave birth to modern capitalism.

But a work ethic was not the only reason, maybe not even a reason, that Zemin believes Christianity should be the future of China. Nor was it something exclusive to Protestants while Weber was investigating this curious phenomenon. Despite Weber overlooking it at the time, Jewish communities thrived in America, Catholics in France and Belgium, along with multiple other religious communities across the globe. It was not a work ethic that bore economic advantages, but ethics itself.

Christianity is not just a religion, it’s a moral framework. It has very clear directives on what is, and what is not acceptable. Stealing, as an example, is forbidden. And, when you look at it closely, the sins that are important for trust in society are all a form of stealing. Murder is stealing a life, adultery is stealing a wife, and corruption is stealing money.

And that’s the key really. Trust. Economies thrive on the stuff. When businesses can trust their customers, and banks can trust businesses, credit becomes cheaper, capital is easier to come by, and bills are going to get paid. Christian societies don’t even need strict laws to achieve this — it’s just the right thing to do.

It’s not hard to grasp why either. Most people are more likely to lend money to a family member than they are to a stranger. Within families, there is often — not always — a shared moral framework and shared values. These are the elements that underpin trust.

It’s also the reason why minority communities often fare well economically or at least tend to do more business with each other. Their communities can be trusted. In an unpredictable world, shared value systems is a critical piece of fairly predictable information.

And I think that this is true for businesses too, especially when they’re viewed as micro-communities themselves. There is a reason that culture fit is so important and why businesses that have strong value systems tend to be more successful than those without.

Organisations of people start to break down when numbers reach more than 150. That’s the upper limit of populations that will remain cohesive without help. It’s at that point that decision-making protocols need to change, communication needs to increase, and values need to be addressed.

I’d argue that a large portion of the trouble is attributed to trust. Over 150 people, one is suddenly more likely to need something from a stranger or someone that one hasn’t worked with before. In smaller organisations, employees are likely to get to know each other and know whom they can trust. Bigger organisations don’t have this luxury.

But those companies that develop a culture underpinned by strong values tend to manage. Moreover, those that ensure that their values are closely tied to moral values manage very well. It’s not a revelation that flies in the face of diversity, per se, it’s more that diversity needs to be managed in order to be effective. America, one of the more diverse countries in the world, was very successful up until recently: people moved from all over the world, but they moved to becomeAmerican. They bought into the values that America espoused.

And it is why businesses make up weird names to group their employees. It fosters group identity and, in turn, trust. Employees are no longer Spanish, or Danish, or South African, they are “Whatever-the-business-is-called-ian”. It seems stupid, but it works.

It’s not just a modern thing either. Communities are what ensured survival back in the hunter-gatherer days. If someone was alone, they were going to battle to hunt, gather, and find shelter. And, as it were, options for reproduction were slim to none. Humans had to band together to increase their chances of survival. Unfortunately, that also brought about hostility between those bands. When one identifies with a group, one alienates oneself from another.

Religion went a long way to solving this. Suddenly there was a common framework that people could adhere to. There was no longer a chief or a king amongst the people that ruled, but a ‘King of kings’ that was greater than all people, uniting them in their inferiority (relative to God). Suddenly, people could work together at scale within a clear moral framework. Religion scaled trust.

But recently, that has started to break down. Atheism is more common than religion in a lot of countries. And, while some would argue that Atheism is a tribe in itself, it has no agreed framework for ethical behaviour. It’s possible to establish one, sure, but there has to be a wide consensus. And, as is the way with humans, if doing good is just for the sake of doing good, incentives will prevail. At least with religion, there was a clear incentive to doing good — you’re going to go to heaven and not burn for all eternity.

I don’t think Christianity is the answer. Or religion even. But I no longer discount them either. And I am not suggesting that we should lie to ourselves, and each other, just to get along — although, that would be preferable to our current predicament. I am simply saying we need something to believe in.

Almost anything.

Because, the way things are going, we’re going to burn anyway.