SR article

8. The role of religion in sociology and business ethics



For most people in Africa religion is as self-evident as agnosticism or atheism is for most students coming in as interns from the Netherlands. This can lead to awkward misunderstandings. In a meeting a Dutch student may be requested to open the meeting with a prayer and then he says: I am not religious. But his host may understand that as if the Dutch student excludes himself from all morality. Because for him being without religion means also being without respect and being morally indifferent. How to go about that?

It is also striking that sociologists publishing on cultural differences, which are also differences in values and beliefs, almost completely neglect religion. The only way religion may show up in their accounts mostly is the identification – rather naïve – of religion with fatalism. How come that they feel that they have a comprehensive understanding of a completely different culture, not paying attention to its religion? Apparently we all go with the flow much more than we think we do. The spiritual climate in the West and especially Western Europe, even more the Netherlands, is a-religious if not anti-religious. So, as a sociologist you may not be able to have an academic career if you take religion seriously.

But we cannot act as if we are the only smart people; as if all the generations before us were living in the dark, whereas we have seen the light. Maybe in matters of culture religious language is treating the same subject matter as secular language, but from a different perspective. They are two sides of the same coin. This is my approach in this lecture.

Different societies, being part of different cultural traditions, reflect the values of these different traditions. The ancestral religion of the old clans aimed at group cohesion. The respect for the elders served that purpose. Now where does respect for the elders stop and ancestral religion begin? Actually what are we talking about if we talk about “values” like respect? Values like justice, peace, friendship, loyalty etc. arrange human relations. In a rational or naturalistic account of values they are mostly understood as construed by ourselves. In a sense they are, because everyone is allowed to create his own understanding for instance of friendship. In one person’s understanding you may not laugh at each other, being friends, whereas another person may allow irony or even sarcasm as part of friendship. True. Nevertheless, these same values impose themselves as strong powers. You cannot avoid to be obedient to some value or another. Though we are completely free, we do not fully have the initiative. Quite a paradox.

Language, the words we speak, appear to have a binding force, in the first place towards ourselves. You are taken by your word and you want to be so, and as a consequence your word is the value by which you have to stand. And don’t run away if that comes with a price! This binding force of the words we speak ourselves is our spirituality, our religion. The binding force of the words we speak (the values we proclaim apparently being more powerful than we ourselves) is the source of all religion.

Here is the place to clarify a misunderstanding. All the old traditions, including the Jewish Christian tradition didn’t distinguish between physical and spiritual reality. The stars and the gods dominating the change of the seasons were largely identified. But by dethroning the many gods by giving the priority to the invisible God of future justice to come on earth and bring a change for the downtrodden, the Jewish Christian tradition opened the door to a secular understanding of the world. The world became open for change. People could, and should!, make a difference. And in this way religion is not understood in a fatalistic sense, but as the spirit of individual judgment, change, initiative. The very word corporation was first used for the monasteries. They were not merely religious, but also economic institutions, clearing the bush, improving agriculture, bringing technological inventions, real entrepreneurs. The Protestant tradition of individualism, conscientiousness (responsible as if as if standing before God himself) and team spirit (morally responsible communities) gave an enormous impetus to entrepreneurship and shared investments.

As a secular person one will handle values as if they are merely part of nature, part of society, self-evident. And in all the daily affairs they are. But sometimes standing by your word comes with a price and then the values you adhere to are in some way superhuman. If you make a promise, your words become more heavy and meaningful. Since in business we need strong people we cannot do away with such a binding force. In that sense it is quite relevant for entrepreneurship as well.

My proposal for those who cooperate with religious persons in developing countries, while they understand themselves as atheists or agnostics is: just tell them that you are Christian, or a Muslim for that matter, in a moral sense nevertheless. The reason: what you call “morals” they call “religion”. These two names may in the end be closer to each other than you think.

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